The first thing you learn coming out here to Mongolia is the importance of livestock in the daily lives of all Mongolians. Meat and dairy are king. It’s due to the long tradition of herding in Mongolia, and the prestige that once came with owning animals. I remember reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, when he spoke about Temujin’s poverty as a child. He spoke about how other tribes looked down on Temujin’s family because they were hunters: too poor to afford to raise their own animals.
Nowadays, everyone eats meat year round. You have meaty buuz (dumplings) at Tsagaan Sar. In the summer, you have meaty fried hushuur. People enjoy cups of milk tea and gnaw on dried yogurt whenever hunger pangs hit.
One night at our conversation night, our topic of conversation was traditional foods. I learned more about the Mongolian diet than I think I ever could have imagined that night. Each group had a new insight, and the older adults there had plenty to say about the topic. We asked them if they thought the Mongolian diet was healthy.
Just a bit of background: Most foreigners see the Mongolian diet as unhealthy, since Mongolians love large chunks of fat to be served on their meat. Back in the day, the fat helped them gain weight for the brutal cold of winter. There’s also sugar everywhere, and in copious amounts. Heart Disease is the third leading killer of Mongolians. While their diet is no worse than other regions of the world, it does carry this stigma with people newly introduced to the diet.
Everyone we spoke to agreed that the Mongolian diet was healthy. The top response was that after thousands of years of eating this way, the Mongolian body has been conditioned to accept this diet as agreeable, thus it is good for current Mongolians. Another idea was that all of Mongolia’s meat and dairy is organic: All animals are free-range, and most of their dairy products come from herds and not factory farms. This idea was conveyed by one girl who said that because the grass is healthy in Mongolia, and the cows eat the grass, it makes the cows healthy and good for humans to eat.
The older generation also shared the idea of the traditional Mongolian diet. Long ago, Mongolian people ate foods seasonally. In the summer, you wold only eat white foods, which are their traditional dairy products. In the winter, you ate only meat. The reason behind this seemed simple enough to me: In the summer, you want to get more livestock, so you try to avoid thinning the herd, and instead live off their milk. In the winter, when resources are scarce, and not every animal will live, you butcher those that don’t have a chance. Also, it’s easier to preserve meat and prevent it from going rancid when it’s below freezing everyday. All of the older Mongolians said that a switch to eating meat and dairy year round had resulted in bad health for the Mongolian people.
It should also be known that I have received ads for The Mongolian Horseman diet, which banks of the power of yak meat. I must say, the number of yaks is greatly dwarfed by the number of sheep, goats, and cattle out here. If you truly want a traditional Mongolian horseman’s diet, eat meat in the winter and drink lots of milk and yogurt in the summer; it’s just that easy.