From immemorial time, the Mongols have been engaged in nomadic animal husbandry in the vast territory of Central Asia under harsh continental climate, and therefore their diet was strikingly different from their neighborhoods settled in agricultural society.
Bread and corn were vital food among agricultural societies in Europe as well as rice in Asia. In the meantime, the Mongols sustained their lives based on the products of their domestic livestock that were classified into “red” meant meat food and “white” meant dairy food.
The diet is subdivided into “red” and “white” based on the specific climate of the year.
We must know the fact that nomadic herders of Mongolia are self-sufficient and self-manufacturer of their living goods.
During the coldest time of the year between October and March, the Mongols usually consume more “Red” food with enough protein and animal fat that are crucial to withstand the cold winters and to work outdoor in temperatures as low as −40 °C and to preserve sufficient energy reserves. Those food are the main sources of calories that are needed to overbear the extremely cold winters in the wild steppes.
But the diet during the summer months are “white” ones, known as dairy products. Indeed, summer is the highest season for breeding that all the female herds are in period of lactation.
Cheese, butter, fermented mare milk, yoghurts then becomes the majority of the traditional nomadic diet, which it is said the “white” half of the year. This also corresponds to having lower calories because of the clement nature of temperatures.
Such change in diet has also helped to maintain health for livelihood in such a dynamic climate conditions. A human body cleanses itself from excess fat and cholesterol accumulated during winter times and becomes more mobility-wise and lighter.
Also, pasture herds gain weight and energy after a grueling cold period of graze. At this time, nomads rarely slaughter cattle for red food and mainly feed them for “white” food.
As long as the summer session is warmer but shorter, a variety of dairy products are produced in great abundance and preserved along with meat to sustain in the long cold half of the year for herder families.
All Mongolian dairy products are known as “white food” or Tsagaan Idee.
The main ingredient of this kind of white food is milk and over 2000 kinds of meals and dishes can be made of milk. As Mongols happen to have dairy diet for almost half of the year, they have developed their own very unique tradition, methodology, and technique in processing milk. According to Mongolian tradition, white food is generally classified into three categories including protein-rich, sour and oily dairy products.
Tarag or yogurt, airag (fermented mare’s milk) and hoormog (fermented camel’s milk) are fermented drinks and are better to be consumed as fresh as possible.
Tarag is considered as the essence of diary food, because of its highly nutritious quality. Hence Mongols does not consider tarag as a kind of drink and says usually “to eat tarag but not to drink”. Tarag can be made of milk from sheep, goat, cow or yak.
In late autumn, when absolute taste of fermented drinks is the highest and is made for the last time, the essence of ferment is taken into the disinfected khadak or gauze cotton. Then, it should be frozen at night, dried in the wind during the day and kept in leather bags for later use in following spring.
As tarag, airag and hoormog are ‘alive’ food, the ferments of these drinks are kept and stored for the next warm period.
While making tarag for the first time of the year, one says a traditional blessing: “You become ‘elgen’ I’ll be also ‘elgen'”, which means to live peacefully and to have abundant white food to the summer. ‘Elgen’ means liver in Mongolian language that it symbolizes the peace as ‘liver’ is an organ for Mongolians that symbolizes the love and soul.
The fermented drinks are not only nutritious but also have high curing and medical effects. Tarag made of sheep milk is sweet, similar to sugary cream and it intensifies human digestive system and helps to sleep well.
Tarag made of goat milk cures chronic diseases in internal organs such as stomach and liver, and reduces swelling. Tarag made of cow milk is the best cure for scurvy and allergies.
Hoormog or fermented camel milk is thicker than airag, but doesn’t produce any casein because it is quite aerated. Also, it has more sweet and sour taste comparing to other types of fermented milk. It activates digestive system and coronary activities, recuperates weakness and cures chronic diseases in internal organs such as stomach, liver and kidney, too.
Airag or mare milk is used for a treatment to chronic diseases in internal organs. There are many records in ancient sutras and books about curing effects and qualities of airag. Marko Polo, an Italian traveler to Mongol Empire in 13th century, once wrote that The Mongols have had herds of pure white horses, among them only mares were about ten thousands in number and their milk were used for preparing drinks dedicated for high kings.
Airag strongly intensifies digestion, so that it might be the only drink that can be consumed as much as possible, even up to 20 liters per day. It has high curing effects, supportive to coronary activities, reduces abnormal blood pressure and serves as an antidote to poisons and even for radioactive substances.
Furthermore, protein rich dairy products such as aarts – sour yogurt, aaruul – dried curd, byaslag and eezgii are possible to be stored for a long period of time.
Aarts or curd is one of the most widely consumed traditional dairy that serves as a main ingredient for various dishes. It is also used as a basic raw material to produce other kinds of dairy products. It can be made of tarag or airag.
Aaruul is made of curds. Sugar and wild berries can be mixed with curds and cut into different shapes and patterns for fancy look. The milk aaruul is made of curds and is boiled with fresh milk and then sliced and dried, so that it can be kept for a long time. It is mostly sliced in lengthy shapes.
So called worm aaruul are small chunks of curds squeezed into dipper and used for decorating white dairy dishes during a feast or for giving little kids as gifts. It is made of curd with sugar, sweets and roasted flour mixed with cream. Aaruul made of airag curd has a very unique and strong taste of airag. Aaruul is softer and oilier in western part of Mongolia, because they make airag from unboiled milk. Ajiin bor is very popular type of aaruul for its milky taste and it never dries up. Aaruul made of camel milk is nutritious and has unique sweet taste.
Mongolian cheese or byaslag is very nutritious and is considered as the dairy of respect. Cheese serves as the dish for a trip or a feast and is made of only sheep or cow milk. It can be made of boiled or fresh milk and it is sliced and dried into thin pieces for storage. It can be soaked in tea or milk, and it also can be used as flavor to soup.
Eezgii is the very distinct food among the Mongols. To make the eezgii, one boils the milk until it evaporates all the water inside it, so that the thick chunks of curds are roasted, inclusive of all nutritious ingredients and proteins in milk. In some regions, they make eezgii by cutting it into big cubic pieces before evaporating all water. This kind of eezgii is called as ‘hugshun’ or ‘old’ because of its nature to be easily soaked. Eezgii helps curing chronic diseases in internal organs such as liver and bile.
The Mongols have always believed that a constant use of “dairy food”, especially aarul gives clean and strong teeth. Perhaps this might be the reason why the Mongols have stronger cheekbones, more straight and brighter teeth comparing to their agricultural neighbors.
Nowadays, it is scientifically proven that dairy products are rich in potassium and calcium that strengthen bones and teeth.
In the 21st century, Mongolia remains one of the largest areas of contiguous common grazing land in the world, with approximately 73% of its landmass classified as grassland. Outside of the urbanized zones, the Mongols are still living like their ancestors in a harmony with the wild vast steppes and prepare tasty and healthy “white food” or Tsagaan idee in the summer-time according to ancient recipes.