To 19th century Europeans, Central Asia represented vast tracts of unknown lands populated largely by the nomadic peoples of Mongolia, Turkestan and Tibet. Even as late as the mid-century, of the very few accounts available to Europeans of travels in this Terra Incognita, Marco Polo’s 13th century adventures along the Silk Road and friendly visit with Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, remained the most informative.
Isolated contemporary forays into the region by Christian missionaries produced largely inaccurate or incomplete information, although perhaps the most interesting of these was written by Evariste Huc, a French Lazarist missionary of the Roman Catholic Church who was sent with his brother missionary, Joseph Gabet, to evangelize the Mongols in 1844. Abbé Huc wrote a lively, colorful and picaresque account of the two years of their travels which was translated into several languages and became immediately popular, although many of his readers assumed his nearly incredible adventures to be at least semi-fictional.
In 1870, the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) granted permission and funding for a small expedition of ten men led by Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky to journey into Mongolia, on the western fringes of the Chinese empire. The impetus for this expedition was both political and scientific: recent uprisings among Muslim Tungans near the Chinese-Russian border exposed a weakness in Chinese authority, and the Russian government wanted Przhevalsky to reconnoiter these events. Przhevalsky would also be responsible for surveying and mapping the terrain and reporting on the flora and fauna of the regions he would travel through.
The Przhevalsky Journey
While a young officer in the Russian Army, Nikolai Przhevalsky had just two years earlier been sent by the RGS to survey new lands along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers in territory that had recently been ceded to Russia by China. Likely inspired by the immensely popular travel writings of David Livingstone and the colonizing of Africa and India by the British, Przhevalsky’s aspirations for travel into Central Asia were fired by the race for influence and supremacy in Asia between Russia and Great Britain. At the same time, Przhevalsky was a dedicated and talented naturalist, with great skills of observation. His original maps of exacting detail won him acclaim and medals of distinction from all the prominent geographical societies of Europe.
Traveling by horse and camel, and with a large herbarium in tow, Przhevalsky and his entourage first visited Beijing to secure passports for the rest of their journey through Chinese territory. Even with official permission from Beijing, Przhevalsky would meet with great difficulties as he traveled through regions ruled by local chieftains whose capricious chicanery and even cruelty would permanently sour his view of the Chinese, who were understandably suspicious of foreign presence. Przhevalsky would learn to camp far from Chinese towns and closer to the Mongols, who were generally friendly and curious, and, once satisfied that the Russians were peaceful, would invite them inside their yurts for the ubiquitous cup of milk tea.
Ultimately, though, Przhevalsky’s three-year sojourn in Western Mongolia was a great success. Along with his detailed maps and geographical notes, Przhevalsky brought back to St. Petersburg some 16,000 specimens of 1,700 botanical species, and introduced to Europe many species of yak, camel and other mammals. His most illustrious discovery was of the world’s last extant wild horse which in his honor bears his name, Equus ferus przewalskii.
In 1875, the Imperial edition of Przhevalsky’s Mongolia, the Tangut Country, and the Solitudes of Northern Tibet: Being a Narrative of Three Years’ Travel in Eastern High Asia was published, and an English translation with notes appeared the very next year, published by the British Royal Geographical Society.
In his book, Przhevalsky dedicated an entire chapter to the ethnology of the Mongols, and in his descriptions of the details of their dress, habits and daily life, the reader finds both the keen eye of the observer as well as the chauvinistic sensibilities of the modern European much influenced by the then-popular notion of social Darwinism. Przhevalsky views the Mongols, although not without sympathy, as a subjugated and weakened people, whose “glory days” of the empire-building great warriors Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan are sadly long past. His own certainty in the supremacy of the European “race” unfortunately clouds his understanding of aspects of Mongol culture that he nevertheless relates to the reader out of genuine interest and curiosity.
After admiring the economical and ingenious design of their traditional round dwelling, the felt-insulated yurta (the actual Mongolian name is ger; yurta is Russian, of Turkic origin), Przhevalsky finds the perceived lack of hygiene among Mongols to be appalling, and attributes it to their dread of dampness.
