Since ancient times, Mongolians have been producing and consuming more than 3,000 types of foods and beverages. Mongolian culinary tradition can be classified into the following three categories:
- Tsagaan idee ‘White food’ or Dairy products
- Ulaan idee ‘Red food’ or Meat products
- Nogoon idee ‘Green food’ or Vegetable products
Among these three, Mongols primarily consumed diverse forms of dairy and meat products more than the vegetable foods. This is relative to the living condition and ancient transhumant lifestyle of the Mongols.
The main dairy products include orom (clotted cream), various dairy fats, different forms of dried and wet milk curds, thin and thick yogurts, fermented dairy beverages, un-ripened cheeses, and even distilled alcoholic spirits made from the milk of goats, sheep, camels, horses, cows, and yaks.
By ancient tradition, the Mongols adjusted their food consumption in accordance with the cycle of the four seasons. For example, Mongolians consume dairy products throughout the year, but the consumption of dairy products greatly increases during the summer and fall when animal milk production is at its peak.
As herders always search for the best environmental conditions for their animals, Mongolians live in perpetual motion. Because ‘movement’ is one of the major factors defining their traditional lifestyle, Mongolians had to develop methods and skills to produce food items in a special way that featured speed, dexterity, flexibility and creativity.
One of the most important principles behind the Mongolian dairy food system is that at the initial stage of production, just after milking the animals, the herders produce a limited set of standardized core products that can later be turned into a variety of foods at the time of consumption. These core, or primary, dairy products are accumulated in large quantities and kept for a long period of time. Moreover, a multitude of dairy products can be used to substitute for one another. For example, Mongolian cheese can be served and eaten on its own as a food, but over a long conservation period, the cheese can be added to tea as a replacement for milk, then after dissolving it is consumed as beverage. In this way one product can have many uses and the core commodities can also substitute for one another.
Secondly, the traditional methods that produce various dairy products are environmentally-sound and require no complicated equipment and leave no mark on the place of production. For example, curd is dried in the sun by placing it on top of the ger (Mongolian traditional portable dwelling), a process that leaves no residual impact on the air or ground. Mongolian traditional transhumant lifestyle is one of the world’s most nature-friendly cultures which have survived into the twenty-first century. Being compatible with the requirements of sustainable development, Mongolian traditional methods for making dairy products is one of the model practices which should be encouraged, strengthened, and disseminated widely.
Today, traditional knowledge and skills for making dairy products are still practiced by the Mongolian herders in the rural areas and are constantly enriched and sustained as the heritage of local communities, groups, and individuals. In this way, different areas acquired different reputations for their products. For instance, throughout Mongolia, Saikhan soum (county) of Bulgan aimag (province) is famous for its airag (fermented mare’s milk), Ikh Tamir soum of Arkhangai aimag produces a popular suun khuruud (milky dried curd), while Khovd aimag is famed for its byaslag (mild, un-ripened cheese).
Although modern utensils and equipment have been introduced into the traditional practices of making dairy products, there are also today some notable efforts to encourage the use of traditional tools and equipment, and these should be highlighted and supported in the future. As the wave of globalization impedes on Mongolia, the transmission of traditional Mongolian knowledge, skill, and methods for producing dairy products should be further strengthened for better viability.
Gongorja, Gombojav. “Traditional Knowledge and Skills of Mongols: Since Ancient Time to 1920s.” Technology Vol. 4, Ulaanbaatar, 1997.