Mongolian cuisine is highly dependent on lamb. And not only because most of the traditional dishes are cooked with the meat of this animal. Mongolian soil is not particularly fertile and the low temperatures make it very difficult to cultivate, so vegetables are in short supply. Nomadic peoples move about in search of better pastures to feed their herds, and when they finally decide to use the animals, they take advantage of them for absolutely everything.
No doubt the saying rings a bell, although in the context of another animal. It's well known, albeit in reference to pigs. In Mongolia, sheep are responsible for providing families with everything they need: meat, milk, cheese, butter, an alcoholic drink called airag, cooking fat, fermented dairy products (there's no refrigeration to preserve them in any other way) and even the animal's hide for clothing or the gut for making bowstrings.
As for the accompaniment to meat dishes, this can consist of flour noodles, sweet potato noodles, rice noodles, potatoes or spicy boiled rice.
As you can see, Mongolian cuisine tends to combine fats and carbohydrates, a diet designed to withstand the country's harsh winters.
When you first see them they'll remind you of Chinese steamed pastries or dumplings. They're usually stuffed with lamb, although you can also find them with beef. They can be found in practically any corner of the country and are very cheap. But don't expect them to be as lean as the Chinese ones: you'll find bits of fat inside the dumplings in Mongolia.
This cake, whose dough is made with wheat flour, can be made sweet or savoury and stuffed with meat, butter or honey. Although restaurant menus often translate Boortsog as "Mongolian cookies", don't be fooled, they don't have much to do with the cookies you know. For starters, because they are fried, not baked
The truth is that it's not easy to find yak butter, unless you visit the centre of the country. In Mongolia, moreover, you won't find much bread, so you can only spread it on the fried dough of the boortsog, for example. It's worth the experience, though. It tastes a little saltier and stronger than the cow's milk butter you're used to.
If you miss pancakes while travelling to Mongolia you can order Gambir. They're very similar. These are pancakes made of fried wheat dough that may also contain pieces of meat.
If you eat in a yurt or a Mongolian family invites you to share their food, you will more than likely have the opportunity to try Aaruul, one of the most common snacks in the country and one that is eaten at all hours. It is milk curd that is left to dry in the sun until it becomes a kind of cheese or yogurt. It also tastes slightly acidic.
The main ingredient of this dish is cooked or sautéed lamb accompanied by cabbage, onion, paprika and rice. You'll find it in every restaurant in the country and it's absolutely delicious.
This homemade dish is one of the most common owing both to the simplicity of its preparation and its caloric contribution. It's made with pieces of lamb cooked in boiling water with salt. Sometimes it is accompanied by boiled potatoes, but usually the meat is eaten on its own and without cutlery, using just your hands.
Once again, at the heart of this dish is lamb, which is either sautéed or boiled. In this case the accompaniment is wheat flour noodles, rice flour or sweet potato flour. It also has cabbage, onion and a paprika-based dressing.
If you had to compare Öröm with some other international dish, you would say it is Mongolian hummus, although it's not made with chickpeas. This is a very thick creamy substance made from cow's, goat's or yak's milk that is eaten with bread. It's also eaten as dessert if sugar or jam is added.
The country's most popular drink is made with fermented mare's milk. Fermentation turns it into an alcoholic beverage and it plays the same role as beer. But don't let the name fool you: it's nothing like Western beer. You may be surprised by its acidic taste.
This drink, which is also very common in the country, does not contain alcohol. It's a kind of milky tea that also has salt and butter. It's drunk at any time of the day, between meals or to accompany meals.