Mongolian tour guide

Traditional Mongolian food and drinks

Mongolian food has changed in many ways since the MONGOL EMPIRE, but mutton and traditional dairy products remain at the heart of it. Food in Mongolia is traditionally divided into “white foods” (tsagaan idee), or DAIRY PRODUCTS, and “red foods” (Ulaan idee), or meat. White foods are the staple of the summer and red foods of the winter.

This division, however, takes account only of the most honoured foods and leaves out several important categories of food: various forms of grain, which even for a pure nomad supply much of the caloric intake, game, wild vegetables and herbs, wild fruits and berries, and salts for seasoning. Mongolian animals are slaughtered in a distinctive style.

The animal is thrown on its back, and its legs are held or, with powerful animals like the horse, tied. The butcher cuts a hole below the breast bone and suddenly reaches in and rips open the aorta, causing a catastrophic internal haemorrhage.

This slaughtering is aimed at keeping all the blood in the body, exactly the opposite aim of Jewish and Muslim slaughtering. The blood is scooped out after the organs are removed and used for sausages. Attempts to impose this slaughtering style in Muslim lands caused conflict in the empire period.

The Mongols were also notorious in the empire and later for eating animals that had died naturally or had been killed by wild animals.


Travellers to Mongolia in the 13th century observed that the Mongols lived primarily on KOUMISS, or fermented mare’s milk, during the summer and on mutton during the winter. Observers also noticed the importance of wild meat in the Mongolian diet. Animals hunted included rabbit, deer, wild boar, ibex, gazelle, and the kulan, or wild ass.

Muslim and Christian observers were particularly disgusted by the Mongols’ liking for wild rodents, such as hamsters, ground squirrels, and especially marmots. Large fish was also taken in the winter by ice fishing.

For essential occasions, meat was prepared by roasting on a spit with salt as the only seasoning. For daily meals, bones and meat were boiled together with seeds, grains, and wild onions and grasses to make a thick soup (shöl).

While the Mongols rarely slaughtered animals during the summer, they were always careful to preserve the flesh of animals that died naturally (again to the disgust of Christian and Muslim observers). This they did by cutting the meat into strips and drying them in the sun and wind.

This process, still common today, produces borts (jerky), which can be kept for several seasons. The intestines of horses would be made into sausages and eaten fresh. During the winter, sheep were the only domestic animal frequently slaughtered. Horses were slaughtered only on ritual occasions when a great feast was made.

Millet was also eaten boiled in gruel at least twice a day in winter. The millet was sometimes grown on the MONGOLIAN PLATEAU, sometimes received in tribute by noble-born Mongols, and sometimes bought by well-off commoners by selling sheep and skins to Uighur and Chinese peddlers.

Descriptions of mealtime etiquette exist only for roasted meat eaten among men of consequence. The meat was cut up into small pieces, and the order of eating was determined by the host. Pieces were served to the guests skewered on prongs.

Those in charge of cutting and presenting the food were the ba’urchis (stewards), belonging to the keshig, or imperial guards, and had a high position. It is likely that, as is reported of the Turks, different clans were assigned different parts of meat according to their prestige and that part of the ba’urchi’s role was to know these hierarchies.

Food was eaten with the fingers, and hands were wiped on clothes or grass. During the early empire, the most common imported foodstuff was liquor, both Chinese rice wine and Turkestani grape wine.

CHINGGIS KHAN first saw grape wine when it was presented to him in 1204 in tribute by a Mongol tribe envoy and disapproved, as the liquor was dangerously strong. Certainly, drunkenness was frequent at Mongol gatherings. Singing and a kind of teasing dance accompanied the drinking of liquor, which proceeded according to a complex ritual of offering and counteroffering.

At the court of the Mongol rulers in China, as seen in the Yinshan zhengyao (1330), a cookbook by the Uighur Hu Sihui (Qusqi), Turkestani and Middle Eastern influence on Mongolian food was very strong.

Noodles became a major part of the diet and Mongolian soups were enlivened with spices such as cardamom and Middle Eastern ingredients such as chickpeas and fenugreek seeds. The khans enjoyed genuine Turkish or Middle Eastern dishes such as sherbet, the pastries börek and güllach (an early version of baklava), and the bread yufka.


After the breakup of the Mongol Empire, much Mongolian food remained the same. A Chinese frontier official in 1594 described the continued dominance of mutton and the near-absence of beef, the preparation of thick meat stews, and the brewing of fermented milk liquors. Fried millet, flour, and noodles were prepared and mixed with meat stews or with milk.

Both meat and flour stew (bantang) and noodles with meat chunks (goimon) are still common everyday dishes. The KALMYKS on the Volga bought rye flour from Russian farmers and made a rye porridge (budan). Several changes were already in progress, however.

Hunting was declining as a source of meat. TEA entered Mongolia together with the conversion to Buddhism from 1578 on; tea was already an absolutely indispensable part of Tibetan Buddhist monastic life and soon spread to the laity as well.

Mongolian tea was made with milk, salt, and butter. Millet and meat were frequently added to it to make it a kind of thick soup. Wooden and, for the rich, silver bowls were used for tea, and spoons also came into use.

