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Mongolia And Its Foods
Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) pages: 16 to 19
The People's Republic of Mongolia (PRM) is directly north of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Sometimes called Outer Mongolia, this People's Republic was once a territory of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. It declared its independence from China in 1912, after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty which ruled from 1691 to 1911.
Inner Mongolia is a region inside the PRC. Its full name is 'Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region,' a name given to it by the Qing Court in China. It is also known as the 'Nei Mongol Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.' To avoid confusion, the media call the former, the State of Mongolia instead of just Mongolia. In their language, it is Gadagadu Mongol while in Chinese it is called Wai Menggu,, and is located north of the Gobi Desert.
With Russian support, the PRM was a socialist state between 1924 and 1992. They did proclaim themselves an independent country in 1945. In 1949, at the Yalta Conference, they established official ties with the PRC, that is with China whose complete name is 'The People's Republic of China.' In 1955, when the PRM did try to join the United Nations, the PRC vetoed their admission. In 1961 they were admitted, thanks to Russian Support.
So there was and still can be conflicts between these nations. In 1990, after the first free multi-party elections, the PRM and the PRC did agree to have better relations; and since have had more balanced ones.
After the 2010 census, the PRM reported having more than twenty-five million people. Twenty percent were Mongolians, the rest were not. They were Chinese, Tartars, Tibetans, and other groups with Islamic influences.
Mongolians live in China thanks to Chinggis Khan, commonly spelled Genghis Kahn. He was born Temujin, and did succeed in taking over much of the north in the 1220s and thereafter. The name 'Chinggis Khan' means universal, and this ruler did unify many Khanates, particularly The Great Khan, Chaghadai, Ilkhante, and The Golden Horde. He did that in 1279. Over the years, many groups or tribes were brought together with various others. In these more than seven hundred years, the eating habits of many Mongolians are now similar, no matter where they came from, where they lived, or where they are living now.
Many Mongol people have been moving to the US in the past seventy or so years. These include ethnic Mongols from Inner and Outer Mongolia, and from other countries. These included the Kalmks, Buryats, and others, all Mongolians coming as early as 1949. Many told us they were spurred to do so because of religious persecution in their homelands. More came in the 1990s and the 2000s because communism ended and it was easier for them to emigrate to the US then.
In Asia, many Mongolians live south of the PRM in the PRC's autonomous regions of China. Established in 1947, these do incorporate other areas of China. Their autonomous region is the third largest political subdivision in the PRC with twelve percent of the country's land, a mite less than two percent of its population, Their 2010 census reported twenty-five million Mongolians, and was the twenty-third most populous region in China. Most of its people are Han Chinese who live among Mongolians and others. In the past, these Mongolians were considered nomads, related to early Proto-Mongol people, and most do not move around as they used to.
Also, in the PRC, Mongolians have lived in this region and in the provinces of Xinjiang, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Qinghai, Hebei, Heman, Gansu, and Yunnan. Outside of China, many Mongolians live in Russia, Central Asia, India, some parts of Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom, and in the US.
As a bit of geography, the capital of the PRM is Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Inner Mongolia is Hohhot. The largest cities in the former are its capital, Baganuur, and Choibalsan while in Inner Mongolia, the largest cities are Baotou, Chifeng, and Tongliao. These and other provincial areas in the PRC are now called Banners or Leagues and not provinces.
Though dispersed in many urban and rural areas, whether called Mongols or Mongolians, most do consider them nomads because they raise large numbers of animals, eat lots of meat, and move from place to place as they seek pasture for their herds. No matter where they did live or live now, the Mongols are attached to their food traditions.
In the PRM they speak Mongolian, are primarily Buddhists and Shamanists, and write mostly in Cyrillic. In the PRC they speak Chinese or Mongolian and write using Chinese characters, unless they are Chinese minorities who speak Oirat, Buryat, Dagur, or Ewenki. In the PRC, nearly eighty percent of the Mongols are Han Chinese, only seventeen percent are Mongol/Mongolian.
Chinese choniclers and historians have witten a great deal about them, more than the Mongolians have. They have discussed their history and their foods, reported them dominated during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) by Uighurs, and that it was then they took the name Mongol. Before and since 1636, Inner Mongolia has become their political and cultural nexis.
Then and now, no matter where they live, Mongols mainly eat meat and milk foods. In the past, their meat was mainly sheep, horse, deer, reindeer, goat, and camel. In the US and other urban places, it is now mostly cow, sheep, and goat. They call these their 'red' foods while food of and from milk and milk products, they call their 'white' foods.
The most popular beverage they drink is tea, preferably made with milk, and this they call 'milk tea.' Outside of either Mongolia, most live in urban areas and they make this beverage with evaporated milk. They often add nutmeg, butter, and use many fully roasted dry tea leaves that Americans call black tea. However, they call their tea by various color names when liquid. For instance, they drink 'red tea' which is what Americans call 'black tea,' and make it from fully ferments black tea leaves. They also consume 'yellow tea' or jasmine tea which they make from semi-fermented tea leaves. In addition, they drink 'blue tea' which is made from scrapping tea leaves from compressed fully-fermented tea bricks.
Mongolians drink one of these teas at every one of their three daily meals, and often drink some with their snacks. They enjoy tea whenever they feel thirsty. They do drink other liquids such as those made with flowers, leaves, and stems from non-Camelia sinensis plants. To these, they commonly add fermented or non-fermented milk. They also drink beer and other alcoholic beverages.
