Mongolia’s meaty cuisine – from marmot to mutton

| January 5, 2014 | 0 Comments


Margaret Dickenson’s Mongolian beef strips

Margaret Dickenson’s Mongolian beef strips

Mongolia is a landlocked country in northern Asia, sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south. With a population of fewer than three million people, it is known for its severe continental climate and historic nomadic way of life.
On a global level, Mongolian cuisine is rather obscure. For centuries, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, yaks and camels have been herded by the nomads and have featured strongly in the traditional Mongolian diet.
Mongolian cuisine is characterized by simplicity, consisting primarily of meat and dairy products with only limited use of a small variety of other ingredients due to the harsh weather. Dash Lkhundev, wife of Mongolian Ambassador Zalaa Uul Tundevdorj, explains that “meat is not eaten in the summer, but rather in the winter; dairy products are consumed in the summer.” Large amounts of animal fat in the Mongolian diet add extra flavour to dishes, and are  essential in furnishing sufficient body fuel to withstand the fiercely harsh, cold winter and demands of manual outdoor labour. Temperatures as low as -40°C (-40°F) are not uncommon.
Mutton is particularly popular, especially in the countryside where it is often cooked simply, on its own. Fêted as the national dish of Mongolia, mutton is usually boiled, stewed, grilled, stuffed with other ingredients, floured and fried in oil or combined with noodles. Mongolians  enjoy horsemeat, which is believed to offer protection against the cold of winter, as well as roasted marmot (groundhog), which the locals call marmot boodog. Marmot-hunting and games designed to capture the animals, boast a long history as a traditional nomadic pastime. The goal is to catch or kill the animal without piercing the skin, allowing it to be cooked from the inside by stuffing hot stones into the cavity of the animal. Steam generated internally results in the puffing of the roasting animal’s body and limbs. A blow torch effectively singes off the fur. Roasted marmot is very tender and, in the opinion of foreigners, tastes much like wild duck. This technique is also a favourite way of cooking deboned goat, a traditional national dish prepared for festive occasions.
Stone or rock cooking has continued through the centuries. Another national dish, known as hordog, involves placing hot stones in a hermetically sealed metal can or bowl along with pieces of meat (and at times vegetables). Understandably, hordog remains popular today with campers and those enjoying the great outdoors. With both stone-cooking techniques, the amount of heat generated must be carefully balanced to prevent an explosion. Once the cooking is completed, the stones are removed and distributed to diners. Rolled between palms or held between fingers, the stone emits animal grease (from the cooked meat) as well as heat. This procedure is believed to dispel fatigue and increase stamina. Dash
Lkhundev explains: “It transmits a spiritual healing power for balance and strength.”
It seems Mongolians have forever been drying the meat (known as brots) of cattle, goats and camels for use in the winter.
Besides meat and animal fat, dairy products play an important role in Mongolia’s food culture. Mongolians employ amazingly creative ways to make the best use of milk from all five of their domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goats, horses and camels).
Horse and yak milk are important beverages. Generally speaking, Mongolians prefer sour milk to fresh and believe it cleanses their stomachs. They heat milk to separate out the high-fat cream (orom, clotted cream) and the remaining skim milk is then processed into cheese (byaslag), dried curds (aaruul) and yogurt. Mutton-based dishes are frequently served with curds, which have been sun-baked in the summer and vary from soft to hard, mild to strong. Curds play an important role in the Mongolian diet during the long winter.
Dried cheese (eetsgii), plus a variety of other dairy products such as sour yogurt (taraq), butter and creative beverages, figure in Mongolia’s food culture. Two milk-based alcoholic drinks include a mildly alcoholic, fermented mare’s milk (airag), regarded as the most prominent national beverage, and a home-brewed, rather powerful vodka (nermalike), which is extracted from yogurt.
Among non-alcoholic drinks, suutei tsai ranks No. 1. Mongolians consume this salted tea preparation of hot water, butter, rice, generous amounts of salt, yak’s milk and tea before and after meals to aid with digestion. By adding meat, boiled dumplings (bansh) or more rice, suutei tsai becomes a robust soup.
Although Mongolians have traditionally relied on a high-protein and fat-rich meat and dairy products diet, they also consume cereals and rice, as well as wild onions, garlic, mushrooms, fruits and plants native to the country.
Barley, a popular cereal, is malted; its flour makes a famous fried dessert resembling a doughnut (boortsag) which can be eaten on its own or with butter, jam or cheese. Retaining its quality for several weeks, the product substitutes for bread when the need arises. Barley appears in a type of porridge, or mixed in milk, it becomes a tea.
Meat-filled dumplings, the most popular snacks, require premium wheat flour to make a simple dough consisting of flour, a pinch of salt and lukewarm water. Only the dough of mantuun buuz uses yeast so the dumpling rises during steaming. The different types of dumplings all have a meat filling, but the names vary according to the dumpling’s shape and cooking technique: khuushuur (canoe-shaped, deep fried in bouillon fat remaining from cooking meat), buuz (canoe-, flower- or star-shaped, steamed), mantuum buuz (similar to buuz, but with yeast in the dough and has a round shape), bansh (boiled in hot water). Bansh is not only served as a side dish, but also in a bouillon or hot milk tea.
Some regional dishes combine rice and noodles to make various stews (tsuivan and budaatai huurga) or noodle soups (gureltai shol and pjartan). Both soups include meat, but for the former, the dough of the noodles is cut into strips and for the latter, it is cut into rectangles or torn into pieces. Bantan is a simple creamy-textured Mongolian soup made of dough crumbs and meat. In addition to being a nutritious dish for children and seniors, it reportedly serves as an effective remedy for hangovers.
In terms of cooking methods, ages ago, Mongolian warriors fried their meats on their shields placed over a fire. However, since that period, cooking techniques have remained basic — boiling, steaming, cooking under pressure or grilling (often on skewers). And let’s be clear, the Mongolian barbecue, which restaurants offer with stir-fried beef and vegetables cooked on large heated steel or stone plates in front of diners, bears more resemblance to the cooking method inspired by Japanese teriyaki than anything Mongolian. The true Mongolian grill appears to have originated during the Genghis Khan era in the 13th Century. Warriors would sit around a grill and cook their own individual ginger-soy dipped pieces of thinly sliced beef. Sometimes the grilled meat was eaten with scallions, mushrooms and plain bread.
On the other hand, the Mongolian hot pot or firepot is a type of Chinese fondue. Diners cook slices of meat (lamb, beef, poultry), fish and vegetables in a communal pot of boiling broth, after which the broth is consumed.
No doubt, Mongolian cuisine has been influenced by the country’s proximity to China, Russia and Central Asia as well as its nomadic culture. Since the late 1990s, the variety and quality of imported food has increased substantially as “western-style” Chinese supermarkets (selling frozen foreign chicken, fresh fruit and vegetables, canned goods, biscuits and confectionary of all types) began to vie with already established “Soviet-style” market stalls.
Besides cafés and canteens serving Mongolian food, which is less complex than that of most Asian countries, there are restaurants, tea shops and bakeries specializing in foreign cuisine (Russian, Chinese, Italian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, American). For Mongolians dining in such restaurants, roasted chicken and fish are popular choices, while fast-food customers enjoy pizza and hot dogs. Gers along roadsides function as simple restaurants offering food prepared in aluminum or cast-iron pots on small stoves fuelled by wood or the dried dung of cattle and horses.
What follows is my simple and tasty version of a traditional Mongolian beef recipe. Bon Appétit!

