#116 Mongolia: bring on the fermented mare’s milk!


OK, fine.  I admit it:  sometimes, I totally stalk people.  But only if I think they might be able to feed me something interesting.

real fermented Mongolian milk is way more interesting than fake Mongolian BBQ, yes?

Once upon a time, I was hungry, and tried really hard to stalk real Mongolians in New York City.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any.  (In case you’re wondering: corner-store “Mongolian BBQ” was invented by a Taiwanese marketing genius in the 1970s, and it bears zero resemblance to actual Mongolian food.)

Since Mongolians appeared to be scarce in NYC, I resorted to twitter-stalking an American writer named Patricia Sexton, who briefly worked as a news anchor in Ulaanbaatar.  Since she writes an amazing blog called LIVE from Mongolia—and since she’s about to publish a full-length book about her Mongolian adventures—I figured that she might, somehow, lead me to some tasty Mongolian food.

worm aaruul, without the worms

That worked, sort of.  Several months after I started stalking her on twitter, I was in Patricia’s kitchen, making homemade Mongolian cheese. That same week, I spent an evening in the home of some friendly Mongolians in New Jersey, eating fresh lamb dumplings, milk tea, and a tasty cheese curd-type substance called “worm aaruul.” And a few nights before that, I was in a Mongolian store in Virginia, buying deep-fried Mongolian butter cookies and Mongolian meat tea.  And then we fed Mongolian food to a crowd of friends and strangers, and raised almost $1600 to help a struggling Mongolian family.

This twitter-stalking thing can be pretty cool, I guess.

fresh Mongolian cheese (byaslag), in the early stages of pressing

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know the story:  Patricia’s blog introduced the world to Urangoo, a 13-year-old Mongolian contortionist whose father was killed in a gold mine.  Urangoo’s full story can be found here, but Patricia and I decided—before we even met each other in person—that it would be fun to try to help Urangoo and her family by organizing a food-friendly Mongolian fundraiser.  We contacted the Mongolian consulate, and they introduced us to Byambakuu Darinchuluun, a Mongolian cultural scholar and event organizer, who spent dozens and dozens of hours introducing us to Mongolian food and culture.

byaslag, post-pressing

It was a ton of fun to listen to Byambakuu smash my lame stereotypes of Mongolian food.  Surprisingly, the traditional rural Mongolian diet includes relatively little fresh meat.  Meat is reserved for special occasions, and most herding families slaughter livestock only in November, when they freeze and dry the meat for later consumption.  Vegetables are a seasonal luxury for most Mongolians, and their diet revolves around milk products, including yoghurt, dried cheese curds (aaruul), fresh cheese (byaslag), and fermented mare’s milk (airag).

And lemme tell ‘ya, it’s not easy to find most of this stuff in the United States.  Byambakuu and I traveled to Arlington, Virginia, just to visit AmEx, a small Mongolian grocery store, where we picked up boortsog (deep-fried Mongolian butter cookies), a couple of packets of dried meat tea (yes, you read that correctly), and America’s best attempt at fermented mare’s milk… in this case, fermented cow’s milk, stored in repurposed Arizona tea jugs.

OK, I’ll eat buuz

Two days later, Byambakuu took me to the home of Mrs. Myagmar-Dari, a legendary Mongolian dumpling-maker in New Jersey.  In theory, we were just buying lamb dumplings (called buuz) from her, but she and her husband insisted that we sit down for a cup of Mongolian milk tea.  And then things got totally awesome:  they served the tea with an incredibly rich, coarse buttercream called urum, which is made only in Mongolia from unpasteurized milk.  They also offered an unusual flour-like substance (similar to Tibetan tsampa) which Mongolians add to the tea to give it some extra heft.

And it got better:  we drank a few shots of Chinggis vodka (named after Genghis Khan), and snacked on something called “worm aaruul.”   Aaruul is a type of hard, dried cheese curd; worm aaruul is made with a little bit of sugar, and it’s run through a meat grinder to give it a soft texture and a “wormy” contour.  It was pretty tasty, and resembled a lightly sweetened Parmesan cheese.  And of course, there were huge piles of fresh lamb dumplings, which were absolutely incredible.  And Mrs. Myagmar-Dari wasn’t shy about feeding me:  “You eat buuz!” she insisted, shoving more delicious dumplings onto my plate.

