Mongolia: Land of Milk and Horses


Photo by Michael Parks

To view a slide show featuring images of summer in Mongolia, click here.

For Americans, to think of horses is to think of carriages and Seabiscuit, plows, and cowboys. Outside of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the animals are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as food. The strange thing about this, I learned recently, is that horses were probably originally domesticated as a source of winter meat and milk on the frigid Eurasian Steppe. Unlike cattle, horses are adapted to cold, and will dig through snow and ice to find grass. At first, our relationship with horses was as simple as our need to eat. Then someone thought to jump on top, and took off tearing across the earth, and no one wanted to walk anywhere ever again.

In Mongolia, a country famous for its horse culture, horse products remain a central part of the national cuisine. Yes, there is horsemeat, though Mongols typically only slaughter animals already at the end of their lives. Then there is fermented mare's milk (airag). Known elsewhere in Central Asia as koumiss, airag may be the Eurasian Steppe's most famous food item. When George W. Bush visited Mongolia in 2007, he was served airag as an introduction to Mongolian culture. ("No word on whether Bush actually swallowed or not, but some of his aides did, judging by the looks on their faces afterward," wrote Peter Baker in the Washington Post.) In March, archaeologists announced the discovery in Kazakhstan of evidence suggesting horses were domesticated earlier than previously thought: bowl fragments containing traces of 5,500 year-old mare's milk.

In summer, every Mongolian household becomes a center of dairy industry.

From the moment I set foot in Mongolia, people talked to me about airag. Foreigners feared it. Mongols described it as one of life's great pleasures. But I had to wait until summer, when baby animals are nursing, and Mongolian cuisine shifts from meat to tsaagan idee ("white foods," or dairy products), to try it.

In July, my parents came to Mongolia, and we planned a trip through Central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. It was airag season, and the week of the Nadaam Festival, which centers on the "Three Manly Sports": archery, wrestling, and horse racing. I worried about my parents and the food. Then I noticed two of their bags were filled with granola bars. As we set out, they informed me they intended to take a Pepto-Bismol tablet every four hours for the coming two weeks--"prophylactically." Worry sublimated straight into the first inklings of parento-offspring frustration. How could they have so little faith in their culinary guide?


Photo by Michael Parks

In summer, every Mongolian household becomes a center of dairy industry. Outside the first ger (traditional nomad dwelling) we visited, several foals stood tied in a line, a technique, the matriarch of the family explained, used to keep mares nearby for milking. Inside, bowls of clotted cream sat on a table and jugs of yogurt lined shelves. In the corner: a butter churn; a large blue plastic can filled with fermenting airag; canvas bags containing a soft, sour cheese (aarts); and bottles of a more alcoholic distillation of airag called nermil. When I went to sit down I hit my head on drying curds hanging from strings running along the ceiling.

The matriarch offered us homemade yogurt, followed shortly by airag. The airag was yellow-white. Small flecks of solidified milk dotted the surface. Each of us took a sip, and--well, I'm still trying to understand its taste. Imagine melted extra-sharp cheddar cheese, but with the consistency of milk. Then add a dash of carbonation. Finally, top it off with a faint smell and taste of grass: just as wine drinkers distinguish between different regions' grapes, airag drinkers distinguish between different regions' pasturelands. I watched my parents. Much to my surprise, they seemed to enjoy the whole experience. Then again, they both love milk, and there are few places where milk comes as fresh, or in as many varieties, as Mongolia.

A few days later, we stood outside the town of Tariat, in a crowd waiting at the finish line of a Naadam horse race. The 12-mile dash had already started, and soon the riders breached the horizon. They were all children and teenagers--adults don't compete. To keep their weight down, they were riding bareback; many wore no shoes. For months, I knew, they had been training their horses. Two boys led the race, neck-in-neck, a crowded field behind. One of the leaders' horses missed a step. The other boy pulled ahead by a length. As he shot past the finish line at a full gallop, barely hanging on, the crowd exploded toward him, running to catch his horse and make him king for a year of the small town of Tariat. Archaeologist David W. Anthony, author of the book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, has theorized that it may have been a child who first tried riding a horse. Who else could have been so fearless?

My parents and I went on to many adventures, culinary and otherwise. In the end, though, we agreed our memories of horses and airag would far outlast any others. After my parents left, I came down with a stomach bug. Ensconced in a great pink bubble, they glided on without any problems. Having been away from home for a while, I'd forgotten they were smarter than me, and always would be.