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (
Mongolian Beef Strips
Makes 4 servings

1 lb (450 g) striploin*, trimmed**
1/4 cup (60 mL) cornstarch
To taste, crushed black peppercorns
3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil

1 tbsp (15 mL) minced fresh garlic
2 tsp (10 mL) peeled and grated fresh
2 tsp (10 mL) vegetable oil
1/4 cup (60 mL) soy sauce
½ cup (125 mL) water
3/4 cup (180 mL) brown sugar

1. Cut beef striploin crosswise into 1/3- inch (0.8 cm) thick slices. Place cornstarch in a plastic bag; add beef and toss to coat strips evenly. Transfer beef strips to a parchment-lined tray and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes to enable the cornstarch to adhere to the meat.

2. Meanwhile, to make the sauce, in a medium-size skillet, sauté garlic and ginger in 2 tsp (10 mL) of vegetable oil at medium-low heat for about 1 minute. Remove skillet from heat to avoid splattering and add soy sauce, water and brown sugar. Return skillet to heat and stir constantly until sugar dissolves and sauce becomes thicker (about 2 to 3 minutes). Remove skillet of sauce from heat.

3. Sprinkle beef strips lightly with crushed black peppercorns before adding to 3 tbsp (43 mL) hot oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear beef for about 1 minute per side so that meat is rare to medium-rare in doneness. (Avoid overcooking, which will toughen the meat.) Transfer beef to a platter.

4. When ready to serve, reheat sauce over medium-low heat before adding seared beef strips. Turning regularly, allow strips to just barely heat through; transfer strips immediately to serving plates/platter. Pass extra sauce at the table.

* For a more economical alterative, use flank steak cut into 1/4 inch (1 mL) thick slices. Before searing, pound each individual cornstarch-coated strip very rigorously with a meat mallet to tenderize the beef. (Note: The strips will resemble thinly sliced bacon.)
** Frequently, there is a thick tough membrane on the side of the steak; remove it.

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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