Khogno Khan — Kharkhorum — Tsetserleg — Great White Lake — Mongolia 2014 Travel Journal
“Just as God gave different fingers to the hand so he has given different ways to men” — A Mongolian proverb
The Mongolian diet consists of mostly meat. Mongolians are not shy of enjoying its fat as well, a necessity to withstand the harsh cold winter. Almost everything has meat in it, you think you order pancakes only to discover a broiled mutton in it. Heaven for meat lovers. Not exactly my thing but no complaints.
Milk is plentiful from varied sources: horses, camels, yaks, goats, cows and sheep, they taste slightly different. The milk is stored in leather sacks to ferment, which produces about 3–5% alcohol.
Two of the most popular restaurant menu options are Buuz and Khuuuushuur. Buuz are steamed dumplings filled with mutton and sometimes slivers of onion or garlic. Khuuuushuur are fried mutton pancakes. Miniature Buuz, known as Bansh, are usually dunked in milk tea.
In a Ger in the countryside, traditional meals such as boiled mutton (Makh) do not require silverware or even plates; just trawl around the bucket of bones until a slab catches your fancy. Eat with your fingers and try to nibble off as much meat and fat as possible. Mongolians can pick a bone clean and consider leftovers to be wasteful. There’ll be a buck knife to slice off larger chunks.
Meals are occasionally interrupted by a round of vodka. Before taking a swig, there’s a short ritual to honor the sky gods and the four cardinal directions. There is no one way of doing this, but it usually involves dipping your left ring finger into the vodka and flicking into the air four times before wiping your finger across your forehead. This tradition began centuries ago. Its original motive was to determine whether the vodka was poisoned — namely, if the silver ring on your finger changed color after being submerged, it was probably best not to drink it!
Is the Mongolian diet a plant-based diet and is it healthy?
The general culinary attitude of Mongolia’s barren steppes has always emphasized survival over taste. Mongolian food is therefore hearty if somewhat bland. The classic Mongolian dinner staple is referred to simply as ‘Makh’ (meat) and consists of boiled mutton bones, fat, various organs, and the head with some potatoes. The traditional diet of Mongolia’s nomads is meat in the winter and meat and dairy products in the summer. The introduction of wheat, rice and potatoes from conquered nations and trading partners has added some variety, but as the climate is harsh and farms and nomads go together like water and oil, many rural Mongols continue to subsist on a diet consisting almost entirely of animal protein and fat.
The meat is 100% ‘Organic.’ Animals are grass-fed, no one “feeds” them, they eat when they are hungry and virtually no antibiotics or hormones are used. With little industry outside the capital, the air, water and earth are clean, and there is little doubt that these are some of the most natural animal proteins currently available to mankind.
The question remains, does that make it healthy?
I recently became vegan; I was strongly influenced by documentary movies such as ‘Forks Over Knives’ and ‘What the Health.’ These movies present a strong case that most “Western” illnesses, i.e. cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, are caused by the consumption of animal products and processed foods. The film’s solution is; if we want to live healthy lives we must switch to a plant-based diet, a carefully chosen euphemism for veganism.
As I contemplate the merits of a plant-based diet, Jargaa our host lady hands me a wet rag to wipe the animal fat from my fingers, Mongols often eat with their bare hands. I wash my meal down with some Airag or fermented mare’s milk, a sour Mongolian beer-like beverage clocking in at around 2%-3% alcohol. Yes, in Mongolia even the booze is derived from beasts.
The Mongols have been eating this way since recorded history and it turns out that their present-day average lifespan is 68.8 years. While this is certainly shorter than America’s 79.3 years or Japan’s record of 83.7, Mongolia is still a developing country with a GDP per capita of less than 1/10 of the US, and a very poor healthcare infrastructure. Furthermore, the environment is extremely harsh and alcoholism and smoking rates are high among both men and women. All things considered; 68.8 years seems surprisingly good.
In fact, if you compare Mongolia to Laos, also a developing landlocked Asian country, but with a rice-based diet and significantly higher vegetable consumption per capita, both Mongolian men and women live longer, average life expectancy in Laos is 65.7. While crude as formal science, this simple analysis raises a red flag. More information is available on this site.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of mutton and I am planning to stick with my version of a predominantly plant-based diet. However, based on the crude statistics, I wonder if the documentary films and the science they rely upon should have made a distinction between consumption of animal-based foods with the consumption of processed foods.
A Meeting with Tal
I had an interesting encounter today with an Israeli man, named Tal. He is planning to buy a two horses and ride 280m (450km) to Lake Khovsgol. This is an adventure that requires lots of courage.
Where is Arkhangai?
Arkhangai region is something of an oasis in the center of Mongolia’s harsh climatic zones: to the south lies the hot Gobi Desert and to the north lies the frigid Siberian taiga. Arkhangai is right in the middle, a mixed landscape of rugged mountains, peaceful forests and rolling steppe.
What is Kharkhorum?
Kharkhorum is the capital of Ogodei Khan’s empire. Home to the oldest monastery in Mongolia, it is considered its sacred heart.
Abolishing the monasteries’ strong and sometimes corrupt hold on the Mongolian way of life by the communists was welcomed by many since it represented greater equality. Nowadays the monasteries are being rebuilt, but their power is in the religious aspects only.
9th of Av, Tisha b’Av
Today, the 9th of Av, Tisha b’Av, 7 years ago my father passed away, thinking of him, his generation, mine and my son’s. We are not only who we think we are, we are also all things, and all things are us combined, circling and cycling through this thing called life.