Mongolians are the masters of creating different dishes with as few ingredients as possible. In fact, I'm sure if you look in the Guinness Book of World Records you would see Mongolia in the top spot for number of dishes created with the fewest number of ingredients (and that number is 2 of course). Now, I have an appreciation for Mongolians and their ability to eat the same thing day in and day out (they're staying true to tradition), but coming from America where I was spoiled with any type of food at any time I wanted it, to put it lightly, I've had to adjust.
There are three main dishes that most Mongolians will cook for you if you visit their homes. The dish that is probably the most popular and cause for the most pride in Mongolians is buuz (pronounced "boats"). Buuz are dumplings that are made by chopping up meat (usually goat or sheep) and wrapping it in a flour and water dough. These are then steamed and eaten.
Now, don't get me wrong, I do enjoy buuz occasionally. However, this summer I lived with a Mongolian host family, and I made the mistake of telling them early on that I liked buuz, and well, being the sweet people they were, they made me buuz almost every single day for lunch. And not just one or two. They shoved a gut-busting amount down my throat every time they made them, and well, to be honest, after a couple weeks of coming home from four hours of Mongolian language class, when it seemed like it was 200 degrees outside and even hotter inside (no air conditioning in gers, if you hadn't already guessed) and sitting down to a steaming hot plate of buuz and a steaming hot cup of milk tea (which is exactly what it sounds like, milk and tea), it wasn't easy to keep that trademark care-free smile on my face.
Note: I would like to say that my host family took amazing care of me, and the truth is, cooking buuz takes a lot of time and work, so really I have nothing to complain about (well, I take that back, I wanted an indoor toilet).
As for the second Mongolian dish, huushuur (pronounced "hosher"), is right up there with buuz in popularity. Huushuur is made (you guessed it) by chopping up meat (usually goat or sheep) and wrapping it in a flour and water dough (sound familiar?). Although instead of steaming huushuur, you fry it, and the other difference from buuz is in the way you form the wrap. I do enjoy huushuur. I mean, I don't really think there's anything you could fry that wouldn't taste good (trust me; I've tried a fried candy bar and although I could hear my heart screaming "I'm going to kill you for this", it was delicious).
The third dish is called tsauvan (pronounced "tsoyvan"). This is made by creating that same flour and water dough and slicing it into noodles and then steaming them. Then the noodles are thrown into a wok where meat and cooking oil are added and it is all stir fried. Tsauvan is a pretty good dish, but I have had some bad experiences with it (and for that matter all of these foods). Food poisoning has seemed to have my number the past six months, and well, as you all know, any food is a lot better going down.
So those are the most popular dishes eaten in Mongolia and along with milk tea I just successfully described a Mongolians entire diet in four paragraphs. However, there is more and these next foods are some of my favorites.
This first one is a food and an experience all in one. It's called a horhuk. (Now the next paragraph may be a little too graphic for some, so I recommend skipping them if you have a weak stomach. Ok, here we go.) A horhuk is the eating of a goat, but before you can eat the goat, it must be slaughtered. As you have probably seen in movies, most people slaughter animals by cutting their throats or knocking them out before they do the deed; not Mongolians though. Because blood is not allowed to touch the sacred ground of Mongolia, animals are slaughtered in the following manner. The animal is flipped onto its back. A man then takes a knife and makes an incision in the chest of the animal. This is where it gets tough to watch. Because of the no blood on the ground policy, said man will stick his hand into the chest of the animal and squeeze its heart until it dies (mind you the animal is awake and screaming the entire time, and it just sounds way too close to a human scream).
Now I know how this may sound, and it is hard to watch, but I like to compare it to the way we obtain our meat. In America we never see the animal, or see it killed, and that can make it so we don't even remember that we are eating an animal, it's just beef or pork, not meat from a cow or pig. Mongolians have to get their hands dirty, and I think having to actually look the animal in the eye while you are killing it makes a person respect that animal and the meat they will eat that much more.
Slaughtering the animal is hard, but eating it isn't (well for most anyways; you decide for yourself). The animal is cut up and all of the meat is then boiled in a giant pot with rocks at the bottom. Now when I say all of the meat, I mean all of the meat, including the innards (lungs, kidneys, heart, etc.). The blood is also saved and the intestines are cleaned and blood sausage is made (and it's actually good).
Once everything is done, the hot rocks from the pot are passed around and tossed back and forth from hand to hand for cleaning and then the meat is served. One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that Mongolians love fat and it is also part of the horhuk (nothing goes to waste). Chunks of animal fat are in all of their foods including buuz and huushuur and tsauvan. My host father this summer was the king of fat eating, tearing off a huge chunk of fat and taking it down (of course only after cutting off too big of a piece for me to share in the chewy, greasy fun; yum).
Of course I'm not done yet. Next we have boiled sheep head which is surprisingly good, except for maybe the tongue, and I will let you imagine how an animal tongue feels in your mouth (hint: not pleasant).
Mongolian yogurt is also a favorite of mine. It is a tart yogurt but when sugar is added, your taste buds tingle with delight (and I should point out that there is a major difference between cow and goat yogurt; I prefer cow and I'm sure you would too).
Another treat Mongolians like to make is called boortsog (pronounced "bortsig"). This is the famed flour and water dough fried all by itself into little finger shaped treats (a Mongolian donut).
I also can't forget about aaruul (pronounced "areol"). This is an interesting dairy treat that is definitely an acquired taste. The best way to describe this is to compare it to a soft chalk-you-can-eat in texture. It can sometimes be jaw-breakingly hard and sometimes mouth-wateringly soft. It can be a little sour or also sweet when sugar is added into the mix. This is one of those treats that none of us Americans liked at the beginning of our adventure, but now when it's around everyone fights over it.
So, Mongolian food. What do I even say? It's a love, hate relationship I have with this stuff. I've never in my life wanted to become a vegetarian so bad, but at the same time, if I walk by a huushuur stand I always have to buy one. The food is good, but it's heavy (meat and fat and cooking oil and salt). Mongolians have been living on this diet for thousands of years though, so their bodies can handle it (mine however, can't).
So, just a warning, if you ever plan on visiting Mongolia and have heart problems due to high cholesterol, I would recommend consulting a doctor or your lawyer to update your will before making the trip. I have no doubt that most everyone reading this article (as long as you like meat) would love Mongolian food, but like everything in life (including fried candy bars), moderation is key.