“Nothing will induce a Mongol to cross the smallest marsh where he might possibly wet his feet, and he carefully avoids pitching his yurta anywhere near damp ground or in the vicinity of a spring, stream or marsh. Moisture is as fatal to him as to the camel, so that it would seem as if his organism, like the camel’s, were only adapted to a dry climate. He never drinks cold water, but always prefers brick-tea, a staple article of consumption with all the Asiatic nomads. It is procured from the Chinese, and the Mongols are so passionately fond of it that neither men nor women can do without it for many days. From morning till night the kettle is simmering on the hearth, and all members of the family constantly have recourse to it. It is the first refreshment offered to guests.
“The mode of preparation is disgusting: the vessel in which the tea is boiled is never cleansed, and is occasionally scrubbed with argols, i.e. dried horse or cow dung. Salt water is generally used, but if unobtainable, salt is added. The tea is then pared off with a knife or pounded in a mortar, and a handful of it thrown into the boiling water, to which a few cups of milk are added. To soften the brick-tea, which is sometimes as hard as a rock, it is placed for a few minutes among hot argols, which imparts a flavor and aroma to the whole beverage. This is the first process, and it answers the same purpose as chocolate or coffee with us.” [It should be noted that “with us” refers to Przhevalsky’s class of officer, members of the landed gentry and residents of the cosmopolitan capital of St. Petersburg. Coffee and chocolate would have been virtually unknown among Russia’s majority peasant class.]
“For a more substantial meal the Mongol mixes dry roasted millet in his cup, and, as a final relish, adds a lump of butter or raw sheep tail fat (kurdiuk). The reader may now imagine what a revolting compound of nastiness is produced, and yet they consume any quantity of it! Ten to fifteen large cupfuls is the daily allowance for a girl, but full-grown men take twice as much.
Milk and Meat
“The food of the Mongols also consists of milk prepared in various ways, either as butter, curds, whey or koumiss. The curds are made from the unskimmed milk, which is gently simmered over a slow fire, and then allowed to stand for some time, after which the thick cream is skimmed off and dried, and roasted millet often added to it. The whey is prepared from sour skimmed milk, and is made into small dry lumps of cheese. Lastly, the koumiss is prepared from mares’ or sheep’s milk; all through the summer it is considered the greatest luxury, and Mongols are in the habit of constantly riding to visit their friends and taste the koumiss till they generally become intoxicated. They are all inclined to indulge too freely, although drunkenness is not so rife with them as it is in more civilized countries.
“Tea and milk constitute the chief food of the Mongols all the year round, but they are equally fond of mutton. The highest praise they can bestow on any food is to say that it is ‘as good as mutton.’ Sheep, like camels, are sacred; indeed all their domestic animals are emblems of some good qualities. The favorite part is the tail, which is pure fat.
“In autumn, when the grass is of poorest description, the sheep fatten wonderfully, and the fatter the better for the Mongol taste.” [Mongolia has some of the harshest terrain in the world, as well as some of the highest altitudes. In the Russian version of Przhevalsky’s descriptions of pastureland it is clear that “grass of poorest description” indicates that the alpine species growing in this arid range are only centimeters high, as opposed to the waving grasses of the steppes of Russia. In fact, some 600 species of highly nutritious alpine grasses, herbs and flowers all comprise the high-altitude pastures where Mongols grazed their herds for barely four months during the year, yet during that brief time they fattened quickly.] “They have a remarkable way of killing their sheep: they slit up the creature’s stomach, thrust their hand in, and seize hold of the heart, squeezing it till the animal dies. No part of the slaughtered animal is wasted, but everything is eaten up with the utmost relish.
“The gluttony of this people exceeds all description. A Mongol will eat more than ten pounds of meat at one sitting, but some have been known to devour an average-sized sheep in twenty-four hours! On a journey, when provisions are economized, a leg of mutton is the ordinary daily ration for one man, and although he can live for days without food, yet, when once he gets it, he will eat enough for seven.
“They always boil their mutton, only roasting the breast as a delicacy. On a winter’s journey, when the frozen meat requires extra time for cooking, they eat it half raw, slicing off pieces from the surface, and returning it again to the pot. When traveling and pressed for time, they take a piece of mutton and place it on the back of the camel, underneath the saddle, to preserve it from the frost, whence it is brought out during the journey and eaten, covered with camel’s hair and reeking with sweat; but this is no test of a Mongol’s appetite. Of the liquor in which he has boiled his meat he makes soup by adding millet or dough, drinking it like tea. Before eating, the lamas and the more religious among the laity, after filling their cups, throw a little onto the fire or the ground, as an offering; before drinking they dip the middle finger of the right hand into the cup and flick off the adhering drops.
