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Mare's Milk in Mongolia

Mare's Milk in Mongolia
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    Post #1 - July 16th, 2005, 10:23 am
    Post #1 - July 16th, 2005, 10:23 am Post #1 - July 16th, 2005, 10:23 am
    Because Cathy encouraged me to share tales from my trip to Mongolia, I'm going to post something I wrote for another newsletter (I write a food history column for the Chicago-area Mensa group). Then, for those who might want more, I'll post another newsletter article that I wrote about the trip itself -- not a lot of food information, except for the day we witnessed the first miling of the mares, but it might put the food article in context.

    Thanks for the encouragement Cathy. I hope you enjoy this.

    Cheap Eats
    by Cynthia Clampitt

    Eating in Mongolia is pretty straightforward. As our guide stated on a number of occasions, the Mongolian diet is “meat. We eat meat.” It was certainly something he consumed with relish. But in all fairness, while this isn’t far from the truth, it is a slight oversimplification.

    Salads have become common because of long Russian occupation, and they appear at virtually every meal, including breakfast. They tend toward beets, carrots, and cabbage. Soup is commonly served at lunch and dinner, and ranges from Russian borscht to local meat soup with handmade noodles. Desserts are rare (maybe why they all have great teeth).

    Dairy products are very important. It seems as if nearly everything with four feet gets milked: cows, horses, yaks, camels, sheep, goats, reindeer. The most famous Mongolian beverage is airag, which is fermented mare’s milk. It’s actually quite pleasant, tasting a bit like yogurt with a little beer in it. We also had fermented camel’s milk, which was thicker. Milk tea, which is very popular, is made by heating milk and tea together, often with the addition of a pinch of salt. Dried milk (in blocks) and cheese are also produced. Of course, if you don’t have refrigeration, you don’t have a lot of other options.

    Then there is meat. And there is a lot of meat. Beef and mutton are the most popular meats. Mutton is particularly important for celebrations, as we learned during our visit with the nomads. In addition, it is also possible to find goat, yak, reindeer, or camel on the menu, depending where you’re dining. Meat may be roasted, boiled, fried, or simply torn into strips and dried.

    The traditional way of cooking a sheep is to clean it out, fill it with hot rocks, close it up, and wait until it’s done. This creates incredibly tender, juicy meat that practically falls off the bones. When serving the meat, one of the still-warm rocks is put on each plate, so guests can warm their hands before eating.

    Meat-filled dumplings are common, especially during holidays and festivals. There are basically two kinds. The larger dumplings are buutz, pronounced boats. They are steamed and are not entirely unlike Chinese dumplings, except that the Chinese don’t like beef or mutton, which is what you’ll normally find in buutz, along with a good bit of garlic. The smaller dumplings are bansch. They can be steamed, fried, or boiled in soup.

    An interesting note about Mongolia’s dumplings is that it is likely that the reason dumplings are enjoyed pretty much from Korea across Russia and into Eastern Europe is that this represents the extent of Mongolia’s empire, and the world as a whole has never missed the opportunity to pick up a new food form, even from invading “barbarians.”

    Our introduction to the fried pastry called huushuur was during a picnic in the Gobi. We also had huushuur in restaurants and during Naadam, where they were prepared by vendors in open-air stalls. Huushuur can be eaten out of hand, as a hearty snack, or it can be turned into a meal by adding a salad (we frequently encountered carrot and garlic salad: grate a carrot or two, grate in garlic to taste, add a little mayonnaise to bind it and a dash of salt; or you could toss shredded cabbage with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper) and a pot of tea or Mongolian beer (would you believe Khan Brau?). Huushuur is good hot, but is also excellent at room temperature.

