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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

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.

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.”



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