What to Expect From Mongolian Food
What to Expect From Mongolian Food
Food and local cuisine play a vital role in travel. The meals from different locales around the world provide memorable experiences for travelers. And like other global destinations categorized by their food offerings, Mongolia offers unique dishes that are native to its culture.
In Mongolia, the landscape and climate largely determine what foods the environment yields. Mongolia exists on a landmass removed from any body of water, classifying its climate as continental. This climate, characteristic of central Asia, lends itself to freezing temperatures in the winter and blistering heat in the summer. The drastic changes in temperature, low precipitation, and predominantly nomadic culture aren't conducive to the tending and harvesting of crops. Thus, much of Mongolia’s agriculture relies on the rearing of livestock, which is reflected in Mongolian cuisine.
This results in a hearty diet with an emphasis on dairy and meat-based dishes. Local cuisine features mutton, beef, goat, horse, and camel in its unique and interesting dishes. Dairy products are also prevalent throughout Mongolian cuisine — yogurt, milk, and cheese often appear on the dining table.
Mongolian cuisine shifts with the seasons and can be classified as “red” or “white,” with red foods representing meat products and white foods representing dairy. Mongolians lean into red foods during winter, as meats take precedence to sustain them through the colder months. Locals primarily consume white foods in the warmer months, often procuring them from their own herds.
While the capital city of Ulaanbaatar may provide additional food offerings, these are some of the dishes you may encounter while in Mongolia:
Airag is a Mongolian drink made of a fermented mare or horse’s milk. Slightly carbonated, it boasts less than 3% alcohol and is rife with health benefits. If visiting a traditional Mongolian dwelling, or "ger," you can expect to find this drink there. Although airag is derived from a milk product, the fermentation process significantly decreases the presence of lactose. Therefore, airag is safe to drink for those who are lactose intolerant.
Traditional Mongolian dumplings, or buuz, are dumplings filled with mutton, beef, or even horse meat. Chefs flavor the meat filling with onion, garlic, and salt, and then tuck it into a dough purse before steaming it.
During the Mongolian Lunar New Year, or Tsagaan Sar, individual households prepare upwards of 1,000 dumplings each to accommodate relatives and guests for the length of the holiday.
Although you can find frozen or prepared buuz in Mongolian supermarkets, the homemade version of this dish is best.
The meat filling for buuz is also an ingredient in another Mongolian dish, khuushuur. Rather than being steamed as with buuz, the meat filling for khuushuur is wrapped in pastry dough and then deep fried. This creates a dish resembling an empanada, as its half-moon shape opens up into a warm meat filling.
Similar to airag, khuushuur offers its own health benefits. Mongolians hold this hot dough pocket between their palms to improve their nerves and blood circulation.
Bansh is a third style of dumpling likewise prepared with the meat filling of buuz and khuushuur. Bansh more closely resembles buuz although it is a bit smaller in shape. It is also boiled rather than steamed and generally sits in a broth or soup.
Traditional dried curds, or Aaruul, often lie on the table of nomadic Mongolians. To create this snack, people boil milk, typically from cattle or yaks, to form curds. They then filter the curds through a cloth to release the liquid and press them so they are easier to cut into pieces. These pieces are then left to dry for up to 14 days. The curds finally become Aaruul and are ready to be consumed or stored for future use.
Many people traveling to Mongolia might expect to find the Mongolian barbecue that is served in restaurants worldwide. However, traditional Mongolian barbecue doesn’t resemble its international representation. Khorkhog, or traditional Mongolian barbecue, consists of mutton mixed with potatoes, carrots, and cabbage cooked over layers of rocks in a sealed pot. Pouring hot water over the rocks creates steam that cooks the contents to completion. This results in a succulent feast of tender meat and vegetables in a uniquely Mongolian dish.
Trying local cuisine is essential when visiting a new place, so remember to keep an open mind — and stomach — throughout your trip.
Interested in visiting Mongolia? Consider one of our cultural tour offerings for your next trip!