Debunking Food Myths: What Is Mongolian Food Really Like?

As Western New York’s culinary options expand to include a bigger and better roster of Asian restaurants, we are still limited in our knowledge of and access to real Mongolian food. Since Buffalo Eats is on a much-deserved hiatus, I thought I’d take the opportunity to give a brief primer on Mongolian food—the real deal, the stuff that’s eaten on a day-to-day basis in homes all across the landlocked, Central Asian nation. That way, if you decide to hit up a “Mongolian BBQ” restaurant, you’ll at least know that you’re eating an American permutation of an Inner Mongolian meal, rather than what gets consumed on the regular in (outer) Mongolia.
I first traveled to Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer almost eighteen years ago, in 1996. At that time, the country was transitioning from its role as a satellite of the former Soviet Union to an independent, democratic country. There were still significant shortages in food distribution at the time, and much has changed since the mid-90s (particularly in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which has seen its population rapidly grow). I’ve been back several times since then, and have witnessed—and eaten—some of the changes firsthand. Nevertheless, some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes are deeply revered and continue to be extremely popular.
The first thing that you have to know about Mongolian food is that the two most fundamental ingredients are mutton and flour. We’re talking mutton, not lamb. The difference is in the age of the animal, and therefore in how gamey the meat is. In various parts of the country, people also eat beef, horse, goat, yak, camel, and game animals (such as marmot) as well. Meat is a mainstay in most Mongolian dishes. The food I’ll describe below was all made with mutton, but other proteins are sometimes substituted. White rice is also eaten fairly regularly, but is not nearly as popular as flour-based dishes.
One of the most popular foods in Mongolia is a steamed mutton dumpling, called buuz (pictured below, photo credit). The buuz filling is often made with ground mutton, salt, and onion. The exterior flour shell is similar to that of a potsticker, although sometimes a bit thicker. Buuz can be pinched together in many ways, and people have nicknames for these pinching techniques (“flower style”, for example). Once, when I was trying my hand at buuz-pinching and making a mess of things in someone’s kitchen, an elderly lady told me mine looked like crocodilebuuz.
If you use these same ingredients but make a slightly bigger pocket of dough, and then deep-fry it, you’ll havekhuushuur (pictured below, photo credit). Khuushuur is a favorite street food, and while people will consume them (maybe with a Russian-style pickled salad) at home, they’re also the kind of food that teenagers will pick up as a snack on their way home from school.
If you take the same mutton and flour, but make noodles from the flour and cut the mutton into bite-sized pieces, add a bit of potato, carrot, and salt, and pan-fry the dish, you’ll have a meal called tsuivan (pictured below, photo credit). Tsuivan is one of my favorite Mongolian foods, partly because of the thick, homemade noodles.
These same ingredients (mutton, noodles, salt, and sometimes potatoes and carrots) are also often used to create soup (shul, pictured below and photo credit), a perennial favorite for warming up when temperatures dip well below zero on the steppe.
In general, Mongolian food looks nothing like the image many of us have: a large hibachi with an assortment of meats and veggies stir-fried to order. Rather, it is a cuisine born of and deeply steeped in the geography of a place. It most certainly is not fancy or fussy food, but it is suited to the climate of the country, and it’s one of the most distinct cuisines I’ve ever consumed.
A Buffalo native, Rachel Fix Dominguez lends her passion for food and firsthand travel experiences to Buffalo Spree as a freelance food writer.



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