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Inner Mongolian Features and Foods
Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Fall Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(3) page(s): 21 - 24 and 36
A total mystery to many, Inner Mongolia sits just south of Russia and China. It was a remote region rarely visited by Chinese or others because it was difficult to get to. However, now it is courting Chinese and other tourists, even showing off their foods.
Now a long narrow country with more than thirty million inhabitants, less than twenty percent of whom are Mongolian these days. That is compared to those living in what some call ‘Outer Mongolia’ but more properly known as The Republic of Mongolia, where less than one-third that number live.
Inner Mongolia, in their language, is known as Obur Mongyol-un Obertegen Zasaqu Orum. The ‘ober’ means 'sunny.' In Chinese, it is called Nei Mengu Zizhiqu, Nei Menggu, and Nei Meng for short. In English, the correct name for this Chinese region is the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. On the map on this page, it is in black; and note that under this map its name is in Chinese, under that it is in Mongolian. The picture to the right are its banners or leagues as the internal divisions are called.
Located south of the Republic of Mongolia which is an independent country, both have vast grasslands and many nomadic peoples. They tend horses and other animals, and when traveling or tending them, they live in tents called ger.
Inner Mongolia is the third largest area in China. It is four hundred fifty-seven thousand square miles, and considered by many as a not too productive land, agriculturally speaking. Not always an autonomous region, in the 1950s, it became part of the Gansu Province which became an autonomous province eight years later.
Sparsely populated, people here speak many dialects of the Mongol and Chinese languages. They live on twelve percent of China’s total land mass, and make up seventeen percent of all Mongols in China. Also almost three percent of the Manchu, some few Hui, and lesser numbers of other Chinese minority populations including some Uighur, live here. So do Russian, Kazakh, Kirghiz, and Daur peoples. The remaining, eighty percent of this region’s residents are Han Chinese. Many moved here to work in the growing industries to keep company with indigenous locals, many of whom arrived as part of this area’s Silk Road past.
In the 13th century, this land was ruled by Genghis Khan (1162 - 1227 CE) as was part of the Mongolian Republic to its north. Nowadays, young Chinese know this region as where ‘Shenzhou 6' and other Chinese space vehicles landed. That was in the Siziwnag Banner near Hohhot, Inner Mongolia’s capital city. This capital is not the largest city in the region, that is Baotou. It is only the second largest city. Should the word ’banner’ be new to you, in the past, many administrative districts were known as Leagues or Banners; not provinces; and many still are.
Inner Mongolia, to the north, borders on the independent state of Mongolia and the Republic of Tuva. Several Central Asian countries are to its west as are the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, while Ningxia which is China’s smallest province after the island of Hainan, is actually to the west, southwest, and somewhat north of Inner Mongolia.
During the Zhou Dynasty (1045 - 256 BCE), this region was called Hetao. Many nomads lived here then, that is until Genghis Khan unified their tribes and founded the Mongol Empire in the year 1206 CE. Khan’s summer capital was at Xanadu, and should you go there,you will find a mausoleum for him some seventy miles south of Baotou. Some of his clothing is buried there. His grandson, Kublai Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368 CE) which was followed by the Ming Dynasty. That lasted until the Qing Dynasty took over ruling China in 1644 CE. Incidentally, the Jin Dynasty ruled by Nurachi preceded the Yuan (1115 - 1234 CE).
Manchu people invaded Ming China in 1368 and ruled until 1644 CE when China’s last dynasty, the Qing took over. They were overthrown in 1911 CE by those ruling as the Republic of China; that was until 1949.
The older terms for local land masses, Leagues and Banners, were most often under the control of the military, and they did restrict travel until the Chinese communists officially established Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region; and that was in 1947. Twenty years later, circa 1969, much of that land was distributed among surrounding Chinese provinces, but that arrangement was reversed in 1979.
Some call this region ‘Heaven on Earth,’ for reasons we can not figure out. What is known is it borders on eight provincial land divisions and has many deserts in its west. Its long, cold, dry winters have some blizzards, the temperatures plummet to well below forty degrees F, and in the hot and arid summers, they rise to 120 degrees F.
Divided into twelve political sub-regions, as seen on the above map, some leagues, that is until the 1990s, did change their names. One now calls itself Ordos, while many smaller divisions or banners did not change theirs. The eastern most is now Hulunbuir (#12), the western most Alxa (#1). Huhhot is in #6 but known there as Huimin. There are locals who do not know the old or new names of the others.
