There is a wealth of unique dairy products to be found in Mongolia. It should be noted that most milk and dairy tastes a little different out here, mainly because all the animals have a different diet than our American flocks. It has a much more earthy taste to it, and can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never drank fresh milk before. Either way, here’s a short list of items you will be served or offered:
Aarul is dried milk curd. They usually make it over a roaring stove fire, ladling the milk to bring the curds to the surface. There are many types of aarul: Some are short and tube-shaped, others are large blocks. The smaller pieces tend to be a little easier to chew, while aarul in the shape of flakes or chunks is very, very hard and must be gnawed on or soaked in hot water before it is ready to be eaten. As for the taste, that can change as well. Some aarul that you buy at supermarkets will be sweet, while most aarul straight from the countryside will have a strong, almost sour flavor.
You can take your aarul and liquify it in boiling water to produce a drink known as artz. It has a very strong smell, and tastes the same as the aarul you used to make it. Mongolians say it is good to drink when you have colds.
Urum is a milk curd cream. Basically, it’s what you make before you dry it to make aarul. Since it still has a lot of milky-goodness trapped in it, it tastes more like milk than it does yogurt. Mongolians usually spread their urum on bread and pastries, topping it off with a liberal sprinkling of sugar. I personally prefer to mix the urum with jelly, jam, or compote on my bread. I like to think of it as “spreadable milk.” If you enjoy the taste of milk, you’ll probably enjoy urum.
While not a food, it fits in the realm of white. Airag is fermented mare’s milk. They say you should take the milk from a white mare. The creation process involves putting the milk into a specially made sack that is hung from the wall of one’s ger, allowing it to ferment in the pouch. The end result is a slightly thick milk with a strong sour punch. The alcohol content hovers in the 7-8% range. Mongolians can drink this stuff like it’s water, but I have a difficult time keeping sour dairy products down, especially one this tart. After 1 or 2 small cups I’m finished.
Most Mongolians view yogurt as an item you drink, not eat. The countryside yogurt is usually thick but runs like liquid. It has a bitter flavor, much like unsweetened Greek yogurt. To make it more palatable, most people dump a large helping of sugar into their yogurt before drinking. I remember watching my host brother make everyone yogurt, and how he would put 7-10 spoonfuls in each cup before serving. That being said, it’s one of the most delicious things I have ever had in this country.
Those who dislike dairy or are lactose intolerant take note: You can tell Mongolian hosts that you are allergic to milk by saying “Bi suu harshiltai” (би сүү харшилтай). I would highly recommend trying these foods at least once if given the chance. The ice cream out here also has a very unique flavor, so take a taste of that as well.