Meat, Milk & Mongolia

Misunderstood and often maligned, the Mongolian diet does make sense

A stroll down any Mongolian residential street is usually the first introduction to a visitor of the savoury odours of the traditional meals of this country. If you are invited into somebody’s ger (or traditional tent dwelling) or apartment, you will probably have an opportunity of tasting buuz, khuushuur and bansh. These Mongolian national meals are made with minced meat seasoned with garlic or onion (it can be anything from mutton to beef to camel to horse to gazelle) covered with flour and steamed in boiling water, fried in oil and boiled in water. For many visitors to the country the vast quantities of meat consumed can at first be surprising. But it is not long before a visitor finds their favourite Mongolian food, be it buuz, khuushur or a number of other treats. A Canadian living in Ulaanbaatar once told me, “the Mongolian national food contains a lot of meat, but I like the buuz.”

The hierarchy of foods in the Mongolian diet
The meat-dependent diet arises from the need for hearty food to stave off the cold and long winters. Traditionally nomadic herders, Mongolians have for centuries been dependent on mostly animal products for their dietary staples. Now after over nine years of transition, the traditional diet has been used as a shield against hunger and for the wealthy, subject to the influence of imported foreign foods and cuisine. When the Russians pulled the plug on Mongolia’s aid in 1991, the economy went into a severe crisis. For many Mongolians it was their first experience of serious hunger. The staple traditional diet of meat, milk and flour saw many people through this crisis, when food imports from the former Soviet Union dropped off.

Mongolians traditionally have turned to foods that are high in protein and minerals, relying less on more seasonable foods like vegetables and fruits. This means a diet heavy on meat and dairy products, the latter when sour in the summer time thought to clean the stomach. It isn’t just about meat though. Mongolians do also eat cereal, barley and natural fruits and plants native to the country.

Out of necessity Mongolians have found creative and ingenious ways to use the milk of all five of the domestic animals in the country: sheep, cattle, goats, camels and horses. Orom is the cream that forms on top of boiled milk; aaruul are dried curds and can be seen baking in the sun on top of gers in the summer; eetsgii is the dried cheese; airag is fermented milk of mares (female horses); nermel, is the home-brewed vodka that packs a punch; tarag, is the sour yogurt; shar tos, melted butter from curds and orom, and tsagaan tos, boiled orom mixed with sometimes flour, natural fruits or eesgii. The method of drying the dairy products is common in preparing them. The Mongolians prepare enough dairy products for the long winter and spring.

The traditions of using, producing and preparing these foods are stronger outside the main cities, where the population is more reliant on the vast herds for food. B. Baljmaa (Mongolians generally use their first names), a dietitian and nutritionist at the National Nutrition Research Centre, says there is a genetic compatability for the food.

“Before 1992 there wasn’t much research in this area. But now we know from our research that Mongolians are better able to absorb foods with more acid. So, traditional food should be kept in the country.”

Since 1997 Mongolians have seen a substantial increase in the variety and quantity of imported foods, many of which were only thought of as exotic 10 years ago. Since the start of 1999 the Soviet-style market stalls now compete against western-style supermarkets, with trolleys and shelves proudly saying “Made in Mongolia.” In markets like Dalai Eej, Dorvon Uul, Food Land and Mercury it is possible to buy delicious prepared and canned foods, candies, biscuits, and unknown and unused before by Mongolians, products like oranges, bananas, plums and American chickens.

On top of the canteens and cafes serving Mongolian food, there are now many restaurants, canteens, bakeries and tea shops which serve meals from Russia, Italy, India, China, Japan, Korea, England, France, Senegal and Turkey. Most of these restaurants are located in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians have taken to the new tastes. “I think Mongolians like roasted chicken and fish when they go to the foreign sit-down restaurants, and hot dogs and pizzas in the fast foods shops,” says I. Narantsetseg and her husband J.Battulga. Both were dining in the Seoul restaurant, and are happy they can go out for food: “it is a very good thing that there are opening a lot of restaurants where friends and family can go and enjoy food in comfort.”

Isobe Hiroshi, manager of Seketei, a high-end Japanese restaurant, told me “only 20 per cent of our customers are Mongolians. The vast majority of our clients are foreign, especially Japanese people who are working and traveling here. I think Mongolians have still not grown used to sushi and sashimi, the raw fish prepared in our restaurant. But I hope we will welcome more and more Mongolians in the future.”

The traditional diet in the cities is more changed, more european. And with comes its own dangers for Mongolians says the Nutrition Centre’s Baljmaa:

“There is a big problem of importing poisonous foods and food which probably will cause the nutrition-related diseases common in more developed countries,” she continues.”While the trend around the world amongst health-conscious people is towards natural products for their food, some Mongolians use some food which can cause troubles for their health. For example, fast food made with more oil, salt and sugar are considered the biggest dangers for human health. On the plus side prices for these imported foods are higher and only the wealthiest people can afford them; the poor people can’t buy and eat it no matter how much they desire. This means their poverty is protecting their health. We should boost our efforts to raise awareness on what foods protect your health.”

By N. Oyunbayar

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