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Mongolian Culture and Cuisine in Transition

by Marc Cramer

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Fall Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(3) page(s): 12 , 13, 14, and 16

If we learn nothing else about the Mongols it should be not to underestimate them, my maternal grandfather once told me. He had his reasons. In 1904, when war broke out between Russia and Japan, always high-spirited and adventurous, he left our family-owned restaurant in Moscow to join the Czar’s army. Fluent in seven languages, including a smattering of Mongolian, he soon rose through the ranks and was sent to Mongolia decked out in officer’s regalia. Stationed in the Hulan Beir region of Inner Mongolia, he fought against the Japanese at Mukden near the Mongolian-Manchurian border. It was there that he gained a knowledge of Mongolian customs and cookery.

A chef by trade, he had adopted a condescending attitude toward Mongolian cooking that would soon change. It was one that would ultimately culminate in my first cookbook. Thanks to his friendship with a recruit named Dorje Gangchen, a bibulous ex-lama and chef who had fled Urga (now Ulaanbaatar) over a daliance with the wife of the man who would become the last Bogdo Khan, my grandfather gained an appreciation of Mongolian haute cuisine.

A year later, he returned to Moscow with a severe case of typhoid and a sizeable collection of Mongolian recipes, both common and courtly. Grandfather was not the first nor the last to underestimate the Mongols, their culture and cuisine. Both the Persian and Chinese empires were initially quick to dismiss the Mongols as barbarians they could easily overcome. Both would soon learn these seemingly crude horsemen from the steppes of Central Asia were the most sophisticated and cunning military organization since the Romans. We should tread with caution, too, when approaching the subject of Mongolian cuisine. We should avoid oversimplifications because the history of Central Asia teaches us that it is always a mistake to underestimate the Mongols.

Mongolian cuisine is not and has never been a single entity one can pigeonhole. In reality, it is an ever-changing approach to cookery that embraces a cross-section if not a cross-pollination of divergent styles that shift with geography, epoch, and socio-economic factors. For example, the cookery of Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia is very different from the cuisine of Outer Mongolia, a former Soviet state now called the Republic of Mongolia. Even within the Mongolian Republic, cookery varies significantly from one region to another. It ranges from the simplistic to the sophisticated. Taken as a whole, Mongolian cookery has absorbed influences from the nations it conquered and later from the peoples who turned the tides and ruled over them. Thus pan-Mongolian cooking is a culinary medley of Tatar (also spelled Tartar), Chinese, Tibetan, and classical Islamic influences.

While modern Mongolians are fond of saying, 'Meat is for men, grass (vegetables) is for animals,' this too is an oversimplification; an aphorism of the common man. The ger or yurt is the Russian name for the Mongolian round tent. Dwellers lifestyles and culinary traditions are ostensibly little changed from those of their remote ancestors. But this, too, does not holdup entirely on close inspection.

What then what is Mongolian cuisine and how may we work toward a better understanding of it, its origins, and its evolution? In the case of the Mongols, the academic cliche 'history is written by the winners' is completely wrong because Mongolian did not become a written language until Chinggis (Genghis is Persian, not Mongolian) Khan (now spelled Qan, by the Chinese) put an end to Mongol illiteracy and adopted the Uighur script.

True Mongolian history was not written until Ogedei Khan commissioned the writing of The Secret History of the Mongols. Early accounts of the Mongols came from the pens of the vanquished. Therefore, they are tainted by the bitterness of the defeated and subjugated. The Persians and the Chinese described the Mongols as wantonly cruel and barbarous in an age where brutality, whether Asian or European, was the norm. In the context of defeat and animosity, it is easy to see how early chroniclers assessed the Mongols. After all, they placed stabs of flesh under their saddles to prevent chaffing and gobbled down mouthfuls of pulpy raw meat that we now call steak tatare. Cookery under Chinggis Khan, whether at court or at a military encampment, was crude and not dissimilar to what one sees today in the gers of Ulaanbaatar or the grasslands of Ovorhangai. With time, the conquerors absorbed much of the culinary traditions of the vanquished. After the death of Chinggis Khan, a title meaning 'Rightful Ruler,' his birth name being Temujin and his son and successor, the bibulous Ogadei, built the first Mongol city, Karakoram. The empire, then so vast, was divided into four kingdoms. His grandson, Khubilai Khan, made the capital at Shang-tu, close to what is now modern Beijing. Later, the stones of Karakoram where used to build Erdenezuu, the greatest Buddhist university in Central Asia.

Himself a nominal Buddhist, Khubilai’s capital was a fusion of Mongolian and Chinese cultures, with man-made waterways surrounding his palace. At the heart of this was his home, a massive and luxurious ger. While the minutiae of Khubiai’s diet is not entirely clear, it is recorded that he favored delicate crepes filled with julienned raw vegetables smothered in a thick, creamy saffron sauce, a dish atypical of Mongolian traditions.

In 1294, with the death of Kubilai came a general decline in Mongolian court cookery, although the oldest known Chinese book on nutrition, the famous Yin-shan cheng-yao, was written by decree of Oljeitu Khan, a minor Mongol ruler who reigned as the last vestiges of the empire crumbled. This book is the very Yin-shan cheng-yao recently translated into English; and as such, was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 8(2) on page 21.

