Mongolia is a landlocked country bordering China and Russia, holding the title of most sparsely populated unitary sovereign state on earth. Flat grassy plains (steppes) cover most of Mongolia, with select mountain ranges bordering the north and west, and a desert to the south, rendering much of the land hostile to productive agriculture. As a result, Mongolia has long held nomadic and fierce people who rely hugely on their horses for transport, warfare and food, consuming a meat and dairy-heavy diet (the famous “red and white” food groups) and ferociously protecting what few resources they have access to. In no era was this ethos more apparent than the 13th century, when Genghis Khan’s relentless campaign swept through Asia, conquering and uniting neighbouring territories and disparate tribal groups, ultimately forming the Mongol Empire, the largest continuous land empire in recorded history. During this time, there are also stories that warriors would sometimes cut a small vein in the neck of their horses to drink the blood during desperately hungry times on the road. Nowadays, the population is predominantly Buddhist, perhaps contributing to the more peaceful pace of modern Mongolian society.
Buuz is a Mongolian dumpling filled with meat, most commonly ground lamb. The filling is simply flavoured with onion, salt and maybe garlic, with some subtle hints of fennel or seasonal herbs mixed through. This mixture is wrapped in a dough made of wheat, closed, then steamed until cooked through. The concept of the dumpling is thought to be borrowed from neighbouring China, as is the origin of the name “buuz”, reflecting the Mandarin word for steamed dumpling “baozi”. The dumplings are enjoyed throughout the year, but are particularly traditional during Tsagaan Saar, literally meaning “white moon”, which is the Mongolian Lunar New Year. At this time of year, Mongolian people perform a number of rituals, including burning candles at an altar, exchanging gifts with friends and families, dressing in the national costumes, and greeting each other by performing the “zolgokh” handshake, which involves grasping by the elbows, and asking “Amar bail uu?”, meaning “are you living peacefully?”. After these traditions, families sit down to eat traditional fare, including sheep’s tail, mutton, rice, curds, and, of course, buuz. Buuz is also eaten on the day before Tsagaan Saar, Bituun, which marks the end of the old year, and involves an extreme clean of the house and farmstead, leaving three ice cubes at the front door because a visit from the god Palden Lhamo is expected by horse, and the trusty steed may need a drink. Bituun is a somewhat more sedate affair than Tsagaan Saar, and involves gathering with close family and settling disputes and debts to start the new year afresh the next day. I think the delicious buuz are indeed the perfect accompaniment to both the difficult discussions and hard cleaning of Bituun and the jubilant festivities of Tsagaan Saar, as well as providing some sort of gastronomic continuity between the two days and therefore the two years, despite all the other upheaval occurring contemporaneously.
Tsuvian is a Mongolian meal of homemade noodles made with flour and water, stir fried together with mixed vegetables (such as carrot, onion, capsicum etc) and meat, usually mutton. The dish’s origins are thought to lie in Chinese noodle stir fries, although over the years tsuivan has morphed into a meal of its own. There is a Mongolian saying that goes “everybody loves tsuivan, regardless of age, sex, religion or social status”, bestowing this dish the honour of the great equaliser in Mongolian society. This concept of levelling societal hierarchy has also been prominent in Mongolian history around burial practices. Genghis Khan, for example, was buried, by his own request, without any markings and without the knowledge of any people regarding its location. Unfortunately this involved the massacre of the entire workforce that contributed to the building of the tomb and the interring of the body. Then, those that killed that workforce also underwent a massacre, just in case. At first I quite liked the humble concept of peace and complete anonymity in death from one of the most renowned people in history, but surely there are less extreme methods than mass murder to demonstrate the equality of all humans under the inevitability of mortality?
One of the first things that might spring to mind about Mongolian cuisine in the Western world is the concept of “Mongolian barbecue”, where meat and vegetables are cooked on huge solid iron griddles in restaurants, often to the delight of watching diners. This spectacular event, however, bears no resemblance to any cooking technique in Mongolia, and actually originated in Taiwan in the 1950s. The technique was originally labelled “Beijing barbecue” by the Chinese creator, but given the rising tensions between Taiwan and China at that time, he renamed it Mongolian barbecue to broaden the political spectrum of potential diners. The real version of Mongolian barbecue is khorkhog, a cooking technique where hot stones and water are placed in a container (such as a metal milk jug) with meat and vegetables. The meat, as seemingly for all Mongolian dishes, is commonly mutton, goat, or, if you’re lucky, lamb. If the searing hot stones aren’t quite enough to cook the contents, it can also be heated from the outside, often over an open fire. Once cooked, it’s traditional for diners to eat the khorkhog with their hands, also directly handling the hot stones to reap their purportedly healthful properties. I found the khorkhog to be wonderfully rustic, with the simple preparation of unspiced meat and unpeeled vegetables allowing the true nature of these ingredients to sing through uninterrupted.
Rice doesn’t grow well in Mongolia, as the climate is too cold and dry, but there has been a long history of importation from China to the south, meaning that it has been well and truly integrated into the cuisine. Meat, commonly mutton, is stir fried with finely chopped vegetables, flavoured simply with onion and garlic, and then combined with leftover rice. I saw some recipes include pieces of scrambled egg, so included it in mine as I love egg, but I’m still not sure quite how authentic it is. There are also recipes that are seasoned only with salt, and others that use chilli, cumin and soy sauce, and again I’m unclear about what a Mongolian granny would have to say about these potential deviations to tradition. Given that this dish is already a new interpretation of a borrowed recipe, I think we can permit a few small alterations?