This is a food magazine, so what do people eat here? This is meat and milk territory. The foods consumed are simple and made of sheep, camel, horse, deer, or goat meat, and others from the milk of these animals. These are the staples of the Mongolian diet and they are loved with hand-made noodles. They drink kvass or airag, the latter specifically from female horses, the former from male or female ones. Both are said to strengthen their stomachs. They love these and other fermented beverages, dairy-based or not. They like sour yogurt called tarag, and they cook it with shar tos and tsagaan tos. These are melted butter from curds and boiled and mixed with flour, fruits, or cheese, respectively.
Most often they eat at home because restaurants most often exist only in the biggest of their cities. There are a few foreign ones Russia, Japan, Korea, Turkey, Senegal, and elsewhere in China. They love to eat lots of chicken and fish, even pizza. And they enjoy hot dogs in fast food joints.
Inner Mongolian people farm wheat in the river valleys and herd camels, horses, deer, goats, yaks, sheep, reindeer, and other animals in the grasslands. In one or both, they also grow grapes, but mostly in the Wuhai region, and the do make wines from them.
While meals are simple, dishes come laden and large. Everyone eats from huge platters at family meals but not that way at weddings. Then a whole sheep can be part of twelve main courses served at this honorific meal. You can read about Mongol weddings in this magazine’s Volume 18 in the article about them.
It does not advise that at that meal and those made for families, lots of minced meats, often with onions and garlic, show up on the table; they are covered with flour or not, boiled or steamed, sometimes even fried; and often with one or more milk-based foods such as orum or the cream on the top of one of the milks or curds, fresh or dried, and if the latter these are called aaruul. They dry their cheeses on the tops of their gers in summer; they are called eetsgil.
Hohhot, also known to the Chinese as Huhehaote, became the capital in 1952. It is much larger now, and inhabited by many Han Chinese. There are smaller Mongol and Hui populations and a small Buddhist settlement in that city; it has been there since Ming Dynasty times. This city and the five-day festival of Nadam held there are becoming major tourist attractions.
Those of us from elsewhere, need to know that wearing yellow or black is not the thing to do on a festival or joyous occasion. Wearing red or white is not acceptable at funerals or sad ones.
Folks going to the center of the new part of the capital city can explore the Mongolian Museum and learn about the Dazhao Temple built in 1580, the Xiaozhao Lamaist Temple built in 1697 and the newer Xilituzhao Temple which is the largest Lama temple in the Hohhot area. They can also see the Zhaojun Tomb and a Han-Dynasty lady-in-waiting who became the consort of a Xiongnu ruler who is buried there. And, from almost everywhere, one can see the Five-Pagoda Temple, also known as Jingangzhou Dagoba or the Cideng Temple. It is surely worth visiting, too.
In the above mentioned museum, do visit the ger there. This yurt or portable tent is still used by people in the grasslands where nomads of the region have found many fossils. They are on display there along with the skeleton of a wooly rhinoceros found in a local coal mine. Nearby is the Great Mosque with architectural features, Chinese and Arab that are impressive and definitely worth a visit, too.
While meandering, go several blocks south of the museum to the Xiliyu Zhao or Temple which began as a Ming Dynasty shrine. Visit the Bai Ta or White Pagoda, a seven story octagonal structure built in the 10th century where many Buddhist scriptures are housed. It can be seen in the distance from almost every part of this city. Not nearby, but in the region, are the Magao Caves in Dunhuang, the Labrang Monastery in Gansu, the Taer in Qinghai, the Arshihaty Stone Forest in Hexigten Global Geopark, and the Xiangshawan Gorge and many more touristic things worth seeing. A good guide book in English or a language you know helps find and understand these places. Mongolians know about Xanadu, the legendary palace of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis. It is now in ruins near the border of the modern city of Duolun. Many do come to see this summer residence, but are disappointed because there is not much left to see.
While in this region, learn about and taste lots of Mongolian food. We recommend Mongolian Hotpot, here called Shuan Yangrou. Made serving thinly sliced raw mutton, everyone cooks theirs quickly at tableside and in boiling water. They put the slices in a spicy sauce with sesame seeds, soy sauce, and rice wine. Locals eat theirs with hand-made or glass noodles, tofu, cabbage, very few greens, and with mushrooms while the Han prefer theirs with wheat noodles. There is a popular local version made with beef tripe, and a recipe for same is below. Mongolians in the south of China often make theirs with neither of the above, they like it made with fish.
Popular among Mongolians is buuz, small wonton-like steamed pockets of dough filled with mutton or dried meat powder. These are more snack than main meal items and are served with milk tea or airag. They are often cooked in mare’s milk, known to their Russian neighbors as kumiss while their milk tea is made with butter and dried curds of hard white cheese. It is served with sugar and/or salt. The milk is, most often from horses, but can be from any of the animals they herd.
