Mongolia is not known to be a culinary capital of the world. Spoiler Alert – BD’s Mongolian BBQ chain restaurant in the States is NOT real Mongolian food. Ironically, there is one in Ulaanbaatar right above a bar named Detroit.
Our expectations of what we would eat were extremely low. We figured we’d be eating mutton and fermented mare’s milk for three weeks and we weren’t super excited about it.
But it’d be worth it to see the natural beauty of the country, right? Well, we were very pleasantly surprised that we enjoyed pretty much all of the food we ate, with a few exceptions.
Another surprise was the portion sizes here – they are American-sized and sometimes even super-sized! It’s impolite not to finish what you are served by a Mongolian, so we definitely challenged our stomachs to expand to fit all the food.
An intricacy we learned about eating in a ger is that once you do finish, they will ask if you want seconds and if you say “just a little bit” they will likely give you another full bowl unless you are really specific with how much you want. We were told this behavior goes way back in time when nomads would travel far distances because they would get tired of filling up a bowl/plate with “a little bit” multiple times – they’d rather take care of it in one swoop!
The Mongolian diet consists mostly of meat, dairy products, root vegetables, and starches. Thankfully we aren’t vegetarian, gluten-free, or have other dietary restrictions because I do think that would make it quite difficult to find something to eat, especially out in the countryside.
So what did we end up eating?
Our favorite Mongolian food was dumplings filled with meat called buuz. We even learned out to fold the dough into dumplings while staying with the nomadic families. They sometimes eat smaller versions of the dumplings in soups and one time we had it in a soup where the broth was a hot milk, which was very tasty (I know that doesn’t sound tasty, but it was).
Mongolians really know how to do soups right. They typically make noodles from scratch, but surprisingly use a lot of pastas or packaged noodles too. They usually mix in veggies and meat. To be honest we were not sure what most of the meat we were served was, which was probably for the best. They usually chop it up into small pieces, so it sort of mixes in with the rest of the flavors. Ignorance is bliss sometimes!
I helped make this one night at a nomadic family’s ger. After rolling out the dough, you add some melted butter, fold both sides in together to form a long flat bar, then twist it tight, wrap it into a ball, then smush it on both sides. They rolled out the dough again into a circle and made a hole in the center before frying it in the hearth. It was delicious, especially dipped in the soup we made that night!
This was almost a miss because we tried it once in the Gobi and didn’t like it, but we had it again in Northern Mongolia because it’s customary to drink this when entering a ger (it’s also served in all Mongolian restaurants). We found that milk tea using yak milk was much more enjoyable than what we first had (not sure what animal it was from), but the drink really grew on us.
It’s made with hot milk that tea leaves are added too. The tea leaves are filtered out of the milk before serving. All Mongolians have essentially a big thermos to serve it in and keep it warm throughout the day.
Yes, this probably doesn’t sound appealing and we were nervous to try it at first, but it was SO good. We slathered this on our bread every morning along with sugar or jam while staying with the nomadic families. The real deal puts our packaged butter to shame!
The families we stayed with made their own vodka using a large cylinder placed over the hearth that contains a bowl of fermented yak yogurt. The top was covered with another bowl that they placed cool water in. They hung a pot on the inside of the cylinder that would catch the condensation coming from the milk. Voila – vodka is made! It was real smooth and reminded us a bit of sake since we had it warm. It had varying strengths depending on how long they left the pot in there for. It was quite a treat.
However, they served us the bi-product of the boiled yogurt and that was a definite miss, even after I snuck in some sugar. It was just way too sour and chunky for us to drink!
Meat & Eggs
This was our go-to meal to order in a Mongolian restaurant if buuz is not served. It consisted of beef (or so we thought), cooked veggies (generally peppers and onions), and covered with scrambled eggs. It came with rice and sometimes carrots on the side. At fancier places it’s served on a cow-shaped skillet that rested on a wood board. Another variation of this was served with french fries instead of eggs that Jan ordered once and was pleased by. We got our Gobi guide to write down some dishes in Mongolian, which definitely saved us at several restaurants where they didn’t have an English menu!
For me, yak was a miss, however, Jan enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I came down with a cold while in Northern Mongolia and the worst day of the cold I woke up from a nap, couldn’t breath through my nose and I went into the ger for lunch hoping for soup and I look down at the table and there’s a big plastic container filled with yak meat. It was a little too Andrew Zimmern for me in my sick state once she started pointing out the different parts. Sadly, I couldn’t pawn it off on Jan because he wasn’t back from herding the sheep and goats (a whole different story!). It’s impolite to not eat your whole meal, but this was the first time I really couldn’t do it. At least I could blame my illness on not being able to eat my whole plate, so I think it was ok!
The next day the guts of the yak were offered up to a wider audience and they went to town on the contents of that plastic bowl all at the same time with knives cutting away at all the bits and pieces. It was quite a sight to see. It shows how much of a community the nomads are at sharing their wealth with each other, even people they had no relation to whatsoever.
Mare’s (Horse’s) Milk
We had this once on our first day in the Gobi and it was way too sour for our tastes. Thankfully we weren’t offered it again!
Dried Curds (Aaruul)
While we were with the nomadic families they made these dried curds every day in preparation for winter. Mongolians eat this in winter. They are made from yak’s milk (they milk the yaks every morning and night). They ferment the milk, put it in a cheesecloth, then dry it outside between two boards to make it flat. It is incredibly hard, so you can’t bite it (your teeth would lose that battle!), instead you suck on it. We tried it, but it was bland and a strange texture to us…it’s probably an acquired taste!
We occasionally encountered pieces of fat in our soups or noodles. We could handle small pieces of fat, but really couldn’t down a big chunk of it.
Pizza is becoming really popular to eat, especially in Ulaanbaatar. But unfortunately when you order a pizza here you’re probably not going to get tomato sauce on it!
This is the land of the lager beer and it really was nothing to write home about. We tried multiple Mongolian beers and they all more or less tasted exactly the same. We tried a few different bars and their imports generally consisted only of beers like Heineken and Budweiser – womp womp! We found that dark beers are a better bet here, but maybe you’re better off sticking to vodka!