If I had only ten words with which to describe Mongolia and its people, the second word to make it onto that list (after hospitable) would be resourceful. Whether they are fixing things, staying warm, finding entertainment, or just feeding themselves off of the little their land gives them, Mongolians excel at making do with very little.
Take milk, for instance. Mongolians, historically, are herders, and their animals offer them sustenance in two forms: meat and milk. Traditionally, these two food groups were divided between the seasons; meat was eaten primarily in the winter, when it keeps better and when its nutritional value (and fat) is most needed. The summer diet centered around milk products – and not just the ones you’d expect, either.
Mongolians make hundreds of different kinds of dairy products. I’ve asked colleagues, friends and students for an approximate number but have yet to receive one; ubiquitously, they tilt their heads in consideration, then shrug their shoulders and offer one word in response: many. Here is a long, but far from exhaustive, list of what are collectively known as цагаан идээ, or white foods .
- Сүү (suu) – Milk. It holds immense symbolic importance in addition to its many practical uses and is used in a number of ceremonies. That I don’t like milk seemed to strike most of the Mongolians I talked to as blasphemy, or at least baffling. It’s not just cow’s milk, either; Mongolians milk a wide variety of animals. People in the northern parts of the country milk yaks; in the south, camels. The Tsaatan, a minority group living in the taiga near Khuvsgul lake, milk their reindeer. Herders everywhere milk their horses, too, though horse milk is only used to make very specific products. I’ve never heard of Mongolians milking their sheep or goats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Gobi-dwelling people too poor to afford camels milked their goats.
- Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai) – Literally tea with milk, it’s probably the most ubiquitous of the milk-based foods, even more so than milk itself. Most Mongolian households seem to have a thermos full of hot milk tea on hand at all times, and the host will pour you a bowl of it the moment you’ve stepped inside. It’s more milk than tea – just enough green tea to darken it a shade or two. Most Mongolians will also add salt – a lot in the colder aimags, and none at all in some others. They may also add butter or some other fatty milk product in the winter, since whole milk obviously isn’t fatty enough.
- Variations: In my visit to Bayan-Ulgii, which is primarily populated by Kazakh people, I learned that I much prefer Kazakh milk tea to Mongolian. It’s unsalted and more tea-y.
- Уураг (uurag) – Colostrum, or the first milk of the year, which I’m told is so heavy with protein that it’s more gel-like than liquid in consistency.
- Тараг (tarag) – Yogurt, though of a thinner consistency than most of what we’re accustomed to in the States. Kefir might be a more fitting equivalent. It is typically unflavored and unsweetened, and it can be purchased from food stores or made at home. As with milk and airag, most city-dwelling Mongolians seem to prefer the homemade kind, which they purchase from countryside people selling it on the street.
- Зөөхий (zuukhii) – Cream.
- Өрөм (urum) – Clotted cream, essentially. When fresh milk is boiled for a while and then left to cool overnight, it separates. The fat rises to the top and hardens as it cools, creating a layer solid enough to be peeled off the surface of the remaining milk but soft enough to be spread with a spoon. It’s often spread on bread in lieu of butter and then sprinkled with sugar for a typical Mongolian breakfast.
- Хусам (khusam) – The denser, more highly-cooked parts of the pot used to make өрөм, which settle to the bottom. Mongolians will eat this straight out of the pot. According to one of my former coworkers, it’s delicious but makes you gain weight like crazy.
Хайлмаг (khailmag) – A dish made by frying urum with flour and sugar until the oil separates. It’s often served with raisins. Mongolians regard it as a real treat, and a lot of Americans like it as well, but I didn’t find the cheesy sweetness particularly palatable. Then again, I don’t like cheesecake either.
- Ааруул (aaruul) – Dried milk curds, which many Mongolians treat both as candy and as their snack food of choice. After draining the whey, nomadic families squeeze out as much liquid as they can and work the remaining curd into a wide variety of shapes, which they set on pans atop their gers to dry in the sun. Some varieties are sweetened, others not. I have yet to find a kind of aaruul that I truly enjoy, but there are an awful lot to choose from: brittle, semi-soft spirals, sweetened disks pressed into the shape of a flower, long and short tubes, dark, jaw-cracking slabs called ээзгий (eezgii). Those too hard to gnaw on are often dipped in milk or soaked in hot water, which is then drunk.
