Who doesn’t love Mongolian BBQ? I loved those restaurants in the US cities and suburbs where you pile your plate high of uncooked veggies, meat, and noodles, douse it in a variety of sauces and then hand it to a guy to stir fry on a big stove. This was one of the reasons I was excited to go to Mongolia – the Mongolian food!
However, travel is always full of surprises, and many times it makes you realize the ethnic food you’ve been eating in the US, isn’t exactly the ‘real thing’. And so it goes in Mongolia.
I pretty quickly learned that delicious stir fry Mongolian BBQ was a product of Taiwan, not Mongolia.
So, what do they eat in Mongolia?
The Surprising Food of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert
I walked into the ger making sure to duck my head for the low door frame and went around the ger clockwise as I was taught in my cultural training . I took a seat where the family pointed – at the 10 o’clock position; the esteemed position for visitors.
They quickly poured a bowl of steaming fresh milk and gave it to me. I took a sip and my taste buds were surprised. The milk had a slightly different taste than what I was expecting; it was from a goat.
This new taste would quickly become old to me as goat milk became my main source of liquid for the next two weeks as I traveled through the Gobi Desert.
The Mongolian Food Pyramid
The Mongolian food pyramid was a little different than a normal food pyramid and it left me baffled on how the Mongolians survived!
Dairy is the King of Mongolian Food
The Mongolian diet is dominated by dairy with little to no sign of vegetables or fruits. I ate more dairy in 2 weeks than I have in 6 months!
Goat milk, camel milk, mare’s milk, various forms of yogurt (from runny to hard as a rock), goat milk cheese, the skin of boiled milk, and yes, even the booze was made of milk. Airag is fermented mare’s milk and quite a popular drink. (Yes, of course I tried it!)
It’s an Acquired Taste
A round pale white disk was passed around in the ger; my hosts motioned for me to break some off and eat it. I took it and realized it was a hard cheese of some sort; I become mildly excited. After living in Asia for a year, I have adapted to the fact that cheese is a privilege in that part of the world, and it’s not something I buy very often, yet I miss it terribly.
I gladly took this mini wheel of hard cheese, broke off a piece, and bit into it. It’s funny how your mind looks at food and automatically sets a taste bud expectation; sour, salty, creamy, spicy. When you mind jumps to a wrong conclusion it can change your whole eating experience. My mind took one look at this cheese and thought….mmmm – aged parmesan.
The cheese hit my taste buds and abruptly my whole face puckered noticeably; it was sour and bitter.
Like most Mongolian food, the cheese was an acquired taste. In light of the fact that we had very little food to choose from, I got used to the bitter cheese eventually.
The milk is all very fresh because the nomadic families in the desert keep livestock for a living. However, one thing they don’t have in the the desert gers is refrigeration. Therefore all of the milk always tasted slightly warm or sometimes had a sour taste to it. Especially the hard cheese.
Milk as a Sign of Luck
Milk is so revered that at sports festivals and religious festivals I often saw people putting milk on religious symbols or milk on horses heads for good luck. When I attended the Naadam Festival in the Gobi Desert one of the first things they did was pass around a bowl of fermented milk for the entire audience to drink for luck.
One of my favorite moments I captured in Mongolia was a woman circling a spiritual ovoo while pouring milk on the top of the rocks with a spoon as she prayed.
If milk was the king of the food pyramid, then what was the Queen?
Meat was the next thing on the Mongolian food pyramid. There was an abundance of it, but it was not meat I was necessarily used to.
One of the restaurants I went to in Ulanbatar had nicely provided an English menu for tourists. My eyes immediately went to the section titled “Mean Dishes”, and I instinctively scanned the menu for a “Nice Dishes” section! I’m pretty sure that this was a ‘lost in translation moment’ – and it made me chuckle.
In Mongolia, you have to like meat; and you really have to like mutton. Sadly, I’m not a real mutton fan, but as far as meat goes, that’s about all there is in the Gobi Desert.
Sholte Khool Served Daily
Sholte Khool literally translates as ‘Soup with Food’. We had a daily diet of Sholte Khool, normally mutton with noodles.