You may have heard that Mongolians also drink ‘white tea.’ They do, but it is vodka and most often served with a sweet biscuit made from the skin of boiled milk, and called naipi. It can be served with ul boov, commonly called ‘foot cake’ in English. Some drink their naipi with butter, rice, milk, salt, and tea. These cakes can be served with urum or plain clotted cream, or with caramelized cream called khailmag; and with or without dried milk curds. Many have their tea with gambir, a pancake filled with meat that has been cooked with or sprinkled with sugar.
Restaurants serve these biscuits on a plate, customers expected to dip theirs in tea, or in a flour soup called bantan, then eat them from the tea or soup with their chopsticks. In a few regions, these stuffed, steamed, or fried dough cakes are eaten with their fingers. Also called mengu, baozi, or xianbing, depending on how they are prepared, these and other flour foods are loved here and in Mongolian restaurants worldwide, as is budaatai khuurga or meat, rice, and vegetable stew that might accompany them. Locals like tarag, a yogurt, or isgelen a fermented food close to a kefir, if the alcoholic content is high. At the level of a liquor, it can be called arkhi. Yoghurt, kefir, or arkhki. These are popular dairy items, almost always served in ceramic flasks, many with blue designs. I recall wanting to keep the first one I saw at a Mongolian eatery in Beijing, and almost did, but the seller guessed my intention and advised of the hefty deposit required. I quickly changed my mind and am sorry to this day that I did not pay up and keep it as a souvenir.
Other popular Inner Mongolian foods include meat stews known as tsuivan, and soups known as gurilitai shul. They and baked items, and mutton and other meats made in containers with hot stones or heated stones put in dead animal stomachs are also popular as are dried meat dishes, called borts. Marmot and goat ate popular when cooked that way. They can be called boodog or khorkhog, respectively. They are filling, heavy, and hearty. Sweets might be served after meals or as snacks with sugar sprinkled on, or made as pancakes with sweet fillings in them.
Locals in this region breed cattle, camels, sheep, and horses, and they trade wool, leather, dairy products, meat, and pharmaceuticals made from all of these animals. Go to a marketplace, as I once did, and watch the action. It is fascinating.
The Mongol and Khan armies were successful in their cavalry tactics. Kublai Khan, known to the Chinese as Yuan Shizu, governed China as a foreigner, and is the only foreigner to have done so. He unified China by the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, and was bothered by local nomads. This led to the building of and in some regions expanding the Great Wall in order to keep marauding folk out of his region; also harder for them to get in.
All the above foods have Mongolian roots. One meat meal that stands out in my mind was with huge fatty sheep ribs. Hand-held, no napkins available, they were the main course. We ate this fatty food three days in a row, and when I asked our guide if this was the most popular meat, he looked both surprised and angry and returned with a query of his own. He asked if we wanted something else because this meat was too fatty for us? That was about eighteen years ago and we were too polite to respond positively or negatively. That day and the one after, we had more fatty ribs to chew on.
Nowadays many Mongolian restaurants exist that did not then, and they all serve ribs and hot pots. We learned not all are greasy, nor are they all popular. We love the big bowls of soup with big pieces of meat, usually lamb, in them along with chunks of cabbage and large pieces of potatoes. In the north they can come with extremely tough corn still on the cob with the biggest and toughest kernels ever. We also love the popular breakfast or dinner omelets with fried dough in the omelet, sometimes with huge ribs, too.
Tea and wine houses were common with cheap vodka the beverage of choice in most of them. Ice cream vendors plied the streets year-round, often using an old baby carriage with a board on top to hold their wares. They also sold small bags of nuts and dried fruits, most often sunflower seeds and/or peanuts, or pieces of dried tofu, most shriveled, brown, and chewy.
Alcohol was for sale in leather flasks and older men were seen carrying and consuming them, rarely women. Glasses of fermented mare and yak milk were also available from those board-topped baby carriages.
In Inner Mongolia, most animals looked skinny and bony, the local people better-endowed, or at least we thought so but forgot to consider they were wearing many layers of clothing. Children were rosy-cheeked, chubby, and loaded with energy.
Markets were loaded with food, though all did have the same dozen items including cabbage, brown shriveled doufu, and nuts and dried fruit. We also saw many household wares for sale, most local or from Eastern Europe, many used and heavy, quite a few were chipped or dented and only a few were of high quality.
Lest one think there is no industry here, locals mine lots of coal--more than one quarter of the world’s coal reserves come from this region. Recently they have added industries related to natural gas and other power sources, and they mine rare earths, too. In addition to these industries, they make textiles and pharmaceuticals, and of course, trade animals, their meats and dairy products, and among them cheeses and ice cream. They also design and develop many new technologies.
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