Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Misunderstood Cuisine

Mongolia is a unique and interesting country located just north of China. (Part of China is actually called inner Mongolia, but that is a whole different story.) Historically the people have been nomadic, living in tents called yurts that people still live in today. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar is home to over 45% of the population and you can find yurts even in the city. The famous Kublai Khan and Genghis Khan hail from Mongolia and the Mongolian Empire once stretched across eastern Asia. Today Mongolia is the 19th largest and one of the least densely populated countries. I understand this considering the temperature gets down to -40 degrees but can shoot up to over 100 degrees in the south. That's a crazy temperature jump for one country, especially considering the people live in tents.

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It's time to completely disregard any false information you have received about Mongolian food. Genghis Grill and other Mongolian BBQ restaurants give a very falsified impression of what Mongolians actually eat. Just think about it. They are a historically nomadic group that lives in a freezing cold region. Where in the world would they find the wide assortment of vegetables and sauces provided at your typical Mongolian restaurant? The truth is that real Mongolian food is centered around meat and dairy. The Mongols traditionally traveled around with domesticated animals like cows, sheep, horses, and camels, and these animals provided the bulk of their food. Soups are commonly served to combat the cold winters and special occasions are celebrated with mutton cooked with hot rocks in a sealed milk can called khorhog. Dumplings are a must if you are trying a Mongolian meal as well as their famous salted tea.

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Buuz, bansh, and khuushuur are all dumplings commonly eaten by the Mongols. They are filled with meat and onions and wrapped in a wheat flour dough. The difference between them are their sizes, shapes, and cooking styles. Bansh and khuushuur are semi-circles while buuz is shaped like a little purse. Buuz is steamed and quite large, khuushuur is fried in mutton fat, and bansh is smaller and boiled. I made bansh because I don't have a steamer with me here in Spain and mutton fat is pretty hard to come by. The dough and filling were both super easy to make. It was a simple yet delicious meal.

Bansh
makes about 2 dozen
For the dough:
2 cups flour
2/3 cup water
½ tsp salt

For the filling:
10 ounces finely chopped mutton
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

To make the dough, mix together the salt and flour. Slowly pour in the water and then knead to form a soft dough. Roll the dough into a ball, cover, and let it rest while you prepare the filling.

To make the filling, mix together the meat, onion, garlic, and salt and pepper to your preference.

Divide the dough into about 24 one inch thick balls. You might want to pinch off the dough as needed to prevent the balls from drying out. Roll each ball flat into an oval about 2 inches long. Place a teaspoon or two of the filling into the middle of the oval and fold it in half. Fold the edges over each other to create a crinkle.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the bansh in three to four batches, stirring them to make sure they don’t stick together. Cook for about 7 minutes, or until they are floating and no longer chewy.

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Dairy is very important to Mongolians. They eat dried cheeses for snacks, cook soups in milks, and drink kefir. The kefir in Mongolia is different than Western-style kefir. It is slightly alcoholic and contains carbon dioxide. This drink called isgelen tarag is generally made from cow's milk. I just bought some cow's milk kefir at the store to be the closest substitute.

Along with kefir, tea is served at with every meal in Mongolia. Their tea is called suutei tsai and is made with milk and salt. There is a very unique way of mixing up the beverage. Instead of stirring it with a spoon, you use a ladle to pour the tea into cups from up high. Repeating this process several times stirs everything together.
 
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Suutei Tsai
1 bag green tea
½ cup water
½ cup milk
pinch of salt

Bring the water to a boil and add the tea bag. Let the tea steep for 5 minutes. Discard the teabag and pour in the milk and salt. Bring the tea back to a boil. To mix, use a ladle to scoop out some of the tea and then pour it back from high up in the air.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/decorated11/shares/B34n56 | Decorated11's photos

Although I do love some good Mongolian BBQ, it was nice to try an authentic Mongolian meal. The dumplings were really good and I was so glad that I was able to find mutton at a local kosher meat market. It was a lot cheaper than in the States too. (An added bonus.) The tea was good as well. I had tried it back when I made a Mongolian breakfast, but since it is a must for every meal, I just had to make it again. No complaints here. I do love a good cup of tea to warm me up even if it's already 100 degrees out. I can just picture myself in outer Mongolia without having to endure the cold. I bought the kefir just because I had never tried it before and I thought it would compliment the meal well. I found it to be like a mix between yogurt and buttermilk. I can't imagine how it would taste with an alcohol content. Overall the meal was really good. It definitely challenged any meal from Genghis Grill. Authenticity has its advantages.

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