A bit travel weary and dirty since we hadn’t had a shower in three days, our adventure was still in its early stages when we learned a couple important lessons. What is traditional Mongolian food, and what is khuushuur?
We had been in Mongolia for about three days, and we had hired a Russian van and driver to take six of us around the country, hitting the all the major sights. We were excited, and maybe a bit naive to what this would mean. We didn’t even take the hint when Jack, our driver, made a supermarket stop on the edge of Ulaanbaatar right at the beginning of our nine day journey. None of us really stocked up on much, a few snacks. That’s it!
Hungry in Mongolia
What we didn’t realize was that there was not going to be much food on this trip. We were supposed to provide it, but that somehow got lost in translation. About an hour after the shopping stop, we ran out of pavement. Yep, no more pavement. At all. No road signs, no tarmac, just dirt tracks. And yet we still went happily along…
Our accommodations were extra gers that the nomadic families living out on the steppes put up and lend out. They were comfortable, and even warm. We expected to be fed by these same families, and in all fairness each and every one of them brought us something. It just wasn’t much…at all.
By day three we were, with our over-fed western stomachs, upon the brink of starvation. When we pulled into a windswept town, we all yelled at Jack, “Restaurant, restaurant!” He dropped us off in front of this yurt. It did have a sign…”Fast Food!” Yay! We were going to eat!
There were three people in the ger, an older woman and what appeared to be her two daughters. They were all busy smilingly making deep fried treats. There was only one thing on the menu, and if you didn’t want that, you didn’t eat. No big deal. We wanted it.
….well….Wait a minute. “Exactly what is it?” we wanted to know. Jack smiled. He loved talking to us about food.
“It’s Khuushuur!” he said, and “It’s made with horse meat. You will love it!”
Really? Now we noticed that bowl of red, yellow, and green bits stuck under the table. It wasn’t in a refrigerator you notice.
But as I said, we were hungry. Not hungry, really. Starving! All six of us shoved our western sensibilities aside and ordered up a few khuushuur each. We watched with drooling anticipation as we watched them roll out the dough, cut them in perfect little circles using a small plate as a template, and then drop them into some (questionable) hot oil.
We were so depraved, that we all bit right into the hot mess. Horse meat….really? It was delicious! We were disappointed when there really was only enough for each of us to have only two. We bought out the whole restaurant.
Somewhat like a British meat pie or an empanada, these were hot and horsy. We scarfed them down and were smiling all the way back to our van.
You would think that when we got to the next town, two or three days later, we would have been a little more cautious, but no. Immediately we would start chanting, “Restaurant, restaurant!” and good ol’ Jack would find us something to curb our voracious western appetites!
Traditional Mongolian Food
Now, first I must mention that on this adventurous trip, we opted not to stay in Ulaanbaatar any longer than absolutely necessary to get out into the hinterlands. There are, of course, plenty of restaurants in the capital city with much more on offer. However, out on the steppes, where distribution is difficult at best, our options were much more limited.
There are very few foods I’d ever heard about in Mongolia. In Korea, we ate shabu shabu, a stew that supposedly originated in Mongolia and traveled all over Asia with the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century. I’d also heard of Mongolian BBQ where you collect a bunch of meats and vegetables, hand it over to a master and they cook it up for you with rice. Both dishes were some of my favorites, so it didn’t dawn on me at all that they would be hard to find. Let me rephrase, that they would be non-existent.
What we did find is heavy, hearty food. There weren’t as many vegetables as we may have wanted, but there was plenty of meat and carbs. The very first restaurant we went to, we encountered “meat noodle.” Apparently meat noodle as Jack would call it was a soup, with or without broth that had some meat, maybe an onion or piece of carrot, a little cabbage, and noodles. This dish, in its many varieties, was ubiquitous on our trip. We either ate or at least saw it on a menu everywhere we went.
Restaurants on the Mongolian Steppes
Every town, every larger group of gers, had some type of store, café, or restaurant. As I mentioned above, we learned quickly that food was a priority for us and if we saw any type of civilization we’d start imploring Jack to find us a restaurant. He did.
We were the only foreigners in most of the restaurants that we visited, but even though we spoke no Mongolian, and they spoke no English, we could usually make ours wishes understood. Not only that, but they had no problem inviting us into the kitchen to see how the food was prepared. We walked back and marveled at the types of meat they were using and the methods in which they were preparing the food.
Mongolians are traditionally nomadic, so they don’t have gardens. They do have herds of animals. They usually will have some of a few different animals. The types of animals we saw were yaks, horses, sheep, goats, and even camels. So that means that most of their food is either meat from these animals or dairy products from milking them. And they milked all of them.
We didn’t see them milking camels, but we were offered some camel curds for a snack one day. That tells you something.
- Tsuivan or Jack’s “Meat Noodle” – stewed mutton with onion and cabbage
- Khuushuur – fried meat pie (ours was horse, but it’s usually yak or mutton)
- Ground mutton cottage pie
- Steamed buns called Buuz, not much different than Khuushuur except they are steamed
- airag – fermented horse’s milk (yes, I tried it out on the steppe)
- tea with salt and milk (whatever they have sheep, goat, or yak usually on the steppe)
- Chinggis Vodka – maybe the national alcohol, a must try
What is Khuushuur?
Khuushuur, one of the dumplings the Mongols brought back from China, is a simple dough circle folded in half with a meat filling. Nowadays vegetable fillings can be found, but as there are not many vegetarians it may still be fried in oil that had meat in it as well, so beware. The meat is typically mutton, because it’s the easiest to get. However, they will make it with whatever meat is on hand. When we tried it, they were using horse. According to Jack, horse was his favorite meat.
A Mongolian street food, this fried dumpling resembles an empanada or Cornish pasty, and it is filled with a meat mixture and deep fried.
- 3 cups flour
- 2 cups water (more than enough really)
- 1/2 pound of ground beef (can use lamb or mutton, but you need to add fat if you do)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Prepare simple dough by combining flour and water. Only use enough water to bind. Let sit a few minutes (10-15).
- Prepare meat mixture by combining the rest of the ingredients. Let sit while you cut and roll out the dough.
- Roll out dough until very thin, less than 1/4 inch, if possible. Take a saucer, and cut rounds from dough.
- On one half, place meat mixture. Make sure it will have room to close and crimp edges.
- Deep fry in hot vegetable oil for about 10 minutes, until they are golden brown.
Mongolia may not be known as a foodie destination, but they do have a few traditional dishes that are well worth trying. We loved the Khuushuur and buuz dumplings.