One of the first things I was told about Mongolia – practically warned about, in fact – was the food. Mongolian cuisine is heavily based on animal products, with seemingly endless varieties of meat and dairy, but not much else. Of course this is completely understandable from a historical perspective, since the nomadic lifestyle required animal fat to survive harsh winters on the steppe, and food derived from a family’s herd was often the only reliable food source. But how would a Briton used to eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables react to this diet?
One of my first office lunches was tumsnii huchmal, though I didn’t know the name of it at that point. When it arrived, I could only stare at it in surprise – it looked exactly like shepherd’s pie, a layer of mashed potato over cooked mince, which is a very standard British dish, with. It turns out that tumsnii huchmal differs only slightly from shepherd’s pie, the biggest difference being that any vegetables are served on the side, rather than cooked in with the meat and potatoes. Other than the regional variations in the specific meat used, the differences seemed minute.
A traditional diet
The historical similarities between Mongolian and British cuisine are actually quite striking. Both countries traditionally use meat in their meals – sausages, steak and kidney pie and a Sunday roast are, after all, some of the most renowned English dishes – and limit the use of spices or strongly-flavoured sauces, preferring to enhance the taste of the existing food rather than create entirely new flavours on the plate. Britain has become accustomed to a variety of fruit and vegetables in recent decades, especially among concerns about health and a public campaign to eat five pieces of fruit or vegetable per day, but a few hundred years ago, vegetables were considered unimportant in meals, definitely inferior to meat.
In both countries the dairy component of the diet has also historically been significant, even though Britain is more inclined towards cheese while Mongolia has dried curds and a variety of milk-based drinks. Overall, while Mongolian cuisine is undoubtedly different to that of the British, I feel that the differences are actually far less stark than they might originally seem.
Style vs. substance
Both British and Mongolian cuisines have a reputation for being limited and unappetising. The definition of ‘appetising’, however, is generally based on a Western ideal of what constitutes haute cuisine. As the linguistic roots of the words imply, typical gourmet food is usually measured by a Western European standard, and will include many courses comprised of rich and often expensive ingredients, served specifically so as to be aesthetically pleasing. A gourmet chef usually has several years of training and specialises in methods of preparation that are niche and complex. This type of food is considered ‘refined’, the sort of fare you would find in Michelin-starred restaurants and high-class social events. The goal of gourmet food, you might say, is not only to fill your belly but to delight and impress the senses.
The opposite of gourmet, to use a phrase that wouldn’t be considered pejorative, might be ‘home food’ or ‘comfort food’. Comfort food is defined not only as food intended to invoke nostalgia, but also as food that has few ingredients or is easy to prepare. A typical ‘comfort meal’, therefore, would be one easily cooked alone at home on a cold evening, rich in carbohydrate or fat, and enjoyable because of what one remembers while eating it, rather than because the food itself is some kind of aesthetic or sensual experience.
Because of their historical ingredients and serving style, both British and Mongolian cuisines could be considered ‘comfort’ than ‘gourmet’, though this isn’t to say that their food lacks skill in its preparation or cannot be aesthetically pleasing. Some would say that mastering any type of cuisine takes years, and that a chef would need just as much skill to create a truly delicious meat pie as would be necessary for a multi-course French food extravaganza. One needs, however, quite a different skill set to prepare food that is hearty and filling at its core – characteristic of both Mongolian and British food – than to create something more delicate and aesthetically pleasing, such as a perfect French meringue. Unfortunately, the latter is widely regarded as more valuable, and therefore more ‘gourmet’.
This isn’t to say, however, that the cuisines of both of these nations hasn’t been subject to change over the centuries. With their vast empires, British and Mongolian cuisine has been expanded and adapted by the various cultures with which they came into contact. From a British standpoint, this is most evident in the popularity of South Asian food in the U.K. – despite not actually being an Indian dish at all but a British take on Indian food, the famous chicken tikka masala is often named as England’s national dish instead fish and chips.
From a Mongolian standpoint, the differences between what was eaten solely by ancient Mongolians and what may have been transferred at some point from neighbouring cultures is a little vaguer. Take buuz, for instance, the steamed meat dumplings that are considered so authentically Mongolian that they are especially eaten during Lunar New Year’s celebrations, along with the similarly traditional milk tea. China, however, has their own buuz, called baozi. Is this a result of Mongolia influencing China, or was it perhaps the other way round?
A similar situation arises with the stir-fried noodle soups that are incredibly popular in Mongolia, but are also just as much a part of Russian cuisine. Due to their being geographical neighbours, Russia has had a lot of influence over Mongolia, especially on its food – and what’s more, Russian cuisine is sometimes technically considered European. As pelmeni, the Russian meat dumpling, and kasha, grain and milk made into a form of porridge, can be considered traditional European cuisine, similar Mongolian dishes are recognisable as being related to Western food, if not exactly the same.
Cousins in cuisine
It would make sense that an adjustment from one to the other wouldn’t be too challenging. Both cuisines have been steadily influenced over the years by their neighbours and vassal states, most significantly in Asia. This means that both the British and Mongolian palate has adapted to features of originally Chinese and Indian cuisine, such as rice, spices, and stronger flavours. Both, however, were originally built with a focus on meat and dairy.
British tourists might look at a list of ‘traditional’ Mongolian fare with dread: fermented mare’s milk, meat dumplings, dried milk curds. However, once you start viewing Mongolian meals through English eyes, you’ll see that they don’t seem so very foreign after all.