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Migrate to Mongolia: A Tender Sapling Travelers Cultural Adventure – Part 3 (Food)

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This post is part of the Tender Sapling Travelers Series and Part 3 of a 3-part installment on Mongolia. See Part 1 here (book recommendations and learning about the ger) and Part 2 here (prayer wheels, including a step-by-step craft).

I usually love researching and selecting which native food to prepare for our monthly Culture Club homeschool cooperative potluck. However, Mongolia had me stumped.

The traditional nomadic diet is so opposite to what we eat, it presented a few challenges:

1) Where would I get the ingredients or cooking tools, such as the abdominal cavity of a marmot, inside which I would cook chunks of mutton over heated stones if making “Boodog?”

2) If I could get all the supplies and pull off a traditional dish, which typically involves no seasoning and is usually heavy on the animal fat to help Mongolians survive their cold winters, would my kids or any of the 30 other children at our potluck try more than a bite of it?

3) Given that there are several vegetarians in our coop and that our potluck dishes sit out at room temperature for some time, I prefer to select vegetarian dishes from each month’s country. Mongolian food is so heavily meat-based! It’s summarized by Wikipedia as a diet consisting primarily of “dairy products, meat, and animal fat.”

Then I remembered: We’d studied Mongolia some years ago. What had I made? Had the kids liked it? Could I get away with making it again? . . . Nope, no memories of the food, whatsoever! (Must have been during a newborn phase, when I memorize each detail of my sweet baby’s face and forget most other things.)

Ok, how about that great Mongolian Barbeque the kids had loved so much? We’d made an early effort to expose our children to Mongolian food months prior while in Washington, DC, and the kids had a blast selecting foods to be grilled up before our eyes. My online search for a Mongolian Barbeque recipe foiled my plan: kinda like French Fries ain’t French, this baby is not Mongolian! It was created in Taiwan in the 1970s. (At least we had a special memory from that dinner out to cherish: our middle tender sapling lost his first baby tooth in a bowl of white rice!)

My dilemma continued: What Mongolian food to make?

Imagine how thrilled I was when we stumbled upon this picture of a woman making yogurt (or some other dairy product) inside her ger.

A Mongolian woman making yogurt inside her ger.

A Mongolian woman making yogurt inside her ger.

At that moment, I realized we had something in common with Mongolians. We make homemade yogurt too!

Up until then, everything we’d discovered about Mongolian life seemed so remarkably different than ours:

  • the round gers that nomadic Mongolian families inhabit, packing up and moving every several months
  • the wide, undeveloped spaces that are a rural child’s classroom, the background to their bareback rides astride wild horses
  • the Buddhist influence that is re-emerging after decades of Communist suppression
  • and, of course, the heavy consumption of animal products and sparse inclusion of fruits, vegetables, and grains in the traditional diet.

I am usually thrilled by all the incredible diversity of the cultures we study. This time I breathed a sigh of relief to find a similarity between our family’s culture and that of the culture we were studying.

So, we made Tarag – cow’s milk yogurt. To find out how, see our Homemade Yogurt post with our family’s recipe and pictures of our oldest son helping make it.

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With a bit more research, we learned that Mongolians also enjoy berries during the warm months. In ironic contrast to the nomadic Mongolian experience picking berries only when seasonally available, we bought blueberries in the middle of winter to serve on top of the yogurt. (We also got some dried Goji berries – grown in Mongolia – to enjoy at home. Yum!)

I love when my kids experience new foods from the various countries and cultures we study, such as when we enjoyed a Norwegian food fest weekend.

I even love when the cultural food exploration bombs, such as it did during our Wampanoag Thanksgiving meal.

Our “travels” to Mongolia proved that I also love the experience of discovering something familiar in a vastly different culture!

As I dished up our “Mongolian yogurt” cups to serve the kids at our coop, I felt a bit like the 22-year-old me who was tickled beyond belief by her first Hong Kong grocery store visit after living in China for two months and losing ten pounds. By the time I crossed back into China two days later, my suitcase was overflowing with honey, lentils, and other familiar goodies that would make the coming months a bit easier as I continued to explore a new culture.

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I set our tray of Mongolian Tarag with Fresh Berries on the Culture Club table and smiled. Next to it was this lovely contribution by another family: a Mongolian flag cake. Clearly, I was not the only one who struggled to come up with an authentic food that would be attractive to our kids’ Westernized taste buds. The cake got extra points in my book for creativity, as it would surely be more memorable for the kids than a typical “This is the flag of …” presentation.

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Cake decorated with the Mongolian flag.

Our other mealtime contribution at the Mongolian Culture Club gathering was easy to prepare: a native meal blessing. I always enjoy researching and selecting this, as it provides a common thread to all our gatherings and shows that giving gratitude for our food is a universal human experience.

This month’s meal blessing was a nice complement to the topic our oldest son had presented on and the companion craft he had created: a Buddhist hand prayer wheel.

Here is the meal blessing we shared:

Now may every living thing, young or old, weak or strong, living near or far, known or unknown, living or departed or yet unborn, may every living thing be full of bliss.

       – The Buddha

During our family’s dinner that night, we enjoyed listening to this Mongolian throat singing. It sounded oddly similar to the native singing of the Sami peoples we’d discovered during our exploration of Norway. How amazing the threads that tie our human family together!

While our family’s study of Mongolia had officially ended, I spent the next few weeks enjoying the first part of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: how the daughters of Genghis Khan rescued his empire by Jack Weatherford. I found this fascinating tie-in to Mongolian food and prayer-culture in this ritual practiced for hundreds of years (and apparently still today) by nomadic Mongolian mothers when their children left home:

“Instead of crying, the mother performed an ancient ritual of the steppe. She brought out a pail of milk, and as her child rode away, she stood before the door of her ger and threw milk into the air with a tsatsal, a wooden instrument resembling a large perforated spoon. With an upward and outward toss of her right arm, the mother waved the tsatsal and aspersed the milk into the air until her child passed out of her sight. The milk constituted a special prayer, and it carried the hope that the mother could pour out a white road ahead of her child. Because a route made of white stones and sand can reflect the moon and starts, it could be traveled at night as well as day… As long as her children remained away from her, the Mongol mother came out every morning with her pail and tsatsal to sprinkle milk in the direction of each one of them…” (pg. 53)

That image will remain with me for some time. Milk may be a shared part of our food heritage and the pain of a child’s departure from home something mothers world-wide share, but the milk-sprinkling ritual is uniquely Mongolian.

(Do you think the drink-spraying my toddler likes to do across our kitchen floor could reflect a deeply ingrained human desire to spread life-sustaining liquids as a gesture that holds greater meaning? Nah!)

How has food served you and your family as a portal to exploring other cultures?

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Author: Emily

Emily is homeschooling mama to three amazing boys, whose alarming growth and appetites keep her running laps to the grocery store. She writes about loving life amidst the piles of laundry and legos. When life is just too much, she binges on chocolate and plans a dream trip around the world.

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