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Mongolians and Their Cuisine by the editor
Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 9, 10, and 24
Called 'Masters of the Grasslands,' there are more than three and a half million Mongolians. They have similar ancestry, their own spoken and written language, and they delight in their own food customs. Information about specific food items can be found in the article titled: 'Mongolian Foods and Beverages' by Cathy Ang in this issue of Flavor and Fortune on page 7. This article looks at the people and their food habits; that one looked at specific foods eaten by Mongolians.
Mongolians are renowned for their dauntless courage, and their proficiency in equestrian archery, among other things. From a religious perspective, most practice Tibetan Buddhism and/or some form of Shamanism. They are quite different from their Han Chinese neighbors who for the most part, live to the south of them. Most Mongolian people in China live in Inner Mongolia and in the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Qinghai, Hebei, Henan, Gansu, and Yunnan; they also live in several other countries.
Mongolians are descendants of two ancient nationalities known in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) as the Xiongnu and the Donghu. The term Mongol is somewhat new, found first in the literature in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). These people inhabited the eastern banks of the Ergun River, they later moved westward, and then eastward, too. Ghengis Kahn brought their tribes and others together in the 13th century; and the country declared independence in 1911.
In Inner Mongolia and many of the places in China where the majority of Mongolians now live, there is little rain and lots of dry steppe. Thus, the people need to produce many foods in irrigated fields. What is interesting, is that they eat only some of the foods they grow. They prefer to grow grains to feed their animals than any that they might eat and they do not produce or eat many vegetables.
On their land they mostly live in permanent yurts. This is different from Tibetans who move their yurts from grazing area to grazing area, as needed. Mongolian yurts are not moved, but rather they remain permanently where first placed. These yurts are covered with felt, several layers of it. They cover their bodies the same way in winter in a garment known as a meng pao, which means Mongolian robe. It is an outer garment long and with full sleeves. Many are faced with braid of various colors. The coats are closed, that is held fast, with silk sashes, their decor varying from region to region. Women wear the meng pao, too, and they wear hair ornaments and a string of beads, sometimes on the forehead.
Mongolians are a proud people whose hero is Genghis Khan (1162 - 1277 CE). He was born Temujin, son of Yesugei Baatar. Kahn united various tribes circa 1206 CE, when feudal rule prevailed and tribes vied with each other, warfare a constant part of steppe life. Kahn's son, Kublai Khan (1215 - 1294 CE), founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 CE. He and other Mongolian leaders ruled China in the Yuan Dynasty, which some call 'The Mongol Period.'
During this time, they introduced many new foods to the Han Chinese, even improved their understanding of nutrition. They introduced foods, nutrition, and dietary concerns in a nutrition book, not a recipe book. It was titled: The Essentials of Dietetics. This volume, in Chinese called Yin-shan Cheng-yao was written in 1330. It speaks of game as a staple of the diet and reports that antelope, bear, deer, leopard, marmot, pheasant, crane and swan, and tigers were consumed. It also reports that some of these animals or some of the parts of them were used only for their medicinal value. This book also advises about the value of and frequent use of milk and milk products.
To this day, Mongolians adore dairy products. They like their buttermilk thin and call it kumys and they like their cream thick. They eat lots of butter and consume many milk products. As a group, they are known to drink mare's milk daily and use it in important ceremonial roles.
To the Han Chinese, the dairy foods Mongolians eat marked them as barbarian foe. This may be why dairy products never became popular in China. Some of the meat dishes of the Mongols did enter mainstream Chinese cuisine. Fermented milk was probably the only dairy food that did gain a foothold; it is both popular and now available in and around Beijing.
When China's Great Wall needed considerable repair, Emperor Kangxi chose to visit Mongolians, make them huge imperial banquets, and win them to his side rather than worrying about them. He invited Kahns and princes and conferred titles upon some of them believing that honoring them, pleasing their tongues, stuffing their stomachs, and marrying them with Manchu princesses were his best line of defense. Because of these acts, quite a few Mongolian and Han food habits were exchanged and peace reigned.
Before and since this intermingling, Mongolians ate red and white foods. The white foods, called chaganyide which means pure and noble food, are dairy foods. Red foods, called wulanyide, include meats such as camel, beef, and mutton. Camel is consumed in small quantities due to lack of availability, but it, beef, and mutton are loved.
This author was an honored guest in several Mongolian homes some years ago. Some Mongolian people she met in several provinces already mentioned entertained her at restaurants. At one, she was served a delicious dish made with camel toe. After telling her hosts how great it was and complimenting the chef, she was treated to several others, all made with parts of the foot of a camel. The hosts were pleased that a westerner appreciated one of their important foods; on previous occasions they had visitors who turned up their noses at what they considered unusual foods.
At one of these meals, the guides and one other non-honored guest were served white food first; I was given red foods. Unfortunately, at the time I was ignorant of this color differentiation. At New Years, everyone gets white food first. As a traveler, when I was ready to depart, I was given more white food. Didn't know then but do now, that just before leaving a Mongolian home; symbolic wishes for a safe journey are a packet of white foods. Other times when someone gets white foods, you should know that it is a celebration such as a birthday. Not only do white foods come first, but not all times, but the celebrant who gets them needs to eat the white foods first.
