Rather than write out a list of foods, I figured it would be better to include another video of traditional Mongolian dishes. Mike Chen (Strictly Dumpling) does a good job of breaking down the traditional foods along with giving some great context for why Mongolian food is the way it is (namely: hearty, meaty, and fatty). Obviously, he’s not a local, and there are a couple of areas where he’s misinformed, but this video is well worth your time. (Made me drool!)
Modern Nomads, the restaurant where Chen eats in the video is a great place to go if you visit UB and want some traditional foods in a more foreigner-friendly package. You could also go to a Khan Buuz or a Khan Khuushuur, which are like Mongolian fast food (in that you get traditional foods rather quickly). However, small cafes dot the city everywhere and provide traditional dishes at a number of cost points. The cheapest chain that I know of is called Tse, where every dish is just $1. (Some of these restaurants are better than others.)
A few things I’d like to clarify from the Strictly Dumpling video*. The “gravy” that was served with the khorkhog is just the broth that results from the cooking method. It’s thicker than one would expect broth to be (probably because it isn’t strained at all) and definitely comes with plenty of melted fat in it. Personally, we really like it, but not all foreigners like fat! Another thing that stood out was what he called “grandma soup”, which is called banshtai tsai. Bansh are a type of dumplings that are made smaller than buuz. The soup part is really Mongolian-style milk tea! 🙂 A final note: while there are vegetarian (and even some vegan) options in UB, if that’s a hard and fast rule for you, keep alternative food options with you as you travel through Mongolia. It is very hard to avoid animal products (or cross-contamination), especially in the countryside.
What are some traditional Mongolian foods that you’d like to try?
*Please don’t take this as me bashing Chen’s video at all. In fact, I think his video is awesome, and I wish more people would watch it so that they have an idea of what they’re getting into when they get to Mongolia. Go support his other videos while you’re at it!
When in the US, a lot of people ask us what Mongolian food is like, and a typical second part of the initial question is, “Is it like Chinese food?” In short: no, it isn’t, although there are a few similarities. To be fair, what Americans typically think of as Chinese food isn’t really what they eat in China either. (JUST SAYING!)
If I could boil down Mongolian cuisine into its simplest form, I would say that it’s meat and dairy. Traditionally, Mongolian nomadic herders would eat milk products in spring and summer (when the livestock is giving birth and raising their young) and meat products in the fall and winter–when animals are old enough to be butchered and prepared in a variety of ways.
The Mongolian diet is more varied than that, of course, but those are the base foods that the vast majority of Mongolians love to eat. (There are, of course, vegetarian and vegan outliers, but they are outliers for a reason!) I’m hoping to put together a short series of posts on Mongolian food in the next few weeks or so, depending on our schedule. It’s been a busy…life. 🙂 My goal is to have posts on breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
**HUGE apology for not updating the blog in seven months. SEVEN. Holy cow.**
One of the best food-related reasons to love Mongolia is its delicious potatoes. I don’t know what it is about them that makes them so darn tasty, but they are the bomb. They are typically on the small side (at least per American expectations), and the flesh of the potato (is that the right word?) is a deep yellow. The closest American equivalent I can think of is Yukon Golds, but even those aren’t as divine as Mongolian taters. I’ve checked before buying potatoes to make sure that I’m getting Mongolian ones rather than Chinese ones. They’re that yummy that I’m willing to embarrass myself with my terrible language skills to make sure I get the good stuff. #worthit
As I write this love letter to Mongol tubers, let me add that po-tay-toes are included in a wide variety of Mongolian dishes from soups to noodle dishes to salads. I love a good potato salad (my maternal grandmother’s recipe is my favorite in the US), and Mongolian potato salad does not disappoint. It’s called niislel salat, or capital salad, here, but apparently it is also common in Russia (and other former USSR nations) and known there as Olivier salad. That said, there is a basic approach to making the salad, but I find that a lot of folks have their own variations–as is the case with potato salad globally.
I attempted this salad in the US this summer while staying at my sister and brother-in-law’s place, and they both approved so I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Americans would find this tasty as well. I’ll give a list of ingredients and directions below on making the salad, as well as possible substitutions.
“hyam” (similar to summer sausage or ham)
cucumber and/or dill pickles
Peel and chop potatoes into a fine cube. (Everything should be cut about the same size, so aim for something about 1/4 inch cubed.) Boil potatoes. If using fresh carrots, you can peel, chop, and boil at the same time as the potatoes. You can also use canned carrots that are already chopped if, like me, you’re lazy and don’t want to spend hours dicing veggies!
Hard-boil the potatoes. Peel and chop to the same size as everything else.
Chop the “hyam”, cucumber, and/or dill pickles into that nice small dice. (Is your arm hurting yet?)
Throw everything into a large bowl and toss with mayonnaise, a bit of mustard, and perhaps salt and pepper to taste. You could also add some dill if you really like.
Like I said, there are a wide variety of ways to make this salad, so if you don’t have one of the vegetables or you’re not a fan of pickles or cucumbers, you can probably make it without and still get the gist of the typical dish. Most restaurants have a form of this salad available, especially smaller cafes or Mongolian fast food joints. It shows up during major holidays and here and there in between the big festivals. I always get excited to see it on the menu or on someone’s table.
Let me know if you’ve had this salad before or if you try it out from this recipe! Mongolian friends (and strangers), let me know if I’ve botched the recipe!
Another expat teacher shared this video on FB, and I thought it would be fun to share here. The only dish that we haven’t had is boodog, although it’s very similar to khorkhog (both are mentioned in the video). Enjoy!
PS. At some point, we’ll have to upload pictures of our travels during the break, but that might be another few days!