Mongolians have simplified the food pyramid down to one lump category: animal food. They consume milk and animals and some noodles and that’s about it. They say their diet is what makes them so strong.
Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia- “Mongolian food is healthy, Chinese food is dangerous,” she stated as she lead me into the kitchen of her aunt’s modest apartment and sat me down at the table. She then began placing bowels in front of me, filled one with milk tea, another with yogurt, and dropped a big grocery bag full of dried milk chips down next to it. All dairy. What else could I expect? I was in Inner Mongolia hanging out with ethnic Mongolians — people who never really found a need to build the food pyramid up much higher above animal products.
I couldn’t disagree with my host’s statement until I began asking questions about how the milk products I was sampling were made. She told me that her family makes them themselves from unpasteurized cow’s milk, and then went into details.
The yogurt was made from simply putting milk inside of a two liter plastic soda bottle and letting it sit out unrefrigerated for three weeks. Eventually, a bacteria culture forms and milk is transformed into yogurt.
My friend then walked to the corner of the room and picked up a bottle for me to inspect a little closer. She shook the contents around a little, and I am not ashamed to admit that I felt a slight gag reflex throttle up from inside me. The culture was a two inch thick translucent, puss looking, jaundiced layer of bacterial gunk that hovered over a much thicker, globular, chunky mass of curdled milk.
“If we keep the culture then we can just add more milk and it will keep turning into yogurt without needing to wait as long.”
Like how the Mbuti in the forests of Central Africa once kept embers with them at all times to make fire, Mongolians always keep a little bit of bacterial culture in their soda bottles to make yogurt.
The end product was creamy after being stirred, it looked like yogurt, and, after adapting to the initial shock of it being almost overwhelming sour, it tasted like yogurt. In fact, as I continued eating it I developed a taste for this raw Mongolian yogurt. I think my host was expecting another reaction.
“Is it too sour?” she asked.
“No, it’s excellent,” I responded, feeling grateful that I she decided to give me yogurt and milk tea as samples of her culture’s traditional foods rather than fat soup or a bowl of steaming innards.
“We sometimes mix it with candy,” my friend admitted as she reached over and sprinkled some sugar in my bowl.
It did taste better that way, the sweet taming the sour. Honestly speaking, this homemade Mongolian soda bottle yogurt could rival the natural or unsweetened yogurt vended on grocery store shelves just about anywhere. Or perhaps I was just impressed that it didn’t taste nearly as horrible as it looked festering in fermentation at the bottom of a goop covered pop bottle.
These Mongolians seemed to treat their homemade yogurt like Argentinians treat matte or the older Han Chinese treat green tea. My friend explained that each member of her family has their very own plastic soda bottle that they make they make their personal stock of yogurt in, and she dug her aunt’s bottle out from a corner of the kitchen to prove it.
The lack of steps involved in making this yogurt was impressive, I had always just figured that there was more to it than pouring milk into a bottle and waiting, but the dried milk was even less of a production. Essentially, dried or hard milk is just that: raw milk that was spread onto a tray and then put out in the sun to dry and solidify.
I had never encountered sun dried milk before. It was hard and yellowish, and appeared sinewy. For all practical purposes, dried milk seems to be the traditional Mongolian equivalent of potato chips. Each piece was chip-like, and there was a big grocery bag full of them just sitting out on the kitchen table, ready and available for anyone hankering for a snack. I grabbed a handful and popped one into my mouth like it was a chip. It was crunchy and hard, though chewy, difficult to get down in a reasonable amount of time and made made me feel like a ruminant. Though it was OK, dried milk is rather tasteless.
Now I understand that China has had all types of contaminated food scares over the past few years and I suppose Chinese food could be called “dangerous,” but drinking milk that has been sitting out in a plastic soda bottle for three weeks or milk that has been dried in the sun didn’t sound too safe to me. In my country we’re told that if we consume milk like this we die.
But I drank the milk tea, ate the yogurt, and chomped through as many dried milk chips as I could chew anyway, as if this stuff was dangerous there would be no way that Mongolians would have eaten it for thousands of years.
Traditional foods are safe, they are tried and tested, and no matter how gross, disgusting, or unsafe they may seem, they’ve endured through the ages. This doesn’t happen if the people who eat them all die.
I later learned that there is a difference between soured milk and spoiled milk. Spoiled milk is rotten milk, it has “bad” decay-type bacteria; soured milk is just sour, it is made when milk’s natural bacteria ferments. Even though the way my Mongolian friend says she makes sour milk sounded remarkably similar to how I make spoiled milk when I leave it sitting out for too long, there was one clutch difference: pasteurization.
When milk is pasteurized all the bacteria is killed, so when it gets old it starts to decay and grows harmful bacteria. When milk is left unpasteurized the natural bacteria is left intact, and it will ferment, a process that staves off the harmful types of bacteria.
(Though pasteurized milk can be safely soured by acidifying it with lemon juice or vinegar).
Through the millenia Mongolians have cleverly figured out how to make a truly amazing array of foods and drinks from the milk of sheep, goats, camels, yaks, and horses they’ve domesticated. In addition to milk tea, yogurt, and dried milk, Mongolians also make kefir, butter, cheese, butter and even brew a beer-like drink called airag from milk.
but the Mongolian delicacies that I was eating were made by settled city dwellers who had the option of obtaining and using cow’s milk. I did not ask what the benefit of using cow’s milk is, but I assume it’s economic: far more milk squirts from the tit of a cow than a goat, and it’s probably therefore cheaper.
But there was one thing that I did not see in that apartment: vegetables. Though they are now readily available in Han Chinese dominated Inner Mongolia, the ethnic Mongolians still seem hesitant to adjust their herder diet and eat much plant matter. My friend even implied that Mongolians think vegetables are not very healthy, and that eating animal products alone provide all the nutrients they need.
Mongolians seem to use herd animals as nutrient conglomerating biological machines. Their sheep, goats, yaks, and cows graze out in the grasslands, eating plant matter all day so they don’t have to. One point to note here is that Mongolians do not only consume the meat and milk from animals, but just about every single part, and there are different concentrations and varieties of vitamins and minerals in organs and innards than there are in meat alone.
Mongolian food = animal, even in the cities. Besides noodles and potatoes, the Mongolian diet is just about all meat and dairy.