“They eat with their fingers, which are always disgustingly dirty; raising a large piece of meat and seizing it in their teeth; they cut off with a knife, close to the mouth, the portion remaining in the hand. The bones are licked clean and cracked for the sake of the marrow; the shoulder blade of mutton is always broken and thrown aside, it being considered unlucky to leave it unbroken.
“On special occasions they eat the flesh of goats and horses; beef rarely, and camels’ flesh more rarely still. The lamas will touch none of this meat, but have no objection to carrion, particularly if the dead animal is at all fat. They do not habitually eat bread, but they will not refuse Chinese loaves, and sometimes bake wheaten cakes themselves. Near the Russian frontier they will even eat black bread, but further into the interior they do not know what it is, and those to whom we gave rusks, made of rye flour, to taste, remarked that there was nothing nice about such food as that, which only jarred the teeth.
“Fowl or fish they consider unclean, and their dislike to them is so great that one of our guides nearly turned sick on seeing us eat boiled duck at [lake] Koko-nor; this shows how relative are the ideas of people even in matters which apparently concern the senses. The very Mongol, born and bred amid frightful squalor, who could relish carrion, shuddered when he saw us eat duck à l’Européenne.
“Their only occupation and source of wealth is cattle-breeding, and their riches are counted by the number of their livestock, sheep, horses, camels, oxen, and a few goats—the proportion varying in different parts of Mongolia
… . As all the requirements of life: milk and meat for food, skins for clothing, wool for felt and ropes, are supplied by his cattle, which also earn him large sums by their sale, or by the transport of merchandise, so the nomad lives entirely for them. His personal wants, and those of his family, are a secondary consideration. His movements from place to place depend on the wants of his animals. If they are well supplied with food and water, the Mongol is content. His skill and patience in managing them are admirable. The stubborn camel becomes his docile carrier; the half-tamed steppe-horse his obedient and faithful steed. He loves and cherishes his animals; nothing will induce him to saddle a camel or a horse under a certain age; no money will buy his lambs or calves, which he considers it wrong to kill before they are full-grown.
“…The most striking trait in their [the Mongols’] character is sloth. Their whole lives are passed in holiday making, which harmonizes with their pastoral pursuits. Their cattle are their only care, and even they do not cause them much trouble. The camels and horses graze on the steppe without any watch, only requiring to be watered once a day in summer at the neighboring well. The women and children tend the flocks and herds. Milking the cows, churning butter, preparing their meals, and other domestic work, falls to the lot of the women. The men, as a rule, do nothing but gallop about all day long from yurta to yurta, drinking tea or koumiss, and gossiping with their neighbors. They are ardent lovers of the chase, but they are, with few exceptions, bad shots, and their arms are most inferior, some having flint and steel muskets, while others have nothing but bows and arrows. An occasional pilgrimage to some temple, and horse-racing, are their favorite diversions.
“… The Mongol is an excellent father, and passionately fond of his children. Whenever we gave them anything they always divided it equally among all the members of their family, were it a lump of sugar, and the portion of each individual only a crumb. The elders are always held in great respect, whose opinions and commands are implicitly followed. They are very hospitable. Any one who enters the yurta is regaled with tea and milk, and, for old acquaintance sake, a Mongol will open a bottle of koumiss, and will even slaughter a sheep.
“On meeting an acquaintance, or even a stranger, the Mongol salutes him with, ‘How are your cattle?’ This is always one of the first questions, and they make no enquiry after your health until they have learned that your sheep, camels, and horses are fat and well to do… . We often had the most detailed questions asked us, such as: ‘In whose care had we left our cattle before our departure on such a long journey?’ ‘What was the weight of the kurdiuk (fat tail) on each of our sheep?’ ‘How many good amblers did we possess and how many fat camels?’
