Eating in Mongolia is pretty straightforward. As our guide stated on
a number of occasions, the Mongolian diet is "meat. We eat meat." It
was certainly something he consumed with relish. But in all fairness,
while this isn't far from the truth, it is a slight oversimplification.
Salads have become common because of long Russian occupation, and
they appear at virtually every meal, including breakfast. They tend
toward beets, carrots, and cabbage. Soup is commonly served at lunch
and dinner, and ranges from Russian borscht to local meat soup with
handmade noodles. Desserts are rare (maybe why they all have great
Dairy products are very important. It seems as if nearly everything
with four feet gets milked: cows, horses, yaks, camels, sheep, goats,
reindeer. The most famous Mongolian beverage is airag, which is
fermented mare's milk. It's actually quite pleasant, tasting a bit like
yogurt with a little beer in it. We also had fermented camel's milk,
which was thicker. Milk tea, which is very popular, is made by heating
milk and tea together, often with the addition of a pinch of salt.
Dried milk (in blocks) and cheese are also produced. Of course, if you
don't have refrigeration, you don't have a lot of other options.
Then there is meat. And there is a lot of meat. Beef and mutton are
the most popular meats. Mutton is particularly important for
celebrations, as we learned during our visit with the nomads. In
addition, it is also possible to find goat, yak, reindeer, or camel on
the menu, depending where you're dining. Meat may be roasted, boiled,
fried, or simply torn into strips and dried.
The traditional way of cooking a sheep is to clean it out, fill it
with hot rocks, close it up, and wait until it's done. This creates
incredibly tender, juicy meat that practically falls off the bones.
When serving the meat, one of the still-warm rocks is put on each
plate, so guests can warm their hands before eating.
Meat-filled dumplings are common, especially during holidays and
festivals. There are basically two kinds. The larger dumplings are buutz,
pronounced boats. They are steamed and are not entirely unlike
Chinese dumplings, except that the Chinese don't like beef or mutton,
which is what you'll normally find in buutz, along with a good bit of
garlic. The smaller dumplings are bansch. They can be steamed,
fried, or boiled in soup.
An interesting note about Mongolia's dumplings is that it is likely
that the reason dumplings are enjoyed pretty much from Korea across
Russia and into Eastern Europe is that this represents the extent of
Mongolia's empire, and the world as a whole has never missed the
opportunity to pick up a new food form, even from invading
Our introduction to the fried pastry called huushuur was during
a picnic in the Gobi. We also had huushuur in restaurants and during
Naadam, where they were prepared by vendors in open-air stalls.
Huushuur can be eaten out of hand, as a hearty snack, or it can be
turned into a meal by adding a salad (we frequently encountered carrot
and garlic salad: grate a carrot or two, grate in garlic to taste, add
a little mayonnaise to bind it and a dash of salt; or you could toss
shredded cabbage with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper) and a pot of tea
or Mongolian beer (would you believe Khan Brau?). Huushuur is good hot,
but is also excellent at room temperature.
Huushuur (Mongolian Fried Meat-Filled Pastries)
2¼ cups flour
¼ tsp salt
water to mix
1 lb. chopped or ground beef or mutton (see Notes below)
1½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. marjoram
½ onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
oil for cooking
Combine flour and salt. Add water (I found I
needed a little more than 1 cup, but this can vary depending on the
flour and the humidity; add half a cup and then continue to add water a
little at a time), mixing it in thoroughly, until you have a rough, dry
dough, about the texture of that for pie crust. If you add too much
water, you can always add a little more flour. Knead until dough is
smooth and elastic. Cover and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Combine all filling ingredients, mixing thoroughly. If dry, add a few
drops of water to moisten.
Divide the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into a cylinder and
cut it in half. Roll each half cylinder into a circle about 5-6 inches
across. Place about 2 to 2½ Tbs. of meat mixture on one side of
the circle, leaving space around the edge. Fold the other side over,
creating a half-moon, and pinch the edges closed, squeezing out air and
flattening filling as you work. (As for the pinched edges, I saw
huushuur with edges that ranged from elaborately "braided" closures to
closures that were simply mashed shut and rolled under, so no seam was
visible. Every cook has a different way of finishing this dish.) Repeat
the process with the rest of the filling and dough pieces.
Pour oil to depth of about ½ inch into a frying pan. Heat oil
until hot (test it after a minute or two with a tiny bit of
dough—unless you have a thermometer, there is no visible way of
telling if oil is hot unless something is in it, sizzling). Fry two or
three pastries at a time for two minutes per side, until they are
golden to brown and the meat is cooked. Can be eaten hot or cold.
8 pastries (for Mongolians, a little more than one serving, but for
most of us, 4 servings.)
Do not trim the fat from your meat before preparing
the filling, and don't buy low-fat ground meat. The fat is needed both
to keep the filling moist and to help cook the inside of the pastry
while it's frying.
Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is not
your best choice for frying. It burns too easily. It is wise to select
a different vegetable oil, if possible.
Do make sure you seal the "pockets" well. If meat
juice leaks out while it's frying, the spattering of grease borders on
Huushuur can also be prepared with a filling of
mashed potatoes, perhaps with a little grated carrot added for flavor.
However, when we ordered these once, our guide and driver were politely
contemptuous of the idea of huushuur without meat, and refused to eat
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