    Mongolian Fried Meat-Filled Pastries

    2-1/4 cups flour
    1/4 tsp salt
    water to mix

    1 lb. chopped or ground beef or mutton (see Notes below)
    1-1/2 tsp. salt
    1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
    1/2 tsp. marjoram
    1/2 onion, finely chopped
    1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

    oil for cooking

    Combine flour and salt. Add water (I found I needed a little more than 1 cup, but this can vary depending on the flour and the humidity; add half a cup and then continue to add water a little at a time), mixing it in thoroughly, until you have a rough, dry dough, about the texture of that for pie crust. If you add too much water, you can always add a little more flour. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Cover and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

    Combine all filling ingredients, mixing thoroughly. If dry, add a few drops of water to moisten.

    Divide the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into a cylinder and cut it in half. Roll each half cylinder into a circle about 5-6 inches across. Place about 2 to 2-1/2 Tbs. of meat mixture on one side of the circle, leaving space around the edge. Fold the other side over, creating a half-moon, and pinch the edges closed, squeezing out air and flattening filling as you work. (As for the pinched edges, I saw huushuur with edges that ranged from elaborately “braided” closures to closures that were simply mashed shut and rolled under, so no seam was visible. Every cook has a different way of finishing this dish.) Repeat the process with the rest of the filling and dough pieces.

    Pour oil to depth of about 1/2 inch into a frying pan. Heat oil until hot (test it after a minute or two with a tiny bit of dough—unless you have a thermometer, there is no visible way of telling if oil is hot unless something is in it, sizzling). Fry two or three pastries at a time for two minutes per side, until they are golden to brown and the meat is cooked. Can be eaten hot or cold. Makes 8 pastries (for Mongolians, a little more than one serving, but for most of us, 4 servings.)

    Notes: Do not trim the fat from your meat before preparing the filling, and don’t buy low-fat ground meat. The fat is needed both to keep the filling moist and to help cook the inside of the pastry while it’s frying.

    Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is not your best choice for frying. It burns too easily. It is wise to select a different vegetable oil, if possible.

    Do make sure you seal the “pockets” well. If meat juice leaks out while it’s frying, the spattering of grease borders on the explosive.

    Huushuur can also be prepared with a filling of mashed potatoes, perhaps with a little grated carrot added for flavor. However, when we ordered these once, our guide and driver were politely contemptuous of the idea of huushuur without meat, and refused to eat them.
  • Post #2 - July 16th, 2005, 10:24 am
    Post #2 - July 16th, 2005, 10:24 am Post #2 - July 16th, 2005, 10:24 am
    O, Mongolia!
    by Cynthia Clampitt

    When I was young, the name “Outer Mongolia” was often invoked to express the idea of the farthest reaches of the earth. This made the idea of visiting Mongolia seem both impossible and desirable. Fortunately, today, since the fall of Communism, Mongolia is not impossible to visit. But it’s still not easy.

    Actually, it’s not that hard to get to the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (often called U.B. by locals). You can take a direct flight to Beijing, then catch the two-hour Beijing to U.B. flight, and you’re in Mongolia.

    U.B. is surprising in that it’s not really an Asian city. It’s a Russian city. It seems to have taken its inspiration from St. Petersburg, at least for the important buildings at downtown’s heart. Much of the city is made up of the grim, blocky, crumbling construction of the Soviet era. However, the city is in transition, and boasts several modern, elegant, Western-style buildings, with construction sites promising more of the same. International cuisine is also beginning to appear in U.B., from a Viennese pastry shop to a number of Korean restaurants (but no Macdonald’s—they voted against it).

    Only a few Chinese or Tibetan-style temples show a connection with Asia. However, the connection with the rest of Mongolia is immediately clear, as the residential area of the city is largely made up of gers, the round, felt-covered tents of the country’s nomad population. (Ger is pronounced to rhyme with air, sort of, but leaning slightly toward gear.)

    Outside of U.B., Mongolia becomes both more difficult and more Mongolian. There are few paved roads, so most driving is over whatever this rugged, rocky land throws at you. The jeeps we rode in were Russian, which, our guide explained, were designed to be reliable, but without any consideration of the fact that humans would ride inside. After several serious collisions between heads and roof, we learned to ride with one arm braced at all times.