- Шар тос, цагаан тос (shar tos, tsagaan tos) – Yellow and white oil, respectively. Despite being called ‘oil,’ these fats solidify after they are rendered from other milk products. Tsagaan tos is white because milk curds have been added to the fat. These fats can be eaten, cooked with, or used in ceremonial candles.
- Нэрмэл архи/монгол архи (nermel arkhi, or Mongol arkhi) – Often called Mongolian vodka in English. This liquor is made by distilling yogurt, something I hadn’t realized was possible. I’ve never seen it sold in stores – just in the repurposed plastic two-liter bottles used by herder families. It’s much gentler than vodka, only about 10-15% alcohol, but the soured milk flavor is intense.
- Аарц (aarts) – The boiled yogurt used to make nermel arkhi, which is then itself eaten hot as a special treat. I’ve never tried it, since I find the mere odor nauseating, but Mongolians love it. We always had to be careful when purchasing white cake or ice cream to make sure they weren’t aarts-flavored!
- Айраг (airag) – Fermented mare’s milk. This one’s worthy of its own blog post, so I’ll get cracking on that. No Mongolian celebration is complete without it, and it’s drunk in large quantities at Naadam and Tsagaan Sar, the two major holidays. When I first arrived in Mongolia, I found it distasteful, but not nearly so much as I’d expected; by the time I left, I was actually starting to like it. It’s sour, but not in a milk-gone-bad sort of way. Just… sour. With the color and texture of milk.
- Хоормог (khoormog) – Similar to airag, but made from camel milk. The khoormog I tried in the Gobi was thicker than airag and cheesier in both taste and texture – like a very thin, sour ricotta. I was not a particular fan.
The glaring omission from this list is cheese. Mongolians do make a sort of cheese, which they call бяслаг (byaslag), but it has little in common with Western-style cheese. It’s curdled with milk acid rather than cultured, which means it’s basically just pressed milk curd. That’s what it tastes like, too – congealed milk. Mongolians don’t have a tradition of hard or aged cheeses the way Europe does. You can buy cheese in the larger grocery stores, but most of it’s imported from Russia, and it’s expensive: a kilo of gouda was between 15 and 20 thousand tugriks when I left – 2.5 to 3 times the price of beef!
My (utterly speculative and un-researched) theory on this absence is that cheese has two main advantages: it stores longer, and it has less lactose, which makes it easier to digest for those who lack the gene for lactase persistence, or the ability to digest milk beyond childhood. (Contrary to common Western perception, lactase persistence, globally speaking, is the rule rather than the exception.) But since milk is historically such a staple in Mongolia, lactase persistence is necessary here, which renders one of those advantages obsolete. And with so many other ways to store milk, not to mention an entire country that turns itself into a freezer for five months of the year, the Mongols never needed to invent cheese.
Which is a shame, because cheese is delicious. And as much as I admired the Mongolians for their many inventive and resourceful uses of milk, I never learned to like most of the things they made with it.
- While цагаан идээ are usually referred to as “white foods” in English, that phrase comes out as цагаан хоол when translated back into Mongolian – and it means “vegetarian food,” not “dairy products.” Цагаан идээ = dairy, цагаан хоол = meatless.
- Most of this is information is common knowledge in Mongolia and was explained to me by various Mongolians. Obviously not a very scientific method of research, with much room for error and competing methods/definitions. When memory failed, or when I’d never learned the specifics, I supplemented my hearsay research with Mongolia Today: Science, Environment, and Development
- As always, the Latin-alphabet names are a transliteration, not a pronunciation guide. Хайлмаг/khailmag, for instance, is pronounced more like “chalmag,” with a very clipped /g/ and the Hebrew /ch/ sound in chutzpah or challah. And a totally alien /l/. But Mongolian phonics are another subject altogether.