Thursday, February 6, 2020

When you Dine with Reindeer Herders in Mongolia: Bread, Meat and Milk

Beer and dried meat on a platform beside an urts (teepee) in an east taiga spring camp. 

“To remain who we are, we must continue to eat what we do.”
Indigenous Youth, Arctic Change & Food Culture.  

Eating is more than sustenance, with the very definition of food rooted in cultural knowledge. One person’s delicacy is another’s forbidden fruit.  As a Baltimorean, I was raised on steamed blue crabs flavored with the ubiquitous Old Bay Seasoning original to Maryland. These crustaceans would never find their way onto a table hosted by observant Muslims or Jews. Personal preference means I shy away from my friend’s favorite soup made with sheep’s heads, while in restaurants my children pass me the anchovies from their Caesar Salads. Encompassing religion, availability, personal experience, even income and education, the collection, preparation, and sharing of food involves specific skills and the enactment of rituals learned from one’s family. This includes special recipes handed down through generations, particular foods found only in our home regions, and the language used to name our favorite dish. Everyone, too, can he relate to the feeling of contentment experienced when encountering a familiar aroma as it wafts from the oven or pot creating an immediate visceral link to childhood. What we choose to put in our bodies is a reinforcement of who we are and where we came from. When we lose the connection to our foods, we lose our collective past. 
        Most people in the industrial world today do not raise their own animals, grow vegetables, forage or hunt, but buy their food preselected at the supermarket. Much of what we consume is prepackaged, dehydrated or frozen, ready to be baked, reconstituted, or microwaved for a ready-made meal. Not just family traditions, and hunger, but time, money, supply chains, and marketing strategies play a role in what we eat every day.

Rose hips will be used for infusions.
For indigenous peoples, “food systems are related to people, place, culture, the traditional and modern markets, food systems, physical, social and mental health, colonial histories, environmental and climate change, as well as governance” (Burgess, 2017, 15).* Indeed, climate change and the diminishing biodiversity of flora and fauna have created an emergency. The sustainability of traditional livelihoods using traditional foods and knowledge is under threat. If cultural identity is intertwined with what people eat, then aiding food security and sovereignty by enabling the equitable access to resources of one’s choosing will empower and help indigenous people sustain their lifestyles and identity.
In 2016, the Arctic Council Sustainable Working Group organized a workshop of all Arctic reindeer herding youth in Norway. In 2017 they published an award-winning cookbook, “Food, Knowledge and How We have Thrived on the Margins: Eallu.” In English, the Sami word “Eallu” means “herd.” Fourteen Arctic reindeer herding groups were represented, along with the Dukha of Mongolia. Each provided recipes made from local ingredients, contributed stories told about their food, and explained etiquette surrounding the slaughter and consumption of reindeer. This book is so unique and important it won the prestigious Gourmand International Cookbook Award in 2018 in Yantai, China. Within its pages are represented many regional differences in the preparation and preservation of resources, most seasonally available. The rhythm of the natural world is intertwined with the sumptuary and social customs of traditional peoples. Some herders eat only cooked food while others like raw meat or frozen fish. Preservation methods include drying, smoking, and freezing. There are recipes containing foraged berries and mushrooms, fish, seal, and of course, reindeer.  All parts of animals are used in cooking and one can find instructions for moose blood soup, eye soup, and braided seal intestine. Yogurt and milk soup are made from reindeer milk, and wild plants round out ingredients that are foraged, hunted, or herded. Among the Dukha herders, reindeer are traditionally not used for food, but for hauling and transportation, the four-wheel drive of the taiga. Their youth submitted one recipe for bread and five different ways to cook a wild yellow potato.
Grandmother is making bread while grandfather 
holds his eighteen-month-old grandson, east taiga.
The bread, hunguun, is made from reindeer milk, flour, salt, and water. It is shaped like a bagel and cooked in ash. Easy to carry during migration, hunguun is believed to provide many health benefits. In the taiga, the wild potato grows on the mountain slopes. As a majority of families spend the summer in high pastures, the potato can be collected when its white and purple flowers turn crimson. It is used in the winter, spring and summer. Before the introduction of rice and flour it was an important source of carbohydrates. According to the Dukha, the wild yellow potato prevents fatigue and helps one lead a long life. It is cooked in a soup along with onions, salt, reindeer, boar, moose, sheep, or goat; as a dumpling mixed with rice, wild onions and salt; served with fried noodles and wild onions; steamed then mashed; and placed in ash, then cleaned and consumed.
Though the Dukha do not regularly eat their reindeer, and as hunting is currently illegal, most meat is purchased. A variety of freshly slaughtered, tinned and dried meat is available in Tsagaannuur soum (local government center) and larger cities. In the countryside, families may purchase a cow in the autumn, dry the meat (along with all of the fat) and use that throughout the year. In the taiga one can often see strips of drying reindeer meat hung from poles inside the urts (teepee). Reindeer are milked daily and the fresh product turned into cheese, curds, yoghurt, and used for salted milk tea. People also catch fresh fish in the lakes in and around the taiga and the soum.
Bread is a daily staple. Besides hunuun, there is talkh.  Flour is mixed with water, then packaged or home-made sourdough starter is added. This is kneaded then placed in a pot and baked on top of the wood-burning stove. When the bread is halfway done, it is taken out of the pot, flipped, and put back into the pot to finish cooking. 'Noodles' made of rolled out flat dough are flash cooked on top of the stove, sliced into long noodle shapes and steamed with re-hydrated meat for a national dish called tsuiven. Small balls or knots of deep-fried bread called boortsog, sometimes coated in sugar, seems an in-between meal staple, while gambir is best described as a cross between a pancake and a croissant. A popular mainstay is a steamed meat dumpling called buuz. Rice, preserved and pickled vegetables, fresh carrots, and onions can be purchased in Tsagaannuur and carried out to the taiga by horse. Dry goods like detergent, staples like flour, rice, candy and sundry household items can also be bought in town. Most families also get goods from larger cities like Moron where a larger assortment of fresh and preserved foods is available.
The Dukha also forage seasonally. In a short study conducted in the summer of 2019, I collected information on 21 different plants used for food, infusions or teas, and medicine. For example, in the autumn, families collect blueberries, huckleberries, gooseberries and pine nuts, the latter toasted in the wood stove. In  June, rhubarb is harvested. The stalk is made into jam that is spread on bread for a morning meal. 
While in the US we have available a variety of cuisines to choose from throughout the day, most Mongolians, Dukha included, eat the same thing more or less every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is usually some variation of bread, buzz or tsuiven, and milk tea. Even when other foods are available, the herders prefer their staples and no meal is complete without meat. Even on city menus, a 'vegetable soup' is really just a meat soup with vegetables. Otherwise, it's just meat with a sliver of carrot and potato to garnish the dish. Mongolia is not a place for vegetarians. When a vegan traveler was seen asking a countryside cook preparing tsuiven at a roadside canteen, "Can't you just leave the meat out?" she answered, "I can't cook without meat." The lesson here is that if you are a non-meat consumer visiting Mongolia, be prepared to face new challenges and make new memories when asking, "What's for dinner?" Better yet, bring along a jar of peanut butter.

Fresh fish cooking on the stove top, west taiga, spring camp.

Riding the reindeer home after an afternoon of foraging for gooseberries, west taiga, August


Fresh talkh cooked on a stove, west taiga.

Pine cones, not yet ready! 

Our translator and guide Chuka with a hand full of spring onions.
Tsuiven (meat and noodles) in the east taiga summer camp.
Food shopping in Tsaagaannuur soum.

Dried meat (and fat globules) in a market in Moron.

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