Since there is no refrigeration or freezing, mutton is dried and hung from the ceiling of the ger like jerky. When it comes time to eat, they just take some down from the ceiling, cut it up, and boil it. They normally served it to us with noodles and a milky mixture – sholte khool. It wasn’t my favorite thing, but I could tolerate it. It always had a very strong mutton flavor, but a girl has to eat, so I did.
We had this every day – for lunch and for dinner; the novelty of it wore off pretty quickly. This constant diet of sholte khool was very reminiscent of my 16 days of Dhal Bhat in Nepal – the same food for 2 weeks straight is never easy to tolerate; but you tell yourself that it’s only for 2 weeks and for 2 weeks you can tolerate anything…right?
Nothing Goes to Waste
Of course like any good Asian country, every part of the animal is used. One of the families we stayed with ate goats stomach and various blood congealed innards for breakfast. I cringed a bit inside as I watched them eat it. They of course offered some to me; but I decided that this was one cultural experience I could pass on.
Even the Water Tastes Like Mutton
I always know that I’m doing some great cultural traveling when there is no bottled water for sale; it means that you are deep within the local culture! The Gobi families boiled water for us to put in our bottles for travel.
Since the ‘ger kitchens’ were very simple, most gers only had one big round wok that they cook in; imagine if you had only one pot in your kitchen! I found that the deeper I went into the Gobi, the less the water seemed to taste like water and instead tasted like goat.
Sure, I had goat on the brain, day after day of goat milk and boiled mutton soup. However, this wasn’t my imagination; the water did taste like goat! I saw the women use the same pot for cooking up our dinner and boiling our water.
Since water is scarce in the Gobi Desert, scrubbing dishes clean isn’t always a possibility either; hence the mutton tasting water. Needless to say, when we finally got to a village again, we all stocked up on bottled water!
Food Served Hot No Matter What the Temperature
It’s about 95 F in the Gobi Desert. There’s no shade, the sun feels like a drill penetrating deep into your skin, and you think that it’s so hot you can hear your sweat sizzle. Finally, when you arrive at a ger (the only shade for miles), you walk inside and they immediately serve you piping hot milk and soup. Refreshing? Not really.
I found this very hard to get used to, but there is some weird theory about eating hot food in a hot climate being good for you; I’m not a believer. However, with the absence of refrigeration, everything was hot.
Another staple of the Mongolian diet was bortzig. Bortzig is a hard, unleavened bread normally served with milk tea. This was a common breakfast food, snack food, and dinner food…we ate a lot of unleavened hard, round rolls. I was just hoping that my teeth were sturdy enough to take it!
My travel partners intestines weren’t tolerating the food as well as I mine and they had given up eating much more than simple bortzig One of our rather perceptive Ger hosts noticed this and made us a lunch that would be ‘easy ‘ on the stomach – sweet rice.
Rice! I never thought I’d be so excited to have rice again. My travel partners’ illness was my good luck. The rice was boiled with sugar and a home made thick buttery cream mixture that was so divine
I had 3 bowls! It was so nice to have something sweet and without a mutton flavor for a change. The Mongolian diet doesn’t have much sugar infused in it at all, so my sweet tooth was suffering badly!
A Break From the Regular Gobi Desert Food
Lest you think that all of my food experiences in Mongolia were bad, I do have to say that we did have one day of respite from the mutton soup diet we found ourselves on.
We stayed at a guest house in a little village one night. Basically we slept on someone’s living room floor with sleeping bags. Our host ran the local restaurant and bar in the village. So not only did we have locals stopping in at all hours of the day buying vodka, but this also meant that we had some really good food!
She served us a feast of yogurt with jam and apricots, carrot salad, fried potato-egg pancakes, and buuz (a mutton filled calzone or dumpling).
Finally, some fruit and vegetables – my intestines screamed – THANKYOU!
All of this fiber was such a welcome change to our steady diet of mutton soup, bortzig, and sour cheese. However, ironically after that I had digestive issues for a few days; going to show you that you can never predict where and when you’ll get a bad strain of bacteria that wants to conquer your intestines.
I survived my two week diet of all things dairy and goat; however, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the taste and smell of goat again for the rest of my life! In an attempt to balance out my own food pyramid, the first thing I had when I got back to Vietnam was a big plate of veggies and fruit!