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Cheap Eats:
Huushuur
  Mongolian Fried Meat-Filled Pastries

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 teeth).

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 "barbarians."

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

Dough:
2¼ cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
water to mix

Filling:
1 lb. chopped or ground beef or mutton (see Notes below)
1½ tsp. salt
1/4 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. Makes 8 pastries (for Mongolians, a little more than one serving, but for most of us, 4 servings.)


Notes:

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 the explosive.

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 them.

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