At its height, the empire had been divided into four kingdoms, or khanates, the last stronghold of which was the Khanate of the Golden Horde, which held my grandfather’s Moscow in an iron grip until 1480. It relinquished its hold in 1502, when Czar Ivan III openly defied Mongol authority refusing to kiss the khans spurs, a traditional gesture of supplication. After the fall, we know very little of Mongolian culinary techniques as civil war and social decline were the order of the day until the rise of Altan (Golden) Khan (1507 - 1583 CE). Though he failed to restore the Yuan Dynasty of the Mongols, his invasion and conquest had great impact on Mongolian culture and cookery. Thanks to Tibetan influence, Altan Khan became a devout Buddhist who made Lamaism the new state religion. Altan established the first Dalai Lama, dalai being the Mongolian word for ocean, something infinite and all-embracing.

With the integration of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism into Mongolian culture, new dietary strictures were introduced, in particular the eating of fish which is now seen as a low and unworthy incarnation shunned throughout Outer Mongolia. While Mongols have never shared their Chinese neighbors fondness for fish, The Secret History of the Mongols tells us young Temujin had no inhibitions about consuming fish. Although Mongolian rivers abound with trout and several tasty varieties of fish are eaten, Inner Mongolians who roll fish fillets in thin strips of lamb, prefer to hunt plague carrying marmots. They gut them and the cavity is filled with hot stones to cook the meat from the inside out.

After the death of Altan Khan, the Manchu people established the Qing Dynasty. A series of skirmishes followed and Mongolia came under Manchu rule in 1732, dividing the country in two keeping Inner Mongolia under their thumb and leaving Outer Mongolia to evolve into a theocracy under the Bodgo Khan (or Jebtsandumba Hutuktu). Under Manchu rule, Chinese cookery techniques were introduced and the Mongols, in turn, developed a number of lamb dishes that can be still found in modern Chinese restaurants. In fact, whenever one sees a lamb dish on the menu of a Chinese eatery, it is fairly safe to attribute its origins to the Mongols, since most Chinese dislike the strong flavor and aroma of lamb.

Around 1800, the Manchu presence in Outer Mongolia became stronger and their treatment of the Mongols increasingly more draconic. The inhabitants of Outer Mongolia were subjected to the utmost brutality and revolts were crushed and ruthless punishment inflicted. Mongols living in Inner Mongolia were treated less harshly and they began to develop culinary techniques influenced by Chinese cookery. Probably the best-known of these is the Mongolian hot pot, which was adapted by Mongols from the cookery of Northern China where a chafing or fire pot) of copper is heated with hot coals that fill center tube and cause the cooking stock (usually lamb- or mutton-based) in the metal bowl to rise to a very high temperature. The meat is cut into paper-thin slices and placed on a table surrounded by bowls filled with raw vegetables and numerous soy-based dipping sauces. Each diner is provided with separate bowls and chopsticks (a Chinese accretion), which are used to hold the lamb until it cooks, usually in a matter of minutes. The lamb is then dipped in the diner’s favorite sauce and eaten. When all the lamb and vegetables have been consumed, pea-starch noodles, as opposed to traditional Mongol wheat noodles, are added to the broth and the meal is finished with a bowl of hearty soup. (For more information about hot-pot, also called sandpot cookery, see Flavor and Fortune’s Volumes 7(3) on pages 7 and 8 and Volume 7(4) on pages 11 and 12).

It is difficult to assess the lasting culinary impact of Manchu rule in what is now The Mongolian Republic since the regime was bitterly resented, the Mongols of Urga frowning upon things Chinese. During the early years of the 20th century, Russian influence was more conspicuous in Outer Mongolia although the Mongols had declared independence in 1911 and were ruled by the eighth and last Bogdo Khan, whom the Chinese did not recognize. Four years later the Treaty of Kyakhta, a tripartite agreement was signed by Mongolia, China, and Russia. It gave the Mongols limited independence, if only on paper.

In spite of the accord, both Chinese and Russian warlords invaded Mongolia until expelled by the Bolsheviks. By 1921, Urga was in Soviet hands and gave spawn to the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, the year in which the Bodgo Khan conveniently died. Now an outpost of the Soviet empire, Cyrillic soon replaced the indigenous script and Tibetan names, which had been widely used. A policy of pan-russification was instituted and the Buddhist clergy were purged. Drab concrete apartment blocks sprang up like mushrooms after the rain in an unsuccessful effort to eradicate the traditional ger. The remaining, photographs of Stalin and Suhbaatar (the Mongolian Lenin) replaced the Dalai Lama’s image. Vigorous efforts where made to replace all things Mongolian including food and drink. Thus traditional guriltai shol, a hardy broth of mutton and noodles was discouraged and a new dish, namely borsch, was introduced; a dish the Russians would loath to admit was purloined from the Ukrainians.