    But as hard as the transit was, wonders awaited us at the end of each journey. Our first trip was north, to Lake Khuvsghul, which is connected to Russia’s Lake Baikal. We flew in a Russian plane that surprised us by surviving our landing on an open field. A jeep and driver awaited us (there were three of us traveling together, plus our Mongolian guide), and we were off across grassy hill, rugged mountain, and rock-strewn river bed to a ger camp (we lived in gers whenever we were not in U.B.) on the edge of the glorious, deep, incredibly clear lake. The mountains rose up around us, some barren, some heavily wooded. It was a place of remarkable beauty.

    We spent three days in this remote wilderness, hiking in the larch-wooded hills, cruising out to a small, rocky island that was home to thousands of gulls and cormorants, and visiting the nearby reindeer people. We got to sample reindeer-milk tea and reindeer cheese, as we sat in a teepee (reindeer people don’t live in gers) exchanging stories with the matriarch of one family, a beautiful woman of 50. This was the first time we noticed something we were to eventually realize was universal—most Mongolians (in sharp contrast to the rest of Asia) have perfect, or nearly perfect, straight, white teeth, regardless of age.

    When it was time to leave Khuvsghul, we lurched and bumped back across the beautiful countryside to the grassy field where our plane would land. I loved seeing the Mongol horsemen in traditional dress standing by their mounts, waiting for the plane to arrive—a perfect image of a country in transition.

    After one night in U.B., we were back at the airport heading for the Gobi Desert. Actually, Gobi means desert in Mongolian, so there it is simply “the Gobi.” We were amused to note that, not only was the plane the same one we had taken to and from Khuvsghul, the flight attendant was the same, too. Not a big airline.

    Crossing the Gobi was a challenge in that, while it was no bumpier than the ride up north, the drive was far longer (200 kilometers), and it was hot (95+ degrees). The jeep overheated a couple of times, but our skilled driver always got it working again quickly. (We took advantage of the stops to stretch our legs and take photos of the fascinating, rocky, undulating, reddish-gold terrain.) Eventually we approached the Khongoryn Els, and our discomfort was eclipsed by the sight of the towering, 100-mile-long sand dune rising out of the rocky plain. It became even more astonishing as we got closer; a natural spring flows into a clear stream at the base of the giant dune, and the sand rises directly out of lush, green pasture, where horses, camels (Bactrian), sheep, and cows grazed.

    The next day proved to be one of the most remarkable of the trip. Both our driver and guide grew up in this region, so they know many of the nomad families. When they were invited to a celebration of the first capture of young horses and first milking of the mares, we were included in the invitation.

    The day started with the capture of the young horses. Swift, skilled Mongol horsemen were aided by friends on foot, and eventually the 1-year-olds were harnessed and tethered. Then we went inside our host’s ger for a bowl of fermented camel’s milk and the passing around of snuff bottles (along with instructions for the three of us on each activity, including the rules that you always accept anything you’re offered with your right hand, and never reach between the central ger poles, always outside them). Next came the vodkas: camel’s milk vodka, horse’s milk vodka, sheep’s milk vodka. The glass was presented ceremoniously, always to us first, as guests. Fortunately, you only had to drink a little, then could pass it back. Store-bought vodka, being more valuable (and stronger), was served in a tiny, beautifully decorated silver bowl, rather than the glass.

    As the day progressed, we’d go outside to watch the capture of the mares, the first riding of the two-year-old horses, the first milking of the mares. After each event, we went back into the ger for food (camel milk cheese, boiled mutton, noodle soup) and more vodka. The men began to sing mournful songs, mostly about the earth. Eventually, they turned to us and requested a song. Our guide said it would be impolite to decline. “God Bless America” (something all three of us knew) was a huge hit, especially because everyone recognized the word “America.”

    More ceremonies and events followed. We finally departed late afternoon, only to return in late evening, to be taught how to ride camels. (This far north, the summer sun doesn’t set until about 10:30, so much can be fitted into a day.)