Suddenly, I was in love with Mongolia.

deep-fried Mongolian butter cookies (boortsog) and fresh Mongolian cheese; the ugly brown bits of cheese are the dumb American’s fault

Two nights later, Byambakuu taught us how to make fresh Mongolian cheese.  We boiled a gallon of whole milk, and then slowly stirred a quart of yogurt into the milk.  We strained the resulting brew, and squeezed the chunky cheesy bits through cheesecloth, kneading and pounding the ball of cheesy chunky stuff until all of the liquid was gone.

The result can be eaten immediately, though Byambakuu said that the cheese tasted best after it dries for three days or so.  We made five wheels of cheese, four of which were beautiful, and tasted like pleasantly fatty, unsalted mozzarella cheese.  Byambakuu insisted that I make one cheese wheel entirely by myself; it was oddly brown, chunky, burnt-tasting, and misshapen.  Oops, I completely failed my first Mongolian cooking test.

fresh khailmag (burnt Mongolian fingers not shown)

We also made a dessert called khailmag, made from a mixture of shortening, water, flour, and sugar, pan-fried at a ridiculously high temperature until clarified oil separates at the sides of the pan.  Reconstituted raisins are then added to the mix, and the result is a warm, delicious sludge that resembles a not-too-cheesy cheesecake.

Once we finished our multi-state quest for fresh Mongolian cuisine, we piled into a bar in the East Village, and fed fermented milk, homemade Mongolian cheese, deep-fried butter cookies and fresh dumplings to a small crowd of donors. Mrs. Myagmar-Dari, our beloved Mongolian dumpling-maker, made my day by shoving yet another plate of hot lamb dumplings into my hands.  “You eat buuz!” she insisted, with a huge grin on her face.  How could I refuse?

Byambakuu, my favorite Mongolian food expert, with Mongolian calligraphy

While we munched our dumplings, Urangoo, the young contortionist, did an amazing live performance via skype—at 3:00 a.m., Mongolian time.  Mr. Ganbold, the head of the Mongolian Mission to the United Nations, graciously made an appearance.  We were treated to a live auction of Mongolian cashmere blankets and Mongolian leather art, and we witnessed an incredible performance by Tserendorj, a talented Mongolian-American throat singer and morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) player.  And we raised nearly $1600 for Urangoo and her family.

And best of all, I got to watch dozens of Americans try to choke down fermented Mongolian milk.  And that, by itself, is truly priceless.

Mr. Ganbold and our favorite auctioneer


Thank you to everybody who helped make this adventure possible: Patricia Sexton, Byambakuu Darinchuluun, Jimmy’s No. 43, Mr. Ganbold, Mrs. Myagmar-Dari, filmmaker Ed Nef, Ariel Wyckoff, the amazing musician Tserendorj, calligraphy artist Janna Kamimila, Isabelle and Todd, auctioneer Friar Adam Mastrelli, Amber (for putting up with me), Jesse (for putting up with Patricia and I), Mike M., Laura H. (for allowing me to steal her suitcase and fill it with fermented milk), Annie at City Spoonful, James and Noah at Real Cheap Eats, Jesse and Laura  at United Noshes, Chef Adhis at chefafrik.com, Jared at eattheworldnyc.com, Dave at Eating in Translation, Jay at Dish Envy, and all of the other wonderful people who supported our event and sampled fermented milk.  I can’t thank you all enough.  Without you, I couldn’t have eaten my weight in buuz.



4 Responses to “#116 Mongolia: bring on the fermented mare’s milk!”

  1. Beth says:

    I worked in Mongolia for two years with the Peace Corps, and I loved this post about Mongolian food. If only I had been in NYC when this event happened. Congratulations on a great event!

    I am interested in visiting the Mongolian store in Arlington, VA that you mentioned, but I cannot find it online. Could you provide the address/approximate location of AmEx?

  2. Thank you for the comment, Beth!

    Just in case anybody else out there is interested: AmEx is located behind the dry cleaners at the corner of Columbia Pike and Barton Street in Arlington. I don’t think the place is visible from the street, but if you go around to the back of the building, you’ll hopefully see it. Mmm… boortsog.

  3. Lu says:

    This was a really cool post. I always wondered what mongolian food tasted like ever since I read conqueror. Now I want to travel to mongolia just to eat.

  4. Purev-Ochir says:

    Man it is such a small world! I know Byambkhuu bagsh from the mongolian community in arlington, and he was my culture teacher at The Mongolian School of the National Capital Area! I also performed with Urangoo (not with her but in the same event) a while back ago when she came to the US. Im glad to see that Urangoo is still receiving great support from a number of people, and thanks for the blog post! I’ll be sure to subscribe. You can find the recording of our performance with Urangoo here: https://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/artists/?entity_id=84207&source_type=B.

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