While borsch never gained much popularity, airag, a sour beverage distilled from mare’s milk served in wooden or silver cups was discouraged and vodka, which the Russians appropriated from the Poles and later reinvented was introduced. It coexisted with traditional beverages. The Mongols, always fond of strong drink, Ogadei Khan died from alcoholism, readily accepted vodka and today they produce three local brands, the most popular of which is named Chinggis Khan.

With the superimposition of Soviet doctrines and dogma on Mongolia, longstanding traditions including the culinary arts suffered. Stores specialized in empty shelves and restaurants were closed, more often than not due to food shortages. At the handful of restaurants remaining, diners had to endure tedious plates of boiled mutton and rice. Like the monasteries that once doted the Mongolian landscape, indigenous cuisine had been bulldozed and plowed under. One positive contribution of seven decades of Soviet domination was the introduction of hothouses, where the majority of Mongolian vegetables including peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, and scallions were grown. Also, wheat farming under the Russians was greatly improved and, to a limited degree, traditional spices such as garlic, cumin, paprika, ginger, and chili were reintroduced.

The revival of Mongolia’s long suffering high cuisine, much like the revival of its traditional culture, will most likely remain a slow process and the country struggles to rebuild its devastated economy and national identity. With its unrelentingly harsh climate, Mongolians are by necessity a hearty people in soma and psyche. With the influx of Western tourists, there has been a move to bolster the standard and variety of cookery in Ulaanbaatar. Some examples of them are given below. They are from a book I authored: Imperial Mongolian Cooking: Recipes from the Kingdoms of Genghis Khan published by Hippocrene Books in 2000. It was favorably reviewed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 8(2) on pages 23 and 24. I have kept the spelling in this article in concordance with that book and not changed them to Pinyin as most others are in this magazine.

My grandfather was fond of quoting an old Russian saying, “If you scratch a Russian, you will find a Mongol beneath.” Thus, here are some of those Mongols beneath. Do enjoy the recipes, which appear below with minor adjustments to the style of this magazine, courtesy of my editor and Hippocrene Books.
Marc Cramer is a frequent contributor to European and American magazines and the author of Imperial Mongolian Cooking.
Mongolian Noodle Soup
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 pound lean cubed beef
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
salt to taste
1 pound flat egg noodles
1 cup scallions chopped
1/2 cup thinly sliced onions
1/2 cup thinly sliced tomatoes
1 Tablespoon butter or oil (optional)
1. Heat the oil in a heavy pan and stir in the fenugreek seeds until they turn dark brown. Then add the garlic and ginger and the meat, cumin, and turmeric. Stir them until the meat is browned, reduce the heat and add the salt. Cover and simmer for five minutes.
2. Add seven cups of water, cover, and cook for ten minutes.
3. In a large pot, boil water and add the noodles, cooking until they are tender. Drain the water and coat the noodles with a little butter or oil, if desired.
4. Place enough noodles in each of ten diner's bowls filling them halfway. Ladle the meat broth over the noodles, add the scallions, onion slices, and tomatoes.
Mongolian Barbecued Lamb
1 large boneless leg of lamb
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 Tablespoons finely crushed garlic
1 Tablespoon finely grated ginger
3 Tablespoons paprika
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/3 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1. Rub the lamb with salt and pepper.
2. Mix the garlic, ginger, and paprika with the oils, blending thoroughly. With a sharp knife, make a series of fine slits in the lamb and brush the oil and spice mixture over the meat. Allow it to marinate covered, in the refrigerator, for at least two hours before cooking. Turn frequently and baste the meat while marinating.
3. Preheat a grill (with coals that are white hot, recommended). Place the lamb on a spit and cook turning frequently, basting the meat evenly every ten minutes. When cooked to desired doneness, cut it into thin slices.
4. Sprinkle with sliced almonds, sesame seeds, and chopped cilantro.
Lamb and Eggplant
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon crushed garlic
2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into one-inch cubes
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, finely sliced
1 eggplant, peeled, quartered, and sliced
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup lamb or vegetable stock
1 Tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
1. Mix one tablespoon of the oil with the lemon juice.
2. Rub the garlic into the lamb and place it in the oil mixture. Season it with salt and pepper, add the sliced onion and mix thoroughly. Then cover and allow to marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
3. In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat the remaining three tablespoons of vegetable oil. Dry the lamb with paper towels, reserving the marinade. Then stir the lamb into the oil and brown it. Add the eggplant, and stir and cook for two minutes before adding the onion, garlic, and marinating liquid. Then add the soy sauce and the stock and reduce the heat then cover and simmer for fifteen minutes. If the cooking liquid is not thick enough, add the cornstarch dissolved in an equal amount of water and stir and cook this until the liquid thickens.
Note: Rice or steamed buns are the recommended accompaniment.
Barbecued Steak, Tartar Style
2 pounds lean, boneless beef steak
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions
1 Tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons soy jam (thick soy)
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Braise the steaks over hot coals until done to your taste.
2. Make a sauce blending the scallions, garlic, soy sauce, soy jam, mustard, and sesame oil.
3. When the steak is done to your taste, smother it with the sauce mixture.
Note: Serve with rice and any vegetable side dish.

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