29 October 2015

Food Of The Nomads - Tsagaan Idee - Mongolian Dairy Products

Mongolia. Under the Mongols in the 12th and 13th centuries it was (and is still considered to be) the largest contiguous land empire in history. In the 21st century,  it remains one of the  largest areas of contiguous common grazing land in the world, with approximately 73% of its landmass classified as grassland (World Bank 2013).

(Cue some images of ger and grasslands.)

That's why (as well as the arid/semi-arid climate with roughly only 100 frost free growing days out on the steppe) the raising and herding of livestock remains the predominant use of the land. If you have approximately 56 million head of livestock you can see why the herders of Mongolia sustain their lives primarily with the products of their domestic livestock (that will be meat and milk then!). 

These simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods with traditional dairy products remaining hugely important.  In the short warm summer season, a variety of dairy products are produced in great abundance (obviously!) and along with meat remain one of the main foods for herding families in the long, cold autumn-winter-spring period (October–May). 

Tsagaan Idee - Dairy Products

All Mongolian dairy products are known as Tsagaan Idee -  White Food. 

Just what are some of the milk products  produced by herders out in the wilds of the Mongolian steppe? There are regional varieties but milk products can be broadly classified as fat or protein based or fermented and range from from sun-dried curds known as aaruul to the infamous airag - the fermented mare's milk. When the quantity of milk or by-products is too small to process, it is accumulated over a number of days, allowed to sour naturally and then processed. 

As travellers to Mongolia will tell you, many are unique! Here are a few of my favourites...


One of the best dairy products out there. Ever. No contest. Basically, this is when milk is boiled to separate the cream. Yak milk (or camel milk if you're in the Gobi) is considered best because of the high fat content. It is at its most delicious with jam (short on jam?...just add a sprinkling of sugar) on a thick slice of fresh bread. YUM! 


If orum is one of the best dairy products out there then khailmag is the best (if you're reading this Ross then I can see you nodding your head in agreement). What is it? I It's basically caramelized clotted cream.  The cream is heated in a pan and sugar and flour (and sometimes raisins) are combined into the mix (once any liquid fat has been scooped away).  Simply the best ingredient for an afternoon tea. 

Suutei Tsai

Taking Mongolian tea is a time-honoured tradition - at the root of all nomadic hospitality.  The sharing of tea provides nourishment, creates comfort, and puts all at ease  - the custom of serving tea to guests is nearly as old as the history of nomads on the steppe - a vital part of the tradition of Mongolia. Tea is frequently served with boortsog - home made biscuits cooked on the ger stove. The everyday beverage is salted milk tea (Suutei Tsai), which may be  turned into a robust soup by adding rice, meat, or dumplings (bansh). 


The most prominent national beverage is airag, fermented mare's milk (with the mare's milk being pummelled to aid fermentation).
Airag is a meal in one or even a meal replacement as herders will frequently drink airag rather than eating. The chemistry of airag (apart from the sugars) does not change during fermentation. It is said to stimulate the metabolism and has an alcoholic content of approximately 1.5-2.3 %.

Shimiin Arkhi

As described by one of our 2015 guests, it smells like yak. Shimiin arkhi  is the traditional vodka of Mongolia and you'll be surprised how many herding families own their own still! It's made by heating milk, yeast and yoghurt culture then using an open vat on top of a large cooking pot and over heat with a second pot acting as a lid but holding cold water. When heated, this will create condensation which will drip down to the collecting bowl in the centre. This distillation process produces 'milk vodka' and the alcohol content can be between 10 to 20%. 

Naturally, the Mongolian diet includes a large proportion of animal fat which is necessary to withstand the cold winters where temperatures are as low as -40  and to provide sufficient energy reserves for the outdoor work of a herder. However, if you're vegetarian or worried about you cholesterol levels why not try the wild berries that are best served with yoghurt (even better mixed together with sugar for a wild berry smoothie), or the sweet tasting watermelons, cucumbers or tomatoes home grown in the southern Gobi or even the smoked Khovsgol lake fish. 

Whatever you choose to eat on your trip to Mongolia, be sure to try some of Mongolia's infamous vodka (usually made with wheat / barley). Toast your travelling companions, toast your Mongolian team and make sure to toast the spectacular country that is Mongolia. Toktoi!

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