“With the approach of autumn the Mongols throw off some of their laziness. The camels, which have been at pasture all the summer, are now collected together and driven to Kalgan or Kuku-Khoto to prepare for the transport of tea and merchandise to and from Kiakhta. Some are employed in carrying salt from the salt lakes of Mongolia to the nearest towns of China Proper. In this way, during the autumn and winter, all the camels of Northern and Eastern Mongolia are earning large profits for their owners. With the return of April, the transport ceases, the wearied animals are turned loose on the steppe, and their masters repose in complete idleness for five or six months.
“Endowed by nature with a strong constitution, and trained from early childhood to endure hardships, the Mongol enjoys excellent health, notwithstanding all the discomforts of life in the desert. In the depth of winter, for a month at a time, they accompany the tea caravans. Day by day the thermometer registers upwards of minus 20° F, with a constant wind from the northwest, intensifying the cold until it is almost unendurable. But in spite of it they keep their seat on their camels for fifteen hours at a stretch, with a keen wind blowing in their teeth. A man must be made of iron to stand this; but a Mongol performs the journey backwards and forwards four times during the winter, making upwards of 3,000 miles.”
Bartering[Przhevalsky next describes the lengthy ritualized social etiquette of dickering for the price of a sheep, which the Mongols will never undersell. But even after a price is finally settled upon, the seller will request the animal’s entrails, which Przhevalsky, in consternation, refuses.] “…[B]ut their quality is excellent, especially in the Khalka country, where a full-grown sheep yields from fifty-five to seventy pounds of meat, or even more, the rump fat (kurdiuk) alone weighing from eight to twelve pounds.
“The difficulties in buying milk are also very considerable, and nothing will induce them to sell it in cloudy weather. We were sometimes successful in overcoming the scruples of one of the fair sex by a present of needles or red beads, but in such case she begged us to cover the vessel over when removing it from the yurta, in order that the heavens should not witness the wicked deed. I may add that Mongols keep milk in the dirtiest way imaginable. It frequently happened that one of them would ride up to our tent with a jugful for sale, the lid and spout of the vessel having been smeared with fresh cow dung to prevent the liquid splashing out on the road. Cows’ teats are never washed before milking, nor are the vessels into which the milk is poured.”
The Magic of Dung
These last observations regarding issues of hygiene vis-à-vis milk present some challenging opportunities to stretch one’s mind on the topic. First of all, the Mongolian high plains are a very arid region. Livestock do not find themselves in mud, nor do humid conditions exist. Cheese curds were commonly dried in the open air directly on the roofs of their gers. Mountain peoples of other regions, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to name only two, traditionally soured milk in vessels (commonly wooden tubs) that were never washed, and in fact often stood outdoors. Morning and evening milk would be added to a continually fermenting mass. Tasty curd was scooped out when ready to eat, or was processed further by drying for long-term storage. Likewise, traditional bakers worldwide never washed their wooden dough troughs in between bakings, and for the same reason: the stable cultures living in the crevices reliably produced the desired soured results, and the strength of the healthy culture deterred contamination by other microorganisms.
The use of fresh cow dung as an antiseptic, sanitary and healing agent has been practiced for centuries in India and Nepal. The first time I learned of the use of fresh cow dung as a housekeeping aid was in a modern Indian cookbook. The author mentioned that her grandmother possessed such a fanatical obsession with cleanliness that she had her kitchen floor resurfaced with fresh cow dung not weekly, or even daily, but after every single meal. Fresh cow dung would be regularly applied to the floor of the kitchen, as well as to the floors of the sitting and sleeping areas of well-kept Indian homes. Along with antiseptic qualities, the fresh dung repelled flies, mosquitoes and other insects. Farmers would reserve the dung for their customers, and there were of course precise conditions required for its collection (such as only from a female cow that is not pregnant, ill or wounded, and preferably caught before it touched the ground and used almost immediately).
Fresh cow dung has been used in Ayurvedic medicine and veterinary practice, applied to open wounds to speed healing, and in cases of psoriasis and eczema, to name but a few conditions for which it is prescribed. It is also used as a substrate for compound remedies, while urine has numerous medicinal uses as well.
Modern Indian practitioners today caution that the medicinal and antiseptic qualities of cow dung have been deteriorating in recent years due largely to unnatural foodstuffs fed to the animals. These include everything from invading leguminous weed species in pastures to fishmeal fed on farms. The resulting dung from these animals will not prevent infection, they warn, but can actually cause it.
