Tasting History in Mongolian Spring

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Photo by Michael A. Parks

Because we'd helped him fix his car, the man wanted to give us something. He reached into his trunk and produced...a fish, still wet. We were standing in the middle of the largest contiguous stretch of grassland on Earth, 200 miles from the nearest lake. Thanking us again, he tucked a loose fin back into his trunk, and disappeared down the long dirt road.

It was spring in Mongolia, and I had no idea what to expect. I'd already experienced the country's winter cuisine, but knew little about spring, save that many herders consider the season--with its droughts and dust storms--the worst of the year. Now, looking back, I realize the fish was an omen: food-wise, spring was to be a time of surprises.

In mid-April, I'd set out for Choibalsan, Mongolia's easternmost provincial capital. There I met Dondug, a driver who's spent the past ten years traveling the country's vast Eastern Steppe with scientists studying the region's white-tailed gazelle population. The son of herders, Dondug knew the Oregon-sized grassland the way I know my backyard. Since he'd started driving, he told me, he'd worn out twelve cars and trucks, plus thirty motorcycles, on the steppe. Along with the occasional translator, we planned to spend a month traveling the Eastern Steppe. And as we went, we'd eat.

To eat borts or orag is to taste the wisdom and stories of a thousand springs on the steppe.

A few days after meeting the fisherman, Dondug and I made it to the Nomrog Strictly Protected Area at Mongolia's easternmost tip, where we found a military base home to a few soldiers. It was a spectacularly beautiful place, a day's drive from the nearest town. When we met the soldiers, I asked what they'd done during winter.

The commanding officer shrugged. "We dug tunnels through the snow and walked back and forth."

Still, they were a cheerful bunch, and thrilled to have visitors. Inside a squat, white-washed building we talked while one of the soldiers prepared a borts (dehydrated meat) soup.

Mongols have been making borts at least since the days when Genghis Khaan's warriors relied on it and the milk of their horses to conquer most of the known world. Nowadays, the soldiers told me, countryside Mongols use borts mostly to bridge the gap between the meat of winter and the milk of summer. Making it is an art; when done properly, the drying process can condense the meat of a cow to the point that it fits inside the same cow's stomach.

I chewed my borts thoughtfully, ruminating. It wasn't glamorous, but I did have to admire its simplicity. For nomadic people, borts must have once seemed incredible--the perfect accompaniment for horse and compound bow. Light, nourishing, and made of sunshine and meat, it seemed to me the epitome of steppe food, the food of movement.

As spring wore on, the grassland began to change. The year's first flower--purple and popular among goats--bloomed. Marmots woke up. Eagles noticed. Herders set to castrating baby animals, then held what must be the world's largest calf fry.

With the calving season came the year's first milk products. For breakfast, we now ate oram (clotted cream) spread on bread and sprinkled with sugar. For snacks, nomads offered us tarag (yogurt). And one evening we stumbled across a dessert so wonderful it may remain to the end my favorite Mongolian food.

Lost one evening, we'd decided to stop for the night at a ger. After soup, the matriarch of the family brought out what appeared to be a plate of cream cheese. Dondug looked excited, but would only tell me it was called orag.

I took a bite. Fatty, sweet, cool, creamy. Above all, the taste of milk rich beyond belief. It was the lord of milk. I couldn't imagine how they'd made something so good.

The trick, it turns out, has nothing to do with the recipe (steam milk with sugar, allow to cool) but with the milk itself, which herders procure from animals that have just given birth. Orag is so rare that when I told a Mongolian friend in Ulaanbaatar about it, she thought I was mispronouncing another word. When she realized what I meant, a look of nostalgia for her countryside childhood swept across her face.

"Oh! You had orag! I must tell my mother."

In late spring, Dondug and I headed south into the region where Toroi-Bandi, Mongolia's nineteenth-century Robin Hood, used to hide after stealing horses. Mongols also know Toroi-Bandi as Shillin Sain Er, The Good Man of the Emptiness, with The Emptiness referring to the stretch of land we crossed. It's a good name; during a day of driving we saw one person: a horseman galloping the other way.

Near evening, we stopped to explore the ruins of a Buddhist temple razed during Mongolia's Communist period. Wind whistled around the small pile of stone. An iron pot, who knows how old, rusted on the ground. Looking at the temple, I had a feeling common among travelers in Mongolia, of being in a land with a vast, but almost invisible, history. Mongolia's nomads never built much, and Communism destroyed what they did. Those ruins a traveler does find are almost always, like the temple, unnamed and unexplained.

Which may explain my sometimes irrational love of Mongolian food. I like it because it's one of the few ways to experience the country's traditions firsthand. To eat borts or orag is to taste the wisdom and stories of a thousand springs on the steppe.

Back at the van, Dondug handed me a piece of grass and told me to eat it. Munguu, our interpreter, explained that it was taan (wild leek). Suddenly, I realized the ground for as far as I could see was blanketed with leeks.

Later, I thought to ask what Toroi-Bandi did for food and drink.

"He ate borts and taan," said Dondug. "For water he filled sheep bladders and buried them in The Emptiness."