Among the vast, dramatic landscapes of Mongolia, lie gers belonging to some of the most hospitable people on earth, who live simply off of the land around them. During a tour of Mongolia, you will likely be here, there and everywhere, visiting various natural wonders, cultural and historical highlights, and gazing out at the beautiful yet varying scenery. There will be another constant in your journey around Mongolia – visiting nomadic families in their homes, enjoying traditional hospitality and sampling an array of home-made drinks.
Depending on when and where you are visiting, you are very likely to come across at least a few of the following beverages: airag (fermented mare’s milk), home-distilled vodka, milk tea and sea buckthorn juice. Not all of these drinks are to everyone’s taste but, well, it’d be rude not to give them a go. They are certain to be a conversation starter, whether it’s due to the strength of the alcohol, or the faces pulled by those who aren’t so keen.
Mongolians are renowned for their hospitality, something that will become apparent as soon as you arrive. By way of greeting you are likely to be offered snuff and tea from your hosts when you arrive in to a family’s ger. It is an everyday ceremony in Mongolia steeped in history and nomadic tradition and one must follow a certain protocol when accepting this welcome, such as accepting with your bowl of steamy salted milk tea with both hands – be sure to ask your guide to explain before you arrive!
Sea Buckthorn Juice
Sea Buckthorn juice is “liquid gold” to many people in Mongolia, due to its healing reputation. The juice is made from the bright orange berries of this thorny bush, which grows in almost inhospitable conditions. It can easily be consumed as a powder or in capsules, drinks, shampoo, lotions and more. It is used as a source of vitamins, antioxidants, immunity boosters and to improve blood pressure. If you happen to be in Ulaanbaatar during the Autumn markets, you will find yourself almost tripping over the bags of sea buckthorn berries being sold by the crateful. Wild patches of this shrub thrive in areas where little else can: in deserts and amongst the trees of mountain ranges. Sea buckthorn juice is typically made by boiling and filtering out the berries, or sometimes even served with it. If you do grow fond of the taste during your travels in Mongolia, there are condensed juice mixtures made by local brands such as “Shar Doctor” sold around stores for you to take home.
Airag is a fermented dairy product traditionally made from horses milk. It is very light in body compared to most dairy drinks. It has a unique, slightly sour flavour with a bite of mild alcoholic content (0.7-2%). The initial fermentation takes two to five hours at a temperature of around 27°C. In Mongolia the milking season for horses traditionally runs between mid-June and early October. During a season, a mare produces about 1,000 litres (220 gallons) of milk. Half is traditionally left to the foal – the rest is drunk by the family, and/or sold. The fresh milk is stirred and aerated over a period of 2-3 days until it starts to ferment. A ‘young’ airag will taste light, slightly sharp and lightly fizzy with a very slight alcohol content (0.5%)- not too unpleasant. An ‘older’ airag – a week or two old – will taste rich, sour and fizzy, with a slightly higher alcohol content – certainly an acquired taste! At homestays guests are usually handed a “hul”, a wooden or steel traditional Mongolian cup, filled to the brim with airag. One is expected to have a small sip and pass it around. But if you manage to down the entire cup a round of applause awaits!
Mongolian tea is the local drink of choice – traditionally made in a large pot over a stove with half-water, half-milk, a handful of tea leaves, some salt, and perhaps a dollop of butter (or fat left over in the pan). All the ingredients are heated until boiled then served straight out of the pot or stored in a “danh” or a large thermos for later consumption. During your travels in Mongolia you will be offered one at every nomadic family you visit no matter you are in the Gobi or out in west in Ulgii. It does not matter if you do not want to drink it, but accepting the cup or bowl is a must as refusal can offend the hosts. Remember to accept it with your both hands as mentioned before, or as shown by your guide (who will also be happy to quaff any tea that you happen to leave!)
No mention of drink would be complete without vodka – Mongolians drink a lot of it for festivities and also to keep oneself warm during winter. Most is poor quality, but some (like Bolor and Khar Chinggis) are very good and are found stacked on shelves in stores. Nomads distil their own ‘milk’ vodka, which is around 10-12% and is surprisingly drinkable. Distilling a milk vodka is not a complicated process. A medium sized pot is hung between two large ones. The bottom pot is filled with curd, also known as “aarts”, which is heated to a boiling temperature, and the topmost one is filled with cold water to create condensation from the steam below. The middle pot is to catch the drips from the condensation. Then the distilled vodka is either stored for future use, sold or served straight away. You might observe that Mongolians dip their right ring finger in their glass of vodka and flick some of it over their heads – this is a way of offering alcohol to the spirits before consuming the drink.
Photo Credits: Goyo Travel, Jon Chater, Pascal Thomas, Alan Wignall