Mongolians eat with their fingers, be it solid foods or soft cheese, and they drink some kumys before everyone digs in. Many dishes come with millet and millet is served by itself. This grain is the main carbohydrate. They do not really like and therefore hardly consume any wheat flour, But Mongolians do eat some buckwheat and oats; and they eat very little rice. Barley is consumed after roasting the kernels over a hot fire. It is constantly stirred until the kernels pop, somewhat akin to popcorn. It is eaten other ways, too.
One special custom of Mongolians is seen at weddings. There, the bride and then the groom need to eat white foods first. After they do, they and their guests indulge in roasted lamb, usually provided by the bride's father. At such a wedding they might serve a whole sheep which is also be provided by a father, but more often than not, it is the gift of the groom's father. Before the wedding, the couple need go to the outside of their bridal chamber before any festivities begin. Custom has them circle it three times on horseback, propose a toast to each of the invited elders, kneel down and wash their hands with water provided by these same elders, and then proceed to the banquet.
Important wedding guests are served a leg of meat, everyone gets some pieces of lamb and maybe some beef. They get huge portions such as half a loin and half a rib, and a piece of the intestine. These they enjoy at the brides home the first wedding night. Wealthier families have another banquet at the home of the groom the next night. On that second night, the banquet begins with wine for everyone. Current practices are such that wine is also served on the first night. One recognizes the bride and other married women at such an affair and on the streets as being married because married females wear their hair in two braids. The wedding banquet is the first plaited appearance of the bride.
The bride and the groom are served the fat from the tail of the sheep. They like it cooked, chewy, and meat-like in texture. They also enjoy this delicacy at one of their very important holidays called Nadam. This festival comes after fall harvest and is huge, with time provided for horse-racing and other similar athletic events, and more roasting of animals.
Specific foods at New Year, the other important Mongolian holiday, includes a recently slaughtered animal. Some years back, a Mongolian gentleman sent me a recipe for tea which he advised was held only in the right hand. The mailed instruction came with another for how my husband should slaughter the lamb he thought we should have at our New Year holiday. The tea recipe, translated below, has an interesting juxtaposition of modernization, not so the lamb's slaughter. Elsewhere in the letter, this man suggested that if we wanted to be very authentic, after roasting the lamb, we need cut seven symbolic pieces of meat, each from a different part of the lamb, and share them. Then we can give everyone a knife to carve out a personally desired portion to eat it with their fingers. He also suggested that we cut a piece from either side of the neck to present to the most honored guest. Roasted lamb is called Xuersunhaoni and served after each person is given a piece of crispy skin with scallions, a thick sauce, a Lotus Leaf Cake, and some Milk Tea. The rather modern three-line tea recipe he sent with these slaughtering instructions say: Ingredients: tea bag, milk or powdered milk, pinch of salt. The Procedure begins: Put tea bag in boiled water, add milk or powdered milk and salt.
Guests in Mongolian homes may be served some vegetables in summer, in winter these might be replaced by tree fungus and various mushrooms, but this is rare. What is not rare are the many piquant and aromatic roots that flavor the grain foods guests will be served. Mongolians live more on meat, breads, dairy products, and some herbs than on any other foods.
One visitor to Mongolia came home and wrote of eating a potato chip-like appetizer. He learned that it was probably the fried skin of a cow's head, a delicacy. Such unusual items sometimes do appear at a meal, but more as a Mongolian medicine than as an ordinary food. They know that certain foods are used to treat certain conditions. For example, mare's milk yogurt, they believe prevents aging. Their medicinal texts also say that yogurt prevents hardening of the arteries and aids those with intestinal problems.
More common than herbal cures for guests are foods like Barbecued Lamb Sandwiches, a Mongolian food served on Sesame Seed Buns. Traditional Lamb's Offal roasted or cooked in broth or a Beef Soup called Qara Sol, or Pancakes Stuffed with Meat called Xusur. These have always been popular, and recipes for them appear at the end of this article. What does not follow is a most well-known Mongolian barbecue recipe. Martin Yan calls it a Chinese version of fondue because it brings people together.
One Mongolian barbecue is made in a specially shaped pot with a chimney in the center, Traditionally, the pot was heated by charcoal at the bottom center of the chimney. Today, one not use such a pot, sometimes referred to as a Chrysanthemum Pot, inside your house without adequate ventilation. The charcoal consumes a great deal of oxygen and the pot has origins for outside use. There is another Mongolian barbecue cooked on a grill.
Some people say that either barbecue is 'theater.' Elizabeth Sloan, on page 22 in the professional journal, Food Technology, in Volume 53(5) published in 1999, says food as theater is becoming very popular. One such food spectacle is the grilled Mongolian barbecue popular nowadays at Chinese and Japanese restaurants. At this type of barbecue, the diner selects the ingredients and the chef prepares them on a flat grill. This type of barbecue is getting so popular that it is featured in a hotel chain in England and in many Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the United States.
We know of no Mongolian cookbook, but do know many Mongolian recipes. Here are some to try.
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