A Natural Versatility: Mongolian Yogurt Culture

Learn about the Mongolians’ reverence for dairy — which has a much different taste and application than milk in America.

| May 2019

mongolia-map
Photo from Adobe Stock 

In Mongolia, milk is sacred. When guests visit a home, the host greets them with a bowl of milk wrapped in a blue silk scarf as an offering of respect. One of the land’s most revered staples, milk is also prized for its unparalleled versatility. “We make thirty-seven different dairy products from milk,” said Ganmaa Davaasambuu, PhD., a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in the Department of Nutrition. And not just milk from cows, sheep, and goats, but from horses, yaks, and camels, too. 

Davaasambuu doesn’t consume much American dairy here in the United States. Our tendency to pasteurize and homogenize our milk gives dairy products a different flavor from those she grew up with in Mongolia. “The flavor there is totally natural,” she said of the milk and yogurt of her youth. “It’s very appealing.”

Given Mongolians’ reverence for dairy, it’s not surprising that yogurt is popular. “In the countryside, everyone makes their own yogurt. You just warm up milk, bring it to a boil, add a small amount of yogurt, let it stand overnight in a warm place, and it’s ready. Children eat yogurt every night before sleeping, especially in nomad families,” Davaasambuu said. (One third of the population are nomads.) Yogurt is also transformed into other preparations, notably curds, “a hard, solid mass, kind of like a cake,” that allows for long keeping.



making-mongolian-yogurt
Photo from Adobe Stock

To make the curds, yogurt is hung and strained. The resulting solids are pressed between heavy stones or wooden boards and then cut into different shapes. “We leave it on the roof of the yurt to dry in the sun and the wind,” Davaasambuu explained. “You can take it with you when you go out with the livestock. Some kids eat it with sugar, but otherwise it’s a combination of sour and sweet.”

Mongolians also brew alcohol from yogurt (or kefir, as yeast is often added). The process goes like this: Accumulated yogurt goes into a wok, which sits over a fire. On top, a second wok filled with cold water sits in a wooden frame with a hole that leads to a funnel. When a fire is lit, the yogurt in the bottom wok boils and evaporation forces liquid up through the funnel into a collection vessel, where it condenses. “Evaporation makes alcohol through this contraption,” Davaasambuu explained. She said the resulting beverage is potent, about 10 percent alcohol, but subsequent pots are less strong. This milk vodka or yogurt vodka, called isgelen, is a favorite of Mongol men, but everyone drinks it, especially during celebrations, festivals, or when entertaining guests.

Yogurt is added to Mongolian bantan, a soup simmered with beef broth, onions, and flour dumplings. It may be boiled, and the solid mass, known as aarts, is collected and added to soup or fried meals. “Some kids mix it with sugar, freeze it, and eat it like ice cream,” said Davaasambuu.

milking-mongolia
Photo from Adobe Stock

More from Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World's Creamiest, Healthiest Food:

yogurt-cultureLong celebrated as a versatile ingredient in cuisines across the globe, yogurt has recently emerged as a food of nearly unparalleled growth here in the United States. The time has come for a modern, far-ranging cookbook devoted to its untapped culinary uses. In Yogurt Culture, award-winning food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule presents 115 flavorful recipes, taking yogurt farther than the breakfast table, lunchbox, or gym bag. Rule strips yogurt of its premixed accessories and brings it back to its pure, wholesome essence. In chapters like Flavor, Slurp, Dine, and Lick, she pairs yogurt not just with fruit but with meat, not just with sugar but with salt, not just with herbs but with fragrant spices whose provenance spans the globe. She provides foolproof, step-by-step instructions for how to make yogurt, Greek yogurt, and labneh at home, though all of her recipes can also be prepared with commercial yogurt. Rule explores yogurt from every angle, explaining how to read a label, visiting producers large and small, and gaining entry to the kitchens of cooks from around the world. Deeply researched and peppered with stories, interviews, and full-color photographs, Yogurt Culture offers a fresh, comprehensive take on a beloved food.




Excerpted from Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World's Creamiest, Healthiest Food© 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Photography © 2015 by Ellen Silverman. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.









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