These observations on alternative uses of cow dung are not an apology for careless hygiene, but they might suggest another, unconsidered dimension beyond our “fear of filth.” Harmonious ecosystems, in which humans are only one part, achieve balance through the cooperation and interdependence of many visible and invisible components. When the balance is upset, the wisdom of the entire system is deranged, and illness results. It is interesting to note that in Przhevalsky’s account no one in his entourage falls ill from consuming any of the dairy products they purchase from the Mongols during their three years of travel. In fact, their primary complaint is that the butter and milk are always so expensive!
Nikolai Przhevalsky made four more journeys through Central Asia, traversing the Gobi desert and the Tian Shan Mountains into Tibet. Suffering from poor health during his final trip to Tibet he succumbed to typhus in 1888, less than 100 miles from his lifelong goal of Lhasa, at the age of forty-nine.
Return of the Przewalski Horse and Traditional Pastureland Preservation
Discovered and introduced to Europe in the early 1870s, the Przewalski horse—or takh, as it is known in Mongolian—was the last truly wild horse in the world. With its short, bristly mane, compact body and large head, the Przewalski horse descended directly from its prehistoric ancestor of some 30,000 years ago and commands the respect of sacred idol among the Mongols. It was last seen in Mongolia in the 1970s—a mere century later—and is now considered extinct, except for about 1,500 horses living around the world in zoos.
A truly inspiring project began a dozen years ago to reintroduce the Przewalski horse to its natural habitat in Mongolia. Claudia Feh, originally from Switzerland, had as a young woman become fascinated by the prehistoric cave paintings of horses in Lascaux, France, and decided to devote her life to the study of semi-wild populations of horses in the Carmargue, in the south of France, and then of the highly endangered Przewalski horse.
Now considered an expert in equine ethology Feh, embarked on a risky adventure to raise a wild herd of Przewalski horses in the high terrain of the Massif Central in France. Starting in 1993 with 11 horses liberated from zoos, Feh possessed a group of 55 horses and the only wild herd in the world, ten years later. In September of 2004 the first group of 12 horses was flown to the steppes of northwestern Mongolia to their new—yet original—home.
Feh had chosen the Przewalski horse to be the “flagship species” in an ambitious, integrated conservation initiative called the Wild Horse Mesh. The manifold objectives of the initiative “will provide local nomads and both international and Mongolian scientists with a unique opportunity to exchange knowledge at a multidisciplinary learning center. They will also work together on field projects—for their mutual benefit and that of the natural environment. The principal objectives of the Wild Horse Mesh are habitat protection and restoration, and direct action in favor of endangered plants, birds and animals, particularly the Przewalski horse—in close collaboration with, and for the benefit of, nomad families.”
Only one third of Mongolia’s population is today truly nomadic; another third of the population lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The fragile ecology of pasturelands has been stressed by a large increase in herd animals since Mongolia’s introduction of a free market system, and interruption of traditional herd movements has resulted in overgrazing with a subsequent upset in species balance. The area fenced off for the introduction of the Przewalski horses has already regained a healthier plant species profile, noticeable by local nomad families themselves. The cooperation and enthusiasm of local families with the restoration initiative has encouraged expectations for success of the Horse Mesh Project, which is a source of joy for all those involved. “Cooperation is my favorite subject,” says Feh. “It’s one of the driving forces of evolution, yet it’s largely neglected in favor of competition.”
To learn more: www.rolexawards.com/laureates/laureate-81-feh.html and www.tourduvalat.org.
Will The Traditional Mongolian Diet Reassert Itself?
The following are excerpts from an article by N. Oyunbayar, originally printed in Ger Magazine, which hints that Mongolians may be reconsidering the changes a free market economy is wreaking on their health and traditional diet:
“When the Russians pulled the plug on Mongolia’s aid in 1991, the economy went into a severe crisis. For many Mongolians it was their first experience of serious hunger. The staple traditional diet of meat, milk and flour saw many people through this crisis. Mongolians traditionally have turned to foods that are high in protein and minerals, relying less on more seasonable foods like vegetables and fruits. This means a diet heavy on meat and dairy products, the latter when sour in the summertime thought to clean the stomach.
