22 March 2013

Take a food tour of Mongolia

The food of Mongolia certainly gets a bad press but if you know the best places and the seasonal availability then I think you will be in for a very pleasant surprise. 

Really. I do. I can still sense some disbelief. I believe that getting a real ‘taste’ for Mongolia means sampling the local cuisine and taking into consideration the time of year, I provide clients who wish to an opportunity to try dishes from this simple yet delicious traditional cuisine. Just what is the food of the nomadic herders out in the wilds of the Mongolian steppe? Here are a few of my favourites...

As to be expected, the nomads of Mongolia sustain their lives primarily with the products of their domestic livestock (that will be meat and milk then!). These simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods, and combined with vegetables and hand made noodles and other flour products such as dumplings and pancakes.

Suutei Tsai

Taking Mongolian tea is a time-honoured tradition - at the root of all nomadic hospitality.  The sharing of tea provides nourishment, creates comfort, and puts all at ease  - the custom of serving tea to guests is nearly as old as the history of nomads on the steppe - a vital part of the tradition of Mongolia. Tea is frequently served with boortsog - home made biscuits cooked on the ger stove. The everyday beverage is salted milk tea (Suutei Tsai), which may be  turned into a robust soup by adding rice, meat, or dumplings (bansh).

Tea time is anytime

Mongolia's nomads sustain their lives directly from the products of  their domesticated livestock - cattle/yaks, camels, horses, sheep and goats. Milk is therefore a major ingredient of the nomads diet and is processed into cheese (byaslag), dried curds (aaruul), yoghurt (tarag) as well a light alcoholic spirit distilled from yak milk (shimiin arkhi). However, the best of the best has to be orom -  clotted cream. It is at its most delicious with jam (short on jam?...just add a sprinkling of sugar) on a thick slice of fresh bread. YUM!

Orom? Yes please!
At regular intervals near the roadside, you will find gers signed as 'guanz' which operate as simple cafes (the term restaurant would lead to expectations which might not be met). A particular weakness of mine is khuushuur (freshly made mutton pancakes deep fried in mutton fat - the overdose of mutton might put you off but find the right guanz (my top three being Bulgan in the southern Gobi, Dadal in the north east, and Kharkhorin in central Ovorkhangai) and you will be in a little bit of culinary heaven). In addition, guanz are frequently the home of the person preparing your dinner and whilst you wait you get an insight into everyday life and get to meet the extended family members.

A Mongolian inspired feast
This is one of the most surprising (and delicious) of dishes and is typically only cooked on special occasions. The  meat (usually mutton or goat) gets cooked in a sealed pot, with the help of hot stones which have been preheated in a fire. This is a particular favourite of the EL drivers who are consummate cooks when it comes to this dish. What adds to the experience, is the celebratory and communal aspect of the dinner - others are always invited to share in the meal (and we always make sure to offer our EL hospitality to those around us when we are cooking khorkhog) and then there is always the fire to relax around when you have finished eating.

The REAL Mongolian barbecue
The most prominent national beverage is airag, fermented mare's milk - this yeasty drink is at its best when it is cold and fresh. For an insiders tip, try not to buy from the immediate roadside as the product is frequently watered down. Everyone has their favourite aimag (province) for airag, but for some of the best you need to head to Bulgan Aimag in northern Mongolia where the landscapes make for some of the most spectacular driving routes. The rainfall in this mountain/forest steppe region brings life to the pastureland - providing rich grass which the free roaming mares eat which thus adds a richness to the milk. Stopping off for airag en-route through these havens of unspoilt natural alpine beauty will provide you with a true insight into nomadic life on the high steppe.
Little changed for centuries - foals are brought in so that the mare's will release their milk and thus the milk (airag) can be collected.
Of course, I could also mention the many other delcious meat dishes  -  including buuz (steamed dumplings), or tsuivan (stir fried noodles) or guriltai shol (flour noodle soup). 

Naturally, the Mongolian diet includes a large proportion of animal fat which is necessary to withstand the cold winters where temperatures are as low as -40  and to provide sufficient energy reserves for the outdoor work of a herder. However, if you're vegetarian or worried about you cholesterol levels why not try the wild berries that are best served with yoghurt (even better mixed together with sugar for a wild berry smoothie), or the sweet tasting watermelons, cucumbers or tomatoes home grown in the southern Gobi or even the smoked Khovsgol lake fish. 

Whatever you choose to eat on your trip to Mongolia, be sure to try some of Mongolia's infamous vodka (usually made with barley). Toast your travelling companions, toast your Mongolian team and make sure to toast the spectacular country that is Mongolia. Toktoi!