    The next couple of days in the Gobi offered many delights: herds of swift, graceful gazelles, steppe eagles soaring overhead, whirlwinds dancing in the heat, and lots of interesting rocks for three eager rock hounds. We visited beautiful, wind-sculpted Bayanzag Valley, where astonishing discoveries have been made of dinosaur bones and nests of dinosaur eggs, and Yolyn Am, a valley, carved through rocky mountains, that is so deep that snow and ice linger into July. (Yolyn Am was also the only place we had problems with biting insects—nasty, swarming, little black flies.)

    Then it was back to U.B. for one night, before heading 280 kilometers, by nominally paved (but due to be improved) road, to Karakorum, capital city of Chinggis Khaan (the Mongolian spelling of the conqueror’s name). All that can now be seen in Karakorum is Erdenzuu, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Those buildings, murals, and statues that were spared by the Russians are in astonishingly good condition, and the Tibetan influence is obvious.

    The drive was, again, rough, but it offered a visual feast of green hills and valleys, herds of sheep and goats, horses and riders following clear, winding rivers, widely dispersed gers, and, in places, even the northern edges of the Gobi. This landscape, now green, now golden, stretched away on all sides, vast and rolling. Here, great armies once camped, and I found it easy to envision the legions of Mongol warriors from Chinggis Khaan’s day.

    Back in U.B., we enjoyed the delights offered by the city. We loved seeing the wonderfully comprehensive museums of Natural History and National History. It helped us put much of what we had seen in perspective, and helped us attach names to some of the birds, rocks, plants, and animals we had seen. At a number of delightful concerts of traditional Mongolian music, we all became fans of huumii (Mongolian throat singing) and the morin khuur (Mongolia’s traditional, horse-headed violin). Sampling Mongolian food, from traditionally cooked lamb to a variety of dumplings, was also enjoyable.

    We attended the Naadam Festival, an event first held 840 years ago by the great Khaan himself. It now celebrates both Chinggis Khaan’s birth and Mongolia’s independence. This two-day event features “the three manly sports” of horse racing, archery, and wrestling (though women may compete in archery, and children ride in some races). Horse races involve as many as 500 horses at a time, with the longest race covering 35 kilometers. Archers are so accurate that judges stand beside the targets at the far end of the field. Crowds throng each competition, but it is the wrestling that has most home viewers glued to their TVs. The event starts with 1,024 wrestlers, with the field being halved at each round. By close of the second day, one giant man emerges victorious.

    The hills and plains near U.B. sprouted temporary ger cities. The best athletes and swiftest horses from all parts of Mongolia were on hand, as were the country’s president and dignitaries from several other countries. Ceremony is almost as important as sport, from the beginning parade to the presentation of awards (which can include handmade rugs or young horses, as well as money and trophies). There was even a Chinggis Khaan with his warriors during the opening festivities.

    It’s not hard to understand why Chinggis Khaan should still be remembered so vividly. He and his heirs built the largest empire the world has ever known. At its height, the Mongolian Empire included everything from Korea to Eastern Europe, including all of Russia and China. It was the creation of a system of highways, along with the safety offered by the Pax Mongolica, that made possible the travels of Marco Polo and others of that era. While Mongolia’s recent history has been difficult, its past history is amazing. And now that they have emerged from the crushing burden of Communist rule, Mongolia hopes to become a world player again—though this time through trade and tourism.

    While Ulaanbaatar will probably grow and modernize quickly, most areas will remain untouched for years to come, so you still have time to visit. Our Mongolian guide even promised that he’d be buying more comfortable vehicles, so you may never have to ride in a Russian jeep.
  • Post #3 - July 18th, 2005, 9:06 pm
    Post #3 - July 18th, 2005, 9:06 pm Post #3 - July 18th, 2005, 9:06 pm

    Thank you for allowing me to join your travels vicariously.

    I am aware of the differences in taste and texture from cow's milk, buttermilk, butter, cream and yogurt as well as goat's milk. I cannot begin to imagine the taste of milks from horses, yaks, camels, sheep and reindeer. I realize its been a few years, however if you have any impressions of these milks taste in contrast to cow and goat milk, then please advise.