“Out of necessity Mongolians have found creative and ingenious ways to use the milk of all five of the domestic animals in the country: sheep, cattle, goats, camels and horses. Orom is the cream that forms on top of boiled milk; aaruul are dried curds and can be seen baking in the sun on top of gers in the summer; eetsgii is the dried cheese; airag is fermented milk of mares; nermel, is the home-brewed vodka that packs a punch; tarag is the sour yogurt; shar tos, melted butter from curds and orom, and tsagaan tos, boiled orom mixed sometimes with flour, natural fruits or eetsgii. The method of drying the dairy products is common in preparing them. The Mongolians prepare enough dairy products for the long winter and spring. The traditions of using, producing and preparing these foods are stronger outside the main cities, where the population is more reliant on the vast herds for food. B. Baljmaa, a dietitian and nutritionist at the National Nutrition Research Centre, says there is a genetic compatibility for the food. “Before 1992 there wasn’t much research in this area. But now we know from our research that Mongolians are better able to absorb foods with more acid. So, traditional food should be kept in the country…
“There is a big problem of importing poisonous foods and food which probably will cause the nutrition-related diseases common in more developed countries… . For example, fast food made with more oil, salt and sugar are considered the biggest dangers for human health. On the plus side prices for these imported foods are higher and only the wealthiest people can afford them; the poor people can’t buy and eat them no matter how much they desire [them]. This means their poverty is protecting their health. We should boost our efforts to raise awareness on what foods protect your health.”
Mongolia in Transition
By Drew Robinson
It was 1991 when I first arrived in Mongolia after the collapse of communism. At that time you had to have a ration card to purchase food. Most of the stores were next to empty as the country was making the transition to a market economy. After living in the city for 6 months, I moved to a town in the countryside. There I lived in the same haasha (yard) within my own ger (Mongolian felt tent), with a Mongolian family. I cooked my own breakfast and lunch, and ate supper with the family each day.
For the first five months we ate the same soup made of homemade white flour noodles with sheep meat and fat. Almost everyone was poor in those days, and noodle soup, the most economical of meals, was eaten almost exclusively by my Mongolian host family. To the Mongolians a meal is not considered a meal unless there is fatty meat in it. After five months of the same meal I offered to purchase a cow or yak for the winter meat supply.
The father of my Mongolian host family went off to the countryside in October by which time it was cold enough for meat to stay frozen for the rest of the winter. I was quite surprised when he returned with a whole camel, guts and all. How could he have gone for a yak and come back with a camel?! My Mongolian host was originally from the desert region where there are more camels than in our region. He was used to eating camels. However, the only camel meat that I had eaten was in the city where herders brought in 20- to 30-year-old worn out bulls whose meat was as tough as leather. Needless to say, I was not excited about camel soup! However, after eating some of the five-year-old female camel which was quite tender and tasty, I began to reconsider my earlier plans concerning our winter meat supply. By the time we had eaten one hind quarter and were ready to cook up the bone in soup and get the marrow, I just had to get a picture of us holding the massive piece of broken bone, happy as larks. It was great! Was there a convert in the making? Perhaps I was starting to change from my ignorance that arose from western “propaganda” as to what is healthy and what is not. Ten years later and after subscribing to Wise Traditions for two years, I laughed at what I used to think was “heart stopper” food which I now could eat with relish.
Whenever the family cut up the meat, they never wasted anything and always cherished the fat and bone marrow. I used to call bone marrow “Mongolian chocolate.” None of the old people I have talked to mention the making of bone broth. I think the reason for this is that it takes too much time and, more important, too much fuel. The way they eat the bone marrow is to put the bones in with the soup and once that is done they take the bones out and break them in half, scoop out the marrow with a narrow device and eat it as a delicacy. I just talked to an 80-year-old and a 75-year-old and the only thing one of them said that I had not heard before was that they did use some of the bones to make a cow-lick. To do this they put the bones directly into the fire. Upon removal they ground them into a powder and mixed it with salt soda. This was used to help fatten the livestock.
