Rensina van Den Heuval regularly takes small trips to Mongolia – you can join her 24 August – 9 September 2019 this year More. Here she writes about food in Mongolia.
Sitting in a teeny cafe in a Gobi desert town of Dalanzadgad, I see a very tall young Mongolian man saunter through the door. Everything about him is big. His presence, his walk and his traditional brown leather boots with pointy turned up toes. I am guessing he is a herder and most likely a wrestler. He hoists his dark green traditional del up and lowers himself onto the small stool.
A sweet faced young woman, dressed in a gingham dress and cap brings out a platter; stacked high with about twenty steaming meat dumplings. She puts it on the table in front of a young Mongolian man and he thanks her with a nod. With each dumpling dripping with juice, the herder begins to demolish them one by one. The smell is divine; meat, onions and spices.
The young woman then brings out a large red thermos and a small china bowl and pours him Suutei tsai; Mongolian milk tea. He slurps loudly on the hot tea as is the done thing here. Love that I can do it too as I love slurping and it being normal here.
The dumplings, Buuz are made with mutton or goat and this is the most popular Mongolian meal served in cafes and ger cafes across Mongolia; it is also my favorite Mongolian meal and is often served with a side dish of rich Russian style potato salad.
After a few more refills of tea, the herder gets up and places a few Tugrug notes on the table before he clomps outside to his motorbike.
Real yoghurt Lady…
Taking my big clean glass jar I venture into the small market at Kharkorim; the ancient capital of Mongolia.
The cheese sellers, all women, are in a row under some rough hewn wooden and corrugated tin stalls; their various cheeses, lined up on the counter. Goat, sheep, cow cheese, camel curd and sometimes Yak cream and butter depending on which part of Mongolia you are travelling in.
The women here also sell lots of dried yoghurt in various shapes and flavors. Very delicious and a great source of calcium and minerals. The women pick some out and hand them to me to taste. They are like eating lollies but good for you and don’t rot your teeth.
I buy a few different types then walk further into the market maze to the yoghurt lady. She is there; same stall as last year, as regular as the sun rising each day with the best yoghurt on the planet. She has a couple of huge plastic buckets full of thick homemade white creamy yoghurt.
She ladles the yoghurt straight into my jar. It’s tangy and bracing; with an ever so slight fizz. The best probiotic to keep your gut healthy whilst travelling in Mongolia. It is not available everywhere in Mongolia so I view it as ‘gold’.
Traditional breakfast at Tsaagan Nuur: The White Lake
As we stop at the group of gers overlooking Tsaagan Nuur, a woman looks up from inside one of the gers. As I jump out of the Fergon, she rushes over, arms out and embraces me. She is a sister and we greet each other like family.
We have been staying with this Yak herding family each year for a long time. She points to the two gers which will be our home for two nights.Time to wander, relax, birdwatch and go to explore Khorgo, the old volcano and nearby lava fields.
In the morning the Matriarch and her husband bring in our traditional Mongolian breakfast on a large tray. There is a heavy ‘slab’ of yaks cream and thick Russian or Polish cherry jam to spread on a ecclectic array of Mongolian biscuits, all shapes and sizes.
Warm milky tea-Suutei tsai and coffee goes with this yummy breakfast. It feels quite weird to drink English breakfast or Earl Grey tea, way out here on the steppe but I always pack a big box of them in my luggage.
When we leave this family: I secretly pray that it won’t be the last time I see this beautiful warmhearted family and their picturesque Summer camp by the lake.
Tiny children; like little birds
When we stay at a family ger camp, I always cook a simple dish with vegetables and some rice or noodles. At one particular camp near Khorgorin Els (largest sand dunes in Mongolia) the extended family have a few very small children.
While we are cooking dinner, the kiddies who are riding aound on their ‘brooms’ or bikes often stop near the little ger door to look in at us and see what we are up to. Mostly we are taking the time to do a little handwashing of clothes and relaxing as well as cooking.
One time while a few of us were sitting outside in the gorgeous early evening light eating from our bowls, the children were around. I held my spoon full of noodles up and one by one they came by like little birds; mouths open, accepting the offering.
This is how the Mongolian people feed their little ones and it felt very heartwarming and so natural that the children came to us and knew that they would also be fed. It is such a beautiful feeling that in some small way we can integrate; even for a moment into their world.
Ulaan Bataar Vegetables galore
Way back in 2007 when I first came to Mongolia, about the only vegetables to be found were a couple of small sad cabbages, a few potatoes, the odd brown onion and a minimal amount of very wrinkly, rubbery, droopy carrots.
Now eleven years on, the variety of vegetables available in Ulaan Bataar and in the few larger towns is phenomenal. Across the road from LG Guesthouse where we always stay in Ulaan Bataar there is a huge market which is open everyday except Sunday. The market runs along the main railway line which also connects the Trans Mongolian railway line to Trans Siberian Railway in Russia.
The market sells a huge variety of food which include fruit and vegetables from Russia, Poland, China and also some vegetables now grown in Mongolia.There are imported cheeses, many processed meats, Korean cruisine; fresh Kimchi and also dried food from Korea and Taiwan, imported foods from Russia, Poland and Europe. There is also a large fresh meat section where you can just point to a part of the skinned, gutted animal on the table and they will cut it off for you. Sounds awful but if you’re meat eater, this is the Mongolian way.
My point is you can travel in Mongolia very easily as a vegetarian.
Before we head off into the countryside I do many trips back and forth across the road to the market from the Guesthouse and my room is soon full of a great variety of food to be ready for our countryside trip. We stock up along the way in the bigger towns too.
I have so many stories involving food, as it is one of my favorite things about travelling; like the woman cafe owner in Dalanzadgad, a large town way down in the Gobi. She who took a tentative nibble from the end of the green bean I offered her. She pulled a face more at the texture I think. Then I threw the bean into a little oil in the hot wok she had on the fire. She fished it out and gingerly took another taste….slowly nodding her head as she watched me. I don’t think she was ever convinced that it was edible.