Mongolia is a country with a rich cultural heritage, and its traditional cuisine is an integral part of that legacy. If you are wondering what the best Mongolian food is, you’ve come to the right place.
So, what is Mongolian food? Traditional Mongolian food is strong, hearty and flavourful. Don’t expect too many veggies because meat is king. Especially mutton. You will struggle as a vegetarian, and it’s probably impossible to follow a vegan diet outside Ulaanbaatar. Mongolian cuisine uses everything you can get from the abundant sheep, horses and cows. Meat, milk and fat are cooked in a million different ways, mixed with other ingredients.
While travelling in Mongolia, I had the chance to try all sorts of delicious dishes with a unique and diverse range of flavours, from delicious dumplings to succulent meat dishes. I tried everything, old and new, so let me guide you through the delicious world of Mongolian cuisine.
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Traditional Mongolian Food
Buuz is a traditional Mongolian dish and is considered one of the most popular dumplings in the country. Some might even say they are the Mongolian national food.
It is a steamed dumpling filled with meat, usually lamb, mutton or beef, salt and onion. Buzz can also have fat in it to give it its characteristic flavour, and the one coming from the tail of the sheep is considered especially delicious. Occasionally it might contain herbs, potato or cabbage. The dough used for the dumpling is made from a mixture of flour and water and is rolled into thin circles to wrap the filling.
Buuz is a staple dish in Mongolia, especially during Tsagaan Sar, the Lunar New Year. It is a filling and flavorful dish and one of my favourites during my travels in Mongolia. So make sure to try Buuz to experience a delicious and authentic Mongolian dish!
Khorkhog is one of the most famous traditional dishes from Mongolia. Very often called ¨Mongolian barbecue¨.
This dish is made by slow-cooking mutton meat inside a container filled with water and hot stones. The heat of the rocks and the steam created inside the container cook the meat for over an hour and a half. Veggies are optional but not common. Usually potatoes, carrots and cabbage.
The way you need to layer the meat, rocks and veggies is a key part of the preparation of the dish. First, you need to add the meat that takes a long time to cook, like the legs. Then you add some rocks. Then you add the meat that cooks quicker, like the ribs. After that, you add more stones. And keep repeating the process: first meat, then rocks, repeat. After all the meat is in, you add the veggies on top, if you want any.
Khorkhog is delicious! I had the chance to try it while visiting a nomad family, and I loved it. If you can try it, go for it because this dish is quite hard to find in restaurants. Maybe that’s because Mongolians tend to eat it on special occasions. For example, if someone special is visiting or when celebrating the first hair-cutting ceremony, an important Mongolian tradition is about cutting a child’s hair for the first time.
If you want to be extra traditional while eating Khorkhog, after taking the hot rocks out, pass the stones from one hand to another. Apparently, some Mongolians say it improves blood circulation.
#3 Sharsan Uhriin Mah
Many traditional Mongolian dishes are simple ways of combining the staples of the country. And this one is no exception. It simply consists of fried beef with oil, onion and fat, sprinkled with salt and pepper. You can find it all over the country in small eateries.
I had it with rice and cucumber, but apparently, that was because I’m a tourist. So they added some veggies to it. Locals that had the same dish chose to eat without the greens.
The taste is meaty and strong, as you can probably imagine, and quite tasty. I personally didn’t enjoy the big chunks of fat, but others say it’s the best part!
#4 Buurunhii Mah
Continuing with the meat dishes, we have Buurunhii Mah, another traditional Mongolian food I really liked. These delicious meatballs are prepared in a very similar way to Buuz, so again, beef or mutton, onion, salt, etc. The usual ingredients.
In the photo, you might notice that there is rice in the meatballs. This is not common, and it’s once again something I got for being a tourist. However, locals do eat rice with these meatballs, but instead of part of them, it’s usually on the side. Another typical side dish is mashed potatoes.
I loved Buurunhii Mah, and it was probably one of my favourite dishes in Mongolia, so make sure to try them if you visit!
Gampir, also known as the Mongolian pancake, is good, simple, unassuming finger food.
Take your dough, the same Mongolians use for so many other dishes, make it into a ball, flatten it and deep fry it. And that’s it! You just got yourself Gampir.
Boortsog is very similar to Gampir but equally delicious! It’s also deep-fried dough but shaped like fingers, and it’s a bit thicker. Gampir, on the other side, is flat and thin.
No matter which one you prefer, they are both fantastic finger food.
Tsuvian is a dish I couldn’t get enough of. Even my fellow travellers decided to go for another round, it was that popular. And usually, portions are pretty generous in Mongolia!
You might recognize the omnipresent mix of meat and fat. Once again, mutton or beef. But this time, it comes with delicious homemade flat noodles made of wheat, water and salt. Add onion, oil and salt, and you get a mouthwatering plate of Tsuvian. If you have any veggies around, you can also toss them in there, but that is usually rare in the countryside.
I’m usually not great when it comes to eating chunks of fat, but mixing them with noodles and meat actually adds a lot to the dish. It gives them a strong and tasty flavour that blends well with the texture of the noodles.
Interestingly, the traditional way of cooking the noodles is by adding them after the meat is done and letting them steam for around 20 minutes. So no need to use multiple pots and pans!
#8 Niislel Salad
Niislel Salad is also known as Russian potato salad. This dish is actually quite popular in many ex-soviet countries, not just Mongolia or Russia.