During the QING DYNASTY (1636–1912) these changes amplified. The large group hunts became rare, and the game became only a small part of the diet. Fishing was abandoned under Buddhist influence.

Cane sugar and rice imported from China became more common; a special dish for the days leading up to the WHITE MONTH (lunar new year) was millet or rice suspended in melted butter and served with sugar on top. Bortsog, or bread fried in animal fat, also became an important part of the meal.

Among the UPPER MONGOLS of Kökenuur and those in western Mongolia, zambaa (from Tibetan rtsam-pa), or parched barley flour, usually moistened with tea and dairy products and rolled into balls, began to be eaten. Serving styles also changed. Rather than pieces served with a skewer, festive meals were dominated by a metal plate piled with food, which was presented to visitors to take what they wanted.

A hospitality plate still regularly kept by every rural family and many urban ones, consisted of layers of bortsog, moulded dried curd (süün khuruud), Chinese moon cakes (yeewen, from Chinese yuebing), öröm, candies, sugar cubes, and so on.

Whole boiled mutton for ceremonial occasions, or shüüs, was arranged on a plate with the four legs sticking out, the fatty tail covering the rear and the boiled head on top, often with a piece of süün khurud crowning the head.

The more respectable Mongols adopted a combination of chopsticks and a knife, both carried in a wooden sheath and hung on the sash. Eating with the fingers and knife was still common, however.

The Mongols during this time adopted a variety of Chinese-style dumplings and steamed buns. These included mantuu (from Chinese mantou), a fluffy steamed and leavened bun, bänshi (from Chinese bianshi, simple skin and boiled in soup, khuushuur (from huxianr, today xianrbing), a flattened patty stuffed with meat, vegetables, and salt and fried on a griddle, and especially BUUZ (from baozi).

Another form of food adopted from China was round griddle cakes made with leavened dough and fried (bin, from Chinese bing, pancake) or roasted (gambir, from Chinese ganbing, dry pancake). Roasted meat became almost unknown except in certain districts such as Alashan.

Apart from boiling in a wok, another cooking method is to use hot stones for cooking an animal in its skin. This method is used for both marmots (tarwagany boodog) and sheep and goats (khorkhog). In the latter case, water is also added to make a broth.


In the 20th century, European and Chinese cuisine exercised a powerful influence on Mongolian food. In both areas, cheap distilled liquors with alcohol contents ranging from 45 per cent (Mongolian vodka) to 60 per cent (Chinese baijiu) have become the main liquor, far outstripping native milk liquors.

In Mongolia, since the 1930s the state-owned hotels and restaurants have served a completely European fare. Chopsticks are no longer used, having been replaced by a varying combination of European utensils and the traditional knife and hands.

Fried millet also disappeared from independent Mongolia’s traditional cooking in the 1930s with the breakoff of economic relations with China.

Beef has become a major part of the Mongolian diet, although still less consumed than mutton and goat’s meat. Bread, once unknown, is now served with every meal among urban Mongolians, yet the Mongolian palate remains in many ways quite traditional, tending to a combination of fatty (dairy and animal) and salty or sweet and strongly averse to hot spices.

Even today, 88 per cent of the Mongolians’ consumed fat is of animal or dairy origin, the highest percentage in the world, yet cholesterol levels remain relatively low. Vegetables include cabbage, onions, potatoes, carrots, and radishes. The main seasoning is black pepper, although Chinese spices are again being used since 1990.

Fruits include apples, watermelons, and imported oranges and tangerines. Urban families buy wild chatsargana, or sea buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides), and pine nuts (Pinus sibirica) in season; chatsargana is made into juice.

Milk tea, noodle soups, flour stew (bantan), fat-fried breads (bortsog), griddle cakes (bin, gambir), and fried noodles are standard fare in both urban and rural areas.

Urban families still try to secure a full shüüs for the White Month, while sausage and onion slices, potato salad, and heaps of buuz, washed down with vodka, are served for guests and special occasions.

Rural families still produce the full range of milk products; of these aaruul (a kind of wormlike sweetened hard cheese) and shimiin arkhi (fermented milk liquor) are also sold in packaged format, while zöökhii (cream), tsötsgii (sour cream), yoghurt (tarag), and fermented mare’s milk (koumiss) are mostly sold unpackaged and seasonally.

Unhomogenized milk and European-style butter, called maasal from Russian maslo, is also regularly available commercially.

Pork and fish remain relatively unfamiliar foods. In Inner Mongolia restaurants and hotels generally serve Chinese fare, and most Mongols are now familiar with highly spiced food.

Noodles, buns, and dumplings are made in ways very close to the Chinese, but milk tea, fried millet, traditional dairy products received from relatives in the countryside and the higher percentage of meat differentiate the urban Mongol diet from that of their ethnic Chinese neighbours.

In eastern Inner, Mongolia pork is now common, and melted pork fat sometimes replaces butter in traditional dishes.

Source: Encyclopedia of mongolia and the mongol empire, Christopher P. Atwood, Indiana University, Bloomington

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