Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

More on Mongolian Food

Chopstick Cinema

This Week's Film: Mongol
Cuisine: Mongolian

In my nearly five years of creating menus for Chopstick Cinema, I have produced three Mongolian meals. Among those dishes, I have several favorites, but I also want to discover more, and to experiment with others on my own. In my research, here's what I discovered about Mongolian food:

The Mongolian diet is largely meat based, especially lamb and beef, along with dairy products made from their milk. Which begs the question, why hasn't scurvy wiped out the entire Mongolian population? Where are they getting their Vitamin C and folic acid? The answer, amazingly enough, is that beef liver and lamb's liver are remarkably rich in both, as is mare's milk, which is a common dairy product in Mongolia.

From what I have been able to gather, the cold, arid climate is not conducive to the cultivation of vegetables other than those that grow below ground, such as potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic, along with a few hardy above-ground species such as chili peppers, leeks, cabbage, and perhaps peanuts and soybeans, since some recipes call for peanut oil and tofu.

Cooking techniques and utensils used to prepare food are thrifty, practical and hardy. The primary cooking fuel is dried animal dung, preferably that of cows, but horse or sheep dung may be used if that's the only kind available. When fuel is scarce, meat is consumed raw, and in the summers, the mainstay of the Mongolian diet is the dairy products made from the herd animals.

Cooking techniques for meat include boiling or steaming in large iron cauldrons or kettles set on tripods, grilling over open braziers, pressure cooking in sealed clay pots, and roasting from the inside out with heated river stones placed inside the evicerated animal carcass. Food is often cut into small pieces to ensure rapid cooking, which conserves fuel. Other cooking utensils include ladles, knives, bowls, flasks, and leather sacks, as well as copper pitchers and tea kettles, many of which are handmade.

Beverages to Go With a Mongolian Meal

Mongolia has several traditional beverages, including a strong tea brewed from bricks of black tea mixed with salt, milk and/or butter; a fermented alcoholic beverage called airag made from mare's milk; a citrus-based soda pop; and vodka imported from Russia. Imported beer and sodas are also available in markets in the larger cities.

The traditional drinking toast of Mongolia goes something like this:

Gold cup, silver cup, fill them with wine,
Raise them with both hands.
Millet in butter, milk tea and mutton,
Help yourself to the feast.

Researching Mongolian Recipes

My recipe research has all but convinced me that Mongolian cuisine is comprised of two things: Mongolian Barbeque and Mongolian Hot Pot. By all accounts, it would seem that the people of Mongolia spend their mealtimes gathered around a brazier, either grilling bits of meat, or poaching it in steaming pots of broth. But surely there must be more to Mongolian food than these two over-exposed dishes. And contrary to western interpretation and presentation, Mongolian food does not typically include dipping sauces, but may be enjoyed with soy sauce, hoisin, or spicy chili oil.

Even though Mongolia borders China and was once under Chinese rule, Mongolian culinary influence is not typically represented in Chinese cookbooks. And the one Mongolian cookbook I managed to find, an enticing volume called Imperial Mongolian Cooking by Marc Cramer, is actually a fascinating collection of recipes from the realm of Ghengis Kahn, the largest empire in the history of humanity.

It includes recipes that span the eastern hemisphere, all the way from Korea across the Middle East to the Mediterranean, yet features only a limited number of specifically Mongolian dishes. This may be because Mongolian cuisine is somewhat limited in terms of ingredients as well as distinctive dishes. And many of the other dishes it contains have already been featured on Chopstick Cinema in the cuisines of other cultures that were once under the dominion of Ghengis Kahn and his Mongol Empire.

Once I've decided on the Mongolian dish I will serve, my recipe will be posted at the end of the week, along with my Mongol film review.

For questions or comments send e-mail to cheiter at thingsasian dot com