The main ingredients are, you guessed it: potatoes. You can add carrots, cucumber or pickles and ham too, and top it with a generous amount of mayo and a bit of salt. If you have some dill, add it as well.
Mongolians eat it during New Year’s Eve when it’s traditional to have Niislel Salad with steamed dumplings.
Mantuu is a straightforward dish: rolled steamed dough ready to eat, great for combining with other foods or as a side dish.
The dough is prepared the same way as for Buuz: flour, water and salt. Then cook for about 20 minutes, and that’s it! It doesn’t get easier than that.
#10 Nogootei Shul
Nogootei Shul is a simple and unassuming vegetable soup, but really tasty. Keep in mind that this is a Mongolian vegetable soup, which means that it contains meat, usually mutton or beef, both as part of the broth and floating around in the soup.
The veggies are the classic ones you’ll find all over the country: cabbage, carrots and potatoes. The seasoning comes mostly from salt.
If you want to eat Nogootei Shul like a local, take Mantuu or Gampir on the side and eat everything together.
Bantan is the staple in Mongolia. Or at least it was.
Bantan is so important and loved that Mongolians call it ¨Golden Middle¨. Why? Because it’s easy, cheap and fast. Bantan is one of the most popular dishes in the country. It is what you give to babies in Mongolia when they start eating food with meat, what the elderly people eat, it’s what you eat when trying to deal with a hangover. It does everything!
So, how easy and fast is it to make? The recipe is two sentences: To make Batan, make a soup with mutton or beef and salt, bring it to a boil and add flour while stirring to prevent clumps. Make sure the flour pieces are small as grains of rice or even smaller. And that’s it!
#12 Aaruul (or Curd)
Aarul is another of the dishes you see all over Mongolia. It is basically really hard, sour dried yoghurt. The milk can come from cow, goat, sheep or camel milk, but not from horse milk. The taste varies depending on the piece and ranges between sweetish to very sour. I think it’s a bit of an acquired taste.
Mongolians eat it daily, as a snack, especially during summer, when animals can be milked more. In the countryside, you can see Aarul drying on top of the gers, that’s the traditional way. Making and selling Aarul is one of the ways nomadic families from outside the cities can make some money. It’s also traditional to offer it to guests.
Apparently, some people believe it’s good for your teeth because milk contains calcium. For that reason, giving it to children is quite popular, so they get good teeth!
#13 Guriltai Shul (or Lapsha)
Guriltai Shul, also known as Lapsha, is a traditional Mongolian soup made of homemade noodles. With some meat on it, of course. It is an important dish in Mongolian cuisine, and many people eat it almost every day in the country.
The noodles are the same ones you would use for Tsuvian, and they are added at the end of the cooking process once the soup has boiled and the meat is ready. As it’s often the case, you can add vegetables to the soup, but traditionally they are absent.
It is a pretty tasty food. The broth has a pleasant, fatty taste, and I quite like the mix of pasta and meat. Perfect for a cold day.
#14 Puutaatai Khuurga
Puutaatai Khuurga is Mongolian fried rice. The concept is quite similar to Tsuvian, except you swap the noodles for rice. The rest it’s all there: meat, onions, and even some veggies.
It’s rare to find Puutaatai Khuurga outside the cities, as rice is not very popular in Mongolia, especially in the countryside. So if you want to try it, your best bet is to roam around Ulaanbaatar looking for a restaurant where they serve it,
Khuushuur, or Mongolian fried dumplings. It’s a delicious dish that I couldn’t get enough of when I visited the country.
They can be filled with meat or veggies, like potatoes. However, the meat ones are by far the most common ones. The meat used for Khuushuur is prepared in the same way as the one for Buuz, the other popular Mongolian dumpling, so it’s also lamb, mutton or beef.
You might have heard of Naadam festival, the biggest one in Mongolia. Well, Khuushuur is the main dish everyone eats during the festival, so it’s quite an important food! Of course, Mongolians also eat Khuushuur outside the festival. However, they are not as popular as Buuz.
These delicious deep-fried dumplings always bring back good memories for me, so make sure to try them if you have the chance.
Eezgii is dried goat, camel or cow cheese. Never from a horse, same as with Aarul. And as Aarul, I find it a bit of an acquired taste.
The preparation is very interesting. To make it, you heat up milk, and then add a bit of yoghurt or a bit of Airag (fermented milk). After that, you boil it and stir it. With time, the milk will split and separate into cream and what Mongolians call yellow milk or Shar Suu, clarified butter. The cream is then dried in the sun until hardened, and that becomes Eezgii.
Mongolians eat Eezgii as a snack daily, similar to Aarul. In between meals.
Urum is another Mongolian dairy product. Urum is coagulated foamy cream, popular as a breakfast dish, with Gampir or Boortsog on the side. Traditional Mongolian breakfast food gives you a lot of energy to start the day!
If you are wondering how in the world you make it, as I did when I first saw it, it’s actually not too complicated: first, you heat up the milk, without bringing it to a boil. Too much heat and the milk burns, too little, and it won’t work. Once heated, you slowly add new milk to the edges and reheat it multiple times until a thick layer of foam forms.
Airag is a traditional Mongolian drink made from fermented mare milk.
The process is fascinating. You add old fermented airag to fresh milk and