The Cuisine of Mongolia
On the rare occasions, when I actually get to talk to people whether by phone, e-mail, g-chat or Facebook chat, they always ask without fail “How’s the food?”, so here it goes…
I read somewhere, Mongolia is 1 of 3 countries with the worst food in the world and I would say that that is a pretty accurate statement (at least based on my taste buds). *Although, now that I have started cooking for myself or eating with my site-mates once a month or so, Mongolian food doesn’t seem so bad anymore!
Generally speaking, Mongolians don’t have a lot of variety in their diet. Mongolians also eat very particular foods that will keep them warm during the harsh & very, very cold winter. A Mongolian’s diet typically consists of meat, fat, flour, oil, and maybe carrots & potatoes. To this point, the #1 Mongolian dish is Flour Soup. This is pretty much just meat and dough boiled in water, occasionally with potatoes.
In addition, to Flour Soup there are a few other main Mongolian dishes; Buzz, Khushuur, Tsuvian, and Bortzug.
Buzz & Bansch
Buzz is the Mongolian version of a Chinese gyoza. They are pretty much dumplings, typically filled with meat although towards the end of the summer my host mom started making vegetable ones for me and those were actually pretty delicious. Bansch is just a smaller version of Buzz.
Khushuur, is probably a Mongolian version of a Russian piroshky, except thinner. It’s basically a piece of dough filled with meat and then deep fried. I often had potato and carrot khushuur during the summer and while this was exciting that they weren’t filled with meat, Mongolians are not really big on a lot of flavor, so a lot of dishes taste fairly bland. This is the one Mongolian dish, I sort of learned how to make though, but I cannot pinch the ends of the dough for the life of me!
Tsuvian is more or less noodles. I’m not entirely sure what is so special about it, but it is good and can be made with just about anything. In addition, to helping make khushuur, my host family let me make them tsuvian one night for dinner.
Bortzug is a fried donut, but without any flavor really. It is almost like a beignet minus the powered sugar. When bortzug is fresh it’s pretty dang good, but after a day or so it’s get stale quickly and not so enjoyable anymore.
Mongolians love potato salad! At every wedding or formal festivity I’ve been to, there is always potato salad! It’s more or less the same kind of potato salad we eat back home, with the one exception of there is always Mongolian ham in it.
There is almost always bread at every meal in Mongolia. If they run out of bread, then they will replace the bread with cookies or candy at the very least. Breakfast is also not a big Mongolian meal; bread, butter, and jam is a typical breakfast for a Mongolian. Occasionally, my host mom would make sort of a French Toast sort of deal where it was a piece of bread covered in egg which doesn’t sound very exciting, but when you don’t have control over what you’re eating this was an item I particularly enjoyed.
Mutton! Oh Mutton. My first experience with Mutton was not too bad and I thought, okay I can eat this… It sort of tastes like lamb, but that thought process quickly changed roughly a day after being at my training site. I don’t really know what it is, but I hate mutton. I just cannot stand the taste, which is kind of sad because it’s one of the main staples in a Monglian’s diet & since I really don’t like it I miss out on a lot of free food!
Fruits & Vegetables
Fruits & Vegetables can be very limited here. Without fail, potatoes, carrots, cabbage & turnips can be found, but things like peppers, tomatoes, & cucumbers can be harder to come by. Fruit can be a lot more difficult to find & tends to more expensive. Apples are usually around with the occasional orange, banana, grape, plum & nectarine. Although there is an abundance of dried, sugared fruit!
Milk, Yogurt & Cheese
In the summer, Mongolians eat a lot of what’s roughly translated as “White Foods”. This includes aurul (a rock hard fermented cheese sort of thing); yogurt, that often comes straight from cows; milk; and airag, fermented mares milk that can have a very high alcohol content & definitely takes some time getting used to! There is also what is called ‘Mongolian Cheese’, but it doesn’t taste anything like normal cheese back home.
I think cheese is one of the items I miss the most, but my host family found some real cheese shortly before the end of the summer which we made pizza with & it actually turned out quiet well! My aimag also has gouda here & there which my site-mates & I snap up very quickly whenever it comes to town!
What do I eat?
At the end of the summer, during our last week of training we were discussing food options, particularly meat. What most of us had discovered throughout the course of the summer was walking into a food store to find slabs of meat/ parts of an animal on the countertops of the stores just waiting to be bought, but since our host families cooked all our meals for us, we had yet to actually buy any meat ourselves.
I had already decided I would not be buying meat once I was on my own, because I just couldn’t stomach the idea of buying raw meat in the Mongolian form of “packaging” or lack thereof. I also wasn’t really sure how I would even begin to hack away at a massive piece of meat. Regardless, we were told if we were planning on eating meat in our villages we would probably have to buy an entire animal to supply us through the winter, so first off I’ve in an odd sort of way gone vegetarian.
Through a little exploration I have found that I can buy beef in the market & then they will grind it for me, so I have started including meat back into my diet, although the beef here still tastes so different from anything back home!
Chicken is becoming a more prevalent item in Mongolia, & can be at times hard to find, but I was lucky enough to have it at my training site & even luckier now to live in an aimag where we occasionally have chicken which can be an especially nice treat. I made teriyaki chicken recently and it actually turned out quite splendidly.
My soum doesn’t have a lot of offer in terms of food options other than an abundance of cookies, candy, ramen & alcohol so I tend to do all my food in the aimag center whenever I get a chance to go into town. With that being said, I have been able to get fairly creative with my cooking. Peace Corps provides us with a cookbook compiled over the years by previous PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers), which I have found to be a goldmine!
When I first arrived at site, I was sticking primarily to eggs & potatoes as my staples, but in the last month or so I have been actually quite surprised with myself as to what I’ve been able to turn out with the ingredients, utensils, and cooking supplies at hand, such as: (I’m also one of the blessed few ger dwellers with an oven, which makes my cooking options increase immensely)
Lentil & Corn Chowder
Macaroni & Cheese (for a special early Thanksgiving meal)
Sweet & Sour Tofu
Chili (Although it still tastes a lot like tomatoes!)
I also have incredible cooks in my aimag center who always cook up the best stuff when I’m in town such as:
Chinese (including: Cream Cheese Wontons, Sweet & Sour Chicken, Mu Shu Chicken)
Indian (including: Butter Chicken, Naan, & Chai)
Mexican (including: Chicken Burritos & Enchiladas)
Burgers & Onion Rings
The most delicious Lemon Cake for my birthday!
So, all in all, eating like I would semi-normally eat back home is possible! And even a little more fun sometimes creating new recipes and trying out new combinations.
That’s not to say there aren’t lots of things I miss from the States, so don’t hesitate to send packages with food items because there are still lots of items we can’t get here ; )