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Vast, empty grasslands and plains, a proud nomadic culture, a fierce warrior spirit embodied most famously by Genghis Khan. Mongolia is known for many things, but it’s safe to say that cuisine isn’t necessarily the first thing that springs to mind.
A visit to the central Asian nation - the world’s 18th largest - revealed much about the unique food needs of a people, almost all of whom outside the capital of Ulaanbaatar still lead a nomadic lifestyle, living with and depending on their animals for food, warmth, transport and more.
The seriously extreme weather – Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city with temperatures regularly reaching -40 degrees – means that Mongolians have historically followed a diet consisting of meat, dairy and animal fats, critical sustenance for brutal conditions.
But in the summer in particular, the nation’s food and produce comes into its own, allowing visitors to get a taste of traditional, iconic dishes that have stood the test of time. Senior Sous Chef Tsogtbayar Gal-Erdene works at the Shangri-La hotel in the capital, seen by many as the country’s premier destination for fine dining. He suggests three dishes for a first time visitor to discover Mongolian cuisine.
If you are planning to visit Mongolia, one of the best ways is to organize trips to stay in traditional nomadic tents called gers that are set up adjacent to real nomadic families. There are travel companies that allow visitors to see this culture first hand, and part of the experience involves watching – or indeed joining in – as families milk the goats, cows and even mares on which their lives depend.
Khorkhog, the hot pot for camping
Firstly is Khorkhog, cuts of meat, usually lamb or mutton, cooked inside a container which also contains hot stones and water. The pot is also heated from the outside, a technique practiced for centuries by soldiers when camping overnight. There are vegetables when available, but in common with most Mongolian cuisine, there’s not much in the way of spice or heat, other than liberal salt and pepper.
Interestingly, when the dish is ready, the chef also hands out some of the hot stones which diners toss from hand to hand, obviously trying not to hold them too tightly. The effect is said to have beneficial health properties – especially when it’s freezing outside. Given the effort and time needed to prepare Khorkhog, it’s increasingly rare to see this cooking technique in restaurants, so it’s worth trying if you do come across it.
Huushuur, the fried pastries must
Next comes the delicious Huushuur, fried pastries filled with minced meat and spices. They are traditionally served during Naadam, Mongolia’s most famous and important national holiday, but in reality you see them served everywhere, year-round. Wild leeks, garlic or nettles are sometimes added in to the mix to make them more fragrant and lighter, but they still make for substantial eating.
Buuz, Mongolian dumplings
Then we have Mongolian dumplings called Buuz, filled with mutton or beef, vegetables and occasionally flavoured with fennel seeds and summer herbs. The generous parcels are folded with a small opening at the top before being steamed. They’re then eaten with a special and not easy-to-master technique where the tops are first bitten off and the juices inside sucked out. They are often served with milk tea called Suutei tsai, part of the country’s very rich dairy tradition and culture.
Airag, the traditional Mongolian beverage
Mare’s milk is also fermented and turned into a very mildly alcoholic drink called airag, Mongolia’s traditional national beverage which again plays a crucial role in rituals and home life. A cloth is used as a filter, allowing the milk to seep through either into a leather sack called a khukhuur or a wooden vat. Stirring is then key, over at least two days, while it’s also traditional for anyone entering or exiting a ger to stir it too. Likewise, anyone visiting is presented with a bowl that must always be tasted as a mark of respect, if not finished. The alcohol content only reaches around 2%, so it serves more as a great source of vitamins and calories.
Aarul, the sweetest cheese
Chef's final raccomendation is aarul, fermented curd cheese with sugar that is formed into different shapes and again offered to every guest who steps inside a ger. The milk to make it may come from camels, yaks or cows, before the curds are pressed between weighed-down wooden boards. They’re then left to dry in the sun, the beauty being that they will keep for months – if not longer. They understandably end up very hard, but it also means that they are sucked on, rather than bitten. Mongolian children even use them when teething, something which helps to explain why Mongolians have such good teeth. While it’s an acquired experience and strong, often sour taste, as with much of the food in Mongolia, there is no better cultural lens through which to experience this remarkable country and its people who embody true hospitality more than almost anywhere else.