Some of the mainstays in the diet, apart from meat and fat, are yoghurt, cream that settles to the top after the milk is heated, (especially that of yaks, which have a high cream content), different types of dried curd, “oil” (made from yoghurt that is heated with a small amount of flour and milk tea added and heated until the oil separates and floats to the top), Mongolian milk tea and sagas. Milk is used in much of what they eat but no one ever drinks milk by itself. (Today all milk is slowly heated to pasteurize it because of brucellosis and other diseases. Raw milk is not used.)
Mongolians do not drink much water at all, but they do eat lots of fat. It would take too much wood to boil the drinking water, they say. So they drink milk tea, and teach their children to drink tea (brick tea with milk and salt), and not water.
Sagas is a cultured milk product in which the milk of sheep and goats and/or yaks is collected and stored in a wooden bucket until it sours. It is then boiled and set aside from July to October or November. During this time it gets very thick. From this they make dried curd, cultured sour cream, white cream and yoghurt. They heat it and eat it warm, freeze it and chip off pieces to eat frozen in the winter, or put in tea.
Mongolian milk tea is made from a tea that comes in a brick form and a hammer is used to break off small pieces. They add rock salt and milk to this which they heat in a togoo—a large wok-type pan that fits down into a round hole in all Mongolian woodstoves. Their woodstove looks like a heat stove, but is used as a cook stove as well. Most Mongolian cooking is high heat for short periods of time, except for bringing the milk to a boil; this is done slowly, gently.
Once an animal is killed, the blood is collected and put into the cleaned intestine to make blood sausage. The innards are always eaten first as they go bad the quickest. After cleaning the intestines, they make blood sausage from it and boil all the innards together. Every one sits around the bowl of guts and takes a knife and cuts off what they want from each piece. The lung has the most unique texture but it all grew on me pretty quickly. They save the head and feet to be heated with a piece of hot iron and remove the hooves and eat the meat underneath. Everything of the animal is eaten except the spleen. For a propagandized American, it was great to see how nothing was wasted and everything was relished. And now ten years later, to realize how wholesome, nutritious and nourishing this traditional diet truly is for us all, is reassuring as we raise our children on this pure, unadulterated God-given food.
My wife spent seven months of her first pregnancy in Mongolia. At that time we had never heard of WAPF and ate the way we always had in Mongolia except for using the good local meat and milk products. Now as we look at our kids with hindsight we note our first child has the roundest head.
Over the past decade things have changed greatly in the country at large, yet mostly for the worse in relation to personal diet and nutrition. Currently, white flour is used in almost all cooking and if there is no white flour they use white rice. If you go back to 70-90 years ago they did not have much white flour. At that time they ate “white food” from milk products in the warmer months and meat and fat in the colder months. They evidently did not make as many dishes but just had boiled meat. Nowadays quite a few people do not even eat the innards.
When it comes to “white foods” (anything made from milk), almost everything is heated due to the brucellosis problem within the country. The only thing that they commonly drink raw is mare’s milk just taken from the mare when it is still warm. I have had it and it is quite tasty. They all want to drink the milk from a white mare for health reasons. They will drink from any mare, but the most sought after is a white mare.
The fermented mare’s milk is made to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the region. The county that we live and work in during the summer produces hardly any mare’s milk, but if you go to the neighboring county it is very common. We did see a herding family give fresh raw goat’s milk to a little boy. When we asked about it they said, “It’s because he is so skinny and this will fatten him up!” They milked straight into the cup, so that it would be completely clean, they said. This, however, is not the norm. They will put a calf on the cow until the cow lets down her milk, and then they pull the calf off and milk the cow without any washing. Cleanliness is a real problem here among the rural herders. We have seen the calves come into the ger and drink from the family’s water barrel, and they don’t even chase them away! “Oh, they always do that!” they will say.
The country has long been known for its nomadic lifestyle with families roaming the countryside herding their sheep, goats, yaks, camels and horses. Today the cities and towns as well as the rural areas are flooded with processed foods that are readily consumed by the populace. Over the course of one decade the country has gone from a diet of largely grass-fed livestock with lots of animal fats and dairy products to one that includes lots of processed junk foods, some of which are now being produced in the country, and an ever-increasing use of vegetable oil. The result of processed foods and sugar is seen in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar where many children have holes in their baby teeth, compared to the herders’ children with white teeth, such as Weston A. Price demonstrates in photos of native peoples in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. We are thankful for our nutritional reeducation, especially in relation to our own children.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2007.