In the US, eighty-five percent of the Mongols are Khalkh Mongols, ten percent are other Mongol groups, tribes, or confederations, five percent are Kazakhs, Koreans, Chinese, or other ethnic groups. All the Mongols know and respect their national symbol called the soyombo. It is a three-part red, gold, and blue item and is on the flag of the PMC.
It symbolizes freedom and independence, is popular, and has been used since the 14th century. The gold part looks like a flame topped with a five-pointed star, a sun and moon below it. There are two tall rectangles underneath this, and on its sides and below are two smaller horizontal rectangles, a round yin- and yang-like circle between them, and two stylized fish below who seem to watch over them.
Now, more and more Mongolians are coming to the US. We did query some of them about their lifestyles, what they ate and are still eating, where they settled and why, where Mongolian graduate students settled, etc. Many came to Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles and their suburbs. They tell us that in Colorado there are some three thousand of them, some five thousand in California, four thousand in Chicago, three thousand in the D.C. and Virginia areas, and the same number in the New York regions of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.
They also told us they go to these Mongolian events to maintain contact with each other, particularly by attending the Chinngis Qan ceremony each year. In 2017, they said that those in the US the longest will celebrate their thirtieth year. When asked for reasons why they attend this and other Mongolian events, they said they go to preserve their culture and language, and their red and white food consumption.
Mongolians told us that milk from horses is the most nutritious dairy item, but in the US it is not easy to get so they do consume other milks. They eat some grain foods and lesser amounts of vegetables, even fewer fruits, and they eat more 'white' foods in the US than before they immigrated to the US. They also said they were used to eating more 'red' foods than they now do.
In the US, they eat lots of 'liquid butter' and make it with fresh milk that they do not refrigerate for six to eight hours until it is partially coagulated, light yellow, and with a semi-solid layer on top. They like it mixed with regular milk and many said they mix this ten parts to three, and then add a little sugar and some fried crushed millet before spreading it on their bread or on another food. Milk curds, they said they call aarvui and these are popular with many Mongols putting some fresh or dried in their tea.
They love other 'white' foods including 'white butter' which is yoghurt-like and made from, fresh or sour milk. This they call varag and it is cooked with shartos or melted butter curds, flour, dried fruits, and/or home-made cheese. They also like 'yellow butter' and 'milk tofu' made from raw or uncooked milk, fermented or not. They eat sour milk that they ferment for two or three days until it becomes chunky, and also consume milk leather which they sometimes call 'milk film.' It is the skin on heated milk which they remove and dry and eat plain or mixed with a grain or a vegetable.
In the US, Mongolian-Americans eat more chicken and fish than they did before coming to the US, and they consume less red foods than they did before. They still serve large platters that are well-laden at most meals, and they still cook red foods with cabbage, the vegetable they consume most often. They prefer red foods on the bone, and for them, they like them cooked a long time, and prepared with onions and garlic, and with buuz which are their wonton look-alikes filled with mutton and not with pork, or with beef in the US, a new way for them.
At large events such as holidays and life-cycle occasions, they like to go out to eat shuan yangrov. This is their hotpot made Mongolian style, with its meat mainly mutton cooked in boiling water. They like it served with lots of what they call 'white tea' but we could not determine if this was tea or vodka. They did advise that they like it with >i>nai pi which is their sweet wheat biscuits topped with vrum, their clotted cream that is caramelized. They call tis khailmag. Some report they cook their mutton in bantan, which is a thin flour soup or in budaatai khuuvga which is more stew-like.
Before leaving their homeland, many said they enjoyed 'milk wine" which is their horse milk distilled many times. This is not readily available in the US so now most report they must consume it less often. They still make cheese with fermented 'yellow butter' and coagulate it so it looks like America's cottage cheese. However, one chap emphatically told us, "do not be fooled, it does not taste like America's cottage cheese; it is much stronger." Another popular white food they make at home is 'milk pie.' This is sour cheese baked with sugar and flour; and they make a 'red pie' its top and bottom crusts filled with chopped lamb, lamb fat, and scallions.
Before immigrating to the US, these people said they ate millet cooked with water, then pan-fried it or had buckwheat flour mixed with wheat and millet flours, ground oats, and sugar, also pan-fried. A few people told us they use these mixtures to make cookies for their children, and fry them after they add flour and 'yellow butter' to their dough. One, a chef, told us 'this is like steamed bread and somewhat similar to fried pie." However, we are not sure because we never saw it nor did we taste it.
Naadam is one of their major celebrations, it is a national holiday in Mongolia. At this festival, before immigrating they said they did show off their talents as masters of the grasslands horse-back riding, horse races, archery, and by preparing these white and red foods. At them, they drank thin buttermilk called kumys with >orum or with caramelized cream or with khailmag which they make with plain cream. One lady said she used to offer these foods to guests to wish them a safe journey, but no longer does. On this holiday and on others, many show off things they did before they came to the US, but do not show them off to their American friends.
Many Mongolians have written or called asking for references they can use to show or tell their friends or their children. To accommodate these requests, here are a literal handful plus one that you or they can get through interlibrary loan sources. Recipes for their foods follow them.
Anderson, E.N. 2011. "War, Migration, and Food in Mongol China: Yuan Dynasty Food and Medicine" in Proceedings of the 12th Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture. Taipei, Taiwan: Foundation for Chinese Dietary Cuture, pp 1 - 32.
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