Mongolian food is largely shaped by its nomadic culture. Designed to support survival and travel within the semi-arid steppe, local Mongolian food is highly calorific, consisting mainly of dairy and meat. Vegetarians would have a hard time here, as nomadic people move frequently instead of tending to crops.
Mongolian food is less of a gourmet experience, and more about sustenance. But the interesting thing here is that traditional dishes have been served exactly the same way for thousands of years! Let’s take a look at some authentic Mongolian food you have to try.
The famous Mongolian barbecue is known as Khorkhog, and it is a staple across the country. Meat (usually mutton) is put inside a pot together with some water, vegetables and hot rocks, which creates steam that cooks the meat. Invented by nomadic Mongolian tribes, this dish is usually eaten with hands and rarely found in restaurants. They’re best enjoyed in a communal meal in a ger (Mongolian yurt) with a local family!
Khuushuur is a deep fried pastry filled with meat and onions. They are traditionally made with ground mutton, but you can also find modern variations that include beef, peppers and other vegetables (even kimchi!) in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. They are usually eaten as a street food, or as a side dish in restaurants.
The Mongolian version of steamed dumplings, Buuz is filled with meat such as beef or mutton and is characterized by a small opening at the top. Buuz is eaten all year round, but it is most popular during Tsagaan Sar – Mongolia’s new year – where thousands of dumplings are prepared. Traditionally, Buuz is served with fried bread, dipping sauces and salads. It is also recommended to pair them with tea or vodka!
Love cheese? Then you have to try Byaslag, a Mongolian cheese made from yak or cow’s milk. Kefir is used to separate the milk and and curds, and then they are drained, wrapped in a cloth and pressed with wooden boards. When they’re ready, the blocks of cheese are cut into slices and eaten fresh as a snack, or dried and eaten with tea or soup. Byaslag is commonly consumed while travelling, at weddings and festivities, or offered as food to visitors.
Tsuivan is a local noodle dish, made with handmade noodles, mutton and vegetables. Other meat is used as well, such as beef, camel, and even horse meat. This changes according to the season, as well as spice level, which tends to rise as the cold winter sets in. You can find Tsuivan throughout the country, with some Mongolian restaurants in Ulaanbaatar serving theirs with a contemporary twist.
Boodog may be a hard one if you’re sensitive to how animal is slaughtered. It is another example of using hot stones as a cooking method, but instead of putting it into a pot like Khorkhog, they are put into the animal carcass. The dish is usually made with marmot or a young goat. After it is stuffed with hot rocks and spices, it is also cooked from the outside, either on a barbecue or with a blowtorch to burn off the animal’s fur. This dish is the epitome of the nomadic food culture, where cooking tools are not readily available so fire and rocks stand in instead. Boodog is best experienced out on the steppes, where traditional cooking methods remain. Restaurants in Ulaanbaatar will more often serve a more refined take on it.
Bantan is the Mongolian version of comfort food, a porridge-like dish made with dough crumbs and meat cooked in a broth. The dish is well known as a hangover cure, and it’s also what locals would eat if they fall sick. If all the heavy meat and fatty meals are starting to get to you, Bantan is a nice light meal that’s easy on the stomach.
Borts is a Mongolian food consisting of dried meat from cattle. It was invented as a way to preserve meat during the long, hard winters. The meat is first cut into long, thick strips, then hung under the roof of a ger, where the air is free to circulate. After about a month the meat is dry and brownish in color, and can be kept for months or even years! Nowadays, borts is also manufactured in factories. This is convenient for city dwellers who do not have a ger to dry their meat in. However, traditionalists insist that it cannot match up to the taste of the homemade variety.