    The most famous Mongolian beverage is airag, which is fermented mare’s milk. It’s actually quite pleasant, tasting a bit like yogurt with a little beer in it.It’s actually quite pleasant, tasting a bit like yogurt with a little beer in it. We also had fermented camel’s milk, which was thicker.

    Is there a difference between fermented camel's milk and camel’s milk vodka? How did camel's milk vodka differ from horse’s milk vodka and sheep’s milk vodka. I recall you said regular grain vodka was stronger. Were these milk-based vodka's clear or milky colored?

    I realize I am a bit over the top with questions, however I am really fascinated by the array of milks available in Mongolia.



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  • Post #4 - July 18th, 2005, 9:12 pm
    Post #4 - July 18th, 2005, 9:12 pm Post #4 - July 18th, 2005, 9:12 pm
    Cynthia wrote:The most famous Mongolian beverage is airag, which is fermented mare’s milk.

    How does this compare to koumiss (which is also fermented mare's milk, but with a more Russian tradition)?
  • Post #5 - July 18th, 2005, 9:45 pm
    Post #5 - July 18th, 2005, 9:45 pm Post #5 - July 18th, 2005, 9:45 pm
    These probably won't get a ton of comment, because who has the knowledge to carry on the conversation (though at least I have mental pictures from the movie Close to Eden), but I want you to know I really enjoyed them and I'm sure I'm not alone. Thanks.
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  • Post #6 - July 20th, 2005, 7:36 pm
    Post #6 - July 20th, 2005, 7:36 pm Post #6 - July 20th, 2005, 7:36 pm
    Russia shares a border with Mongolia and, for many years, controlled Mongolia (until the fall of the Soviet Union). Hence, many words we associate with Mongolia (yurt, koumiss) are really just the Russian words that got forced on the Mongolians. However, it is a little more complicated than that, because people washed back and forth over this region for so many centuries that there are also traditions across the region that have been adopted back and forth. But airag is the Mongolian word for what the Russians called koumis. (As an aside, I found it interesting that the fermented milk drink that is the national beverage of Turkey is called ayran, which isn't that far from airag, linguistically -- Turks having once been neighbors of the Mongols before they swept into Asia Minor, and Turkish being related to Mongolian.)

    Airag is only just a bit fermented -- more like a kefir or yogurt, rather than focusing on alcohol production. There is a little alcohol, but not a lot. The mare's milk vodka, on the other hand, was a real drink -- though I don't think it was distilled, but it’s hard to tell. It was just sitting inside the ger in a row of large jars, being ladled out by our host, so it was homemade, whatever else can be said about it. I'm guessing it was made from whey, after milk solids were taken out for cheese. It was pretty close to being clear (as were camel and sheep vodkas), but it was milder and sweeter than distilled vodka. But not so mild and sweet that the locals couldn’t get totally ripped drinking it. Just mild and sweet enough that I, who dislike vodka, could enjoy the taste.

    As for the fermented camel’s milk vs. camel’s milk vodka, similar situation, only the fermented camel’s milk was much thicker than the fermented mare’s milk -- more like a hefty yogurt -- while the three different vodka’s were mainly differentiated by the jars from which they were extracted, rather than massive differences in taste.

    As for the taste of the milk, I’ve only had reindeer and yak milks unfermented (though fermented as well). They are a bit gamey tasting, particularly the yak milk -- but sort of in the direction of goat or sheep’s milk, not off-the-chart weird. Just really weird in tea with salt, which is how Mongolians and Tibetans drink it. Fermented, the primary taste of the various milks was the sourness of the culture, rather than any differences I could note in the milks.

    And thanks for the questions and comments. It was an astonishing experience, and it’s fun to share.
  • Post #7 - July 20th, 2005, 8:52 pm
    Post #7 - July 20th, 2005, 8:52 pm Post #7 - July 20th, 2005, 8:52 pm
    I guess I missed your columns in CHIME, thanks for re-posting here.