Debunking Food Myths: What Is Mongolian Food Really Like?

We are currently on hiatus until March 1st but that doesn’t mean the blog is stopping. Thanks to our friend Christa Seychew, we will have a guest post every Sunday afternoon. Today’s post is by our friend Rachel Fix Dominguez, you can see the previous guest posts by clicking here.

As Western New York’s culinary options expand to include a bigger and better roster of Asian restaurants, we are still limited in our knowledge of and access to real Mongolian food. Since Buffalo Eats is on a much-deserved hiatus, I thought I’d take the opportunity to give a brief primer on Mongolian food—the real deal, the stuff that’s eaten on a day-to-day basis in homes all across the landlocked, Central Asian nation. That way, if you decide to hit up a “Mongolian BBQ” restaurant, you’ll at least know that you’re eating an American permutation of an Inner Mongolian meal, rather than what gets consumed on the regular in (outer) Mongolia.

I first traveled to Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer almost eighteen years ago, in 1996. At that time, the country was transitioning from its role as a satellite of the former Soviet Union to an independent, democratic country. There were still significant shortages in food distribution at the time, and much has changed since the mid-90s (particularly in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which has seen its population rapidly grow). I’ve been back several times since then, and have witnessed—and eaten—some of the changes firsthand. Nevertheless, some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes are deeply revered and continue to be extremely popular.

The first thing that you have to know about Mongolian food is that the two most fundamental ingredients are mutton and flour. We’re talking mutton, not lamb. The difference is in the age of the animal, and therefore in how gamey the meat is. In various parts of the country, people also eat beef, horse, goat, yak, camel, and game animals (such as marmot) as well. Meat is a mainstay in most Mongolian dishes. The food I’ll describe below was all made with mutton, but other proteins are sometimes substituted. White rice is also eaten fairly regularly, but is not nearly as popular as flour-based dishes.

One of the most popular foods in Mongolia is a steamed mutton dumpling, called buuz (pictured below, photo credit). The buuz filling is often made with ground mutton, salt, and onion. The exterior flour shell is similar to that of a potsticker, although sometimes a bit thicker. Buuz can be pinched together in many ways, and people have nicknames for these pinching techniques (“flower style”, for example). Once, when I was trying my hand at buuz-pinching and making a mess of things in someone’s kitchen, an elderly lady told me mine looked like crocodile buuz.

tsagaansar8

If you use these same ingredients but make a slightly bigger pocket of dough, and then deep-fry it, you’ll have khuushuur (pictured below, photo credit). Khuushuur is a favorite street food, and while people will consume them (maybe with a Russian-style pickled salad) at home, they’re also the kind of food that teenagers will pick up as a snack on their way home from school.

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If you take the same mutton and flour, but make noodles from the flour and cut the mutton into bite-sized pieces, add a bit of potato, carrot, and salt, and pan-fry the dish, you’ll have a meal called tsuivan (pictured below, photo credit). Tsuivan is one of my favorite Mongolian foods, partly because of the thick, homemade noodles.

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These same ingredients (mutton, noodles, salt, and sometimes potatoes and carrots) are also often used to create soup (shul, pictured below and photo credit), a perennial favorite for warming up when temperatures dip well below zero on the steppe.

Guriltai_shul

In general, Mongolian food looks nothing like the image many of us have: a large hibachi with an assortment of meats and veggies stir-fried to order. Rather, it is a cuisine born of and deeply steeped in the geography of a place. It most certainly is not fancy or fussy food, but it is suited to the climate of the country, and it’s one of the most distinct cuisines I’ve ever consumed.

A Buffalo native, Rachel Fix Dominguez lends her passion for food and firsthand travel experiences to Buffalo Spree as a freelance food writer.

17 thoughts on “Debunking Food Myths: What Is Mongolian Food Really Like?

  1. Thank you for the great summary! Having lived two years in Mongolia, a few years before you, I am constantly being taken out for Mongolian BBQ. I am often told I am lucky to have eaten such a do-it-yourself fun meal during those years. It takes me a few trips of refilling my plate to explain the true nature of Mongolian food. I agree with you that a good Tsuivan is one of the best dishes. In general most Mongolian food would not transfer too well to the western market, but there are two dishes that I think could hold their own, but are not referenced here. (1) Harhog, which is just meat and onion pressure cooked in a metal milk container by dropping in hot rocks (or cooking the meat by dropping the rocks into the sewn up hide). The meat has an outdoor, rustic flavor to it and is very tender (especially beef or yak); (2) Hoitsai (not sure on the transliteration), which is a stew served with four or five types of meat, potatoes, carrots, and turnips in a light (relatively speaking) meat broth. This was a popular dish as the UB hotel and could be had for $1.25 back in the day. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Rachel Fix Dominguez

      Brett, I completely agree with your choices for cross-over appeal. There were many other dishes I thought about including– especially dairy products. It was hard to choose just a few. Aaruul deserves an article all its own, for example!

  2. Bayankhongor M20

    A clear, well-written and very generous-hearted explanation of Mongolian food.

    • Rachel Fix Dominguez

      M20, eh? I was an M7. I’m sure you still hear about Matt, my Bayankhongor M7 friend.

  3. Uyanga. E.

    Thank you for writing this article. All the facts are true. Everytime I say, Im from Mongolia, people assume we eat mongolian beef or mongolian bbq. Now, finally, some people will know what our traditional food is like.

    • Rachel Fix Dominguez

      Uyanga, I hope so. There are so many misconceptions about true Mongolian food in the U.S.

  4. Joanna

    Thanks for the great article. What you have written is totally true and made me in mood for Buuz. Particularly, asian new year is on the corner and during this time of the year we consume incredibly huge amount of Buuz that now I wonder how our metabolism works especially at this time of the year.

    • Rachel Fix Dominguez

      Joanna, Amar sano? Happy New Year! It is definitely the season for buuz.

  5. Wanda

    I miss eating all that food that was shown..as my husband and I lived in Mongolia for 5 years.

    • Rachel Fix Dominguez

      Wanda, I miss it too. Thankfully I have a friend only a couple hours away who occasionally makes me tsuivan.

      • Wanda

        That was one of my favorites!

  6. Thank you for this great writing about my Mongolian traditional food. Everyone here in the US wonders what kind of food we eat in Mongolia, I say come to my house and let me cook for u as always. But now people whom I dunno can know at least little bit about true Mongolian food, so I am glad. Let me also suggest one of the best meal, which is if you guys make the Milk tea (boil the water with beef and the tea then put the milk on it) and put the small Buuz (we call that Bansh) into the boiling water before the Milk, it will be unbelievable meal ever ;). I love Tsuivan, my bestie.

  7. B.Ariunbold

    We say if you steam meat wrapped in a dough it is Buuz, if you fry the same it is Khuushuur, if you stir fry it is Tsuivan and finally add some broth it is a Soup.

    Yes we nomadic Mongolians, have a very simple menu. I believe this implies that the food has never been a priority for Mongolians.

  8. Tuvshin A.

    lol. it really is beef and flour

  9. mongolian

    I’m mongolian, but now i don’t live there, studying abroad :)
    I miss my food so much.
    Бүгдэнд нь сар шинийн мэнд хүргэе! (which means happy Tsagaan Sar)

  10. Ariun

    Thanks for your detailed, well written article on our Mongolian Dishes. As a Mongolian, whom studies and lives abroad, I’m very disgusted about the fact that there are so many places that claims to be serving Mongolian dishes when they are actually Chinese and taking credit for it. I also want to thank all the people who can appreciate our country. :)

  11. True, Mongolian food has not many varieties but it is unique and kept for centuries the original taste during the nomadic life style.

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