Food Preservation the Nomadic Way

How do you keep perishable food around without a means of refrigeration? This is a modern question that can be answered by looking to the past. Means of food preservation range from ice houses to root cellars to fermentation to canning to drying to smoking and so on. So what do you do when you have limited options, lots of dairy and meat, and need to move around to keep your herd animals from overgrazing? Fermentation is viable for dairy products (hence, airag and various yogurt products such as aaruul), but the easiest and most practical approach to food preservation in an arid climate? Dehydration! Some aaruul is made by drying blocks of milk curds on top of the nomad’s ger, but the focus of this post is on how to preserve meat.

In last week’s post on suutei tsai (сүүтэй цай, a.k.a. Mongolian-style milk tea), the chef in the featured video used this week’s food–borts (борц). I love learning about cultural cuisine because I feel like it teaches me more about that culture. Historical events, local practicality, and hyper local ingredients create unique dishes that lend themselves to helpful insights. For nomadic herders everywhere, meat and dairy are key elements to their regular diet, supplemented by local foraging. The spring and summer diet of dairy products leads to the fall and winter diet of meat products. In the deep winter, meat can be frozen simply by leaving it outdoors, thus preserving it until time of preparation. (In fact, some Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar still use this natural freezer during the winter months by keeping excess meat on their apartment balconies as tempuratures remain below freezing from November through February at least.) Granted, in the countryside, meat left outdoors is bound to tempt carnivores like wolves, which isn’t ideal if you have flocks of sheep, goats, yaks, camels, or cows.

The alternative to using nature’s freezer is to dry meat. Lots of cultures dry meat for long-term usage–biltong from southern Africa, bakkwa from China, kilishi from Nigeria, bundnerfleisch from Switzerland, etc.–and indeed, dried foods are one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Mongolian borts is meat that’s been sliced into long thick strips and hung from the rafters of the ger to dry (several months of drying is required). When dehydration is satisfactory, the meat has shrunk to a fraction of its original size, which makes for easier transportation in addition to keeping it available for long periods of time. In Mongolian cooking, borts is often rehydrated in water for a few hours to a day before being incorporated into meat dishes. A recipe for camel borts can be found here, and a video by ArtGer on the making of borts can be viewed here (the host might look familiar if you read last week’s post). Also shown in the video is how to use borts to make soup!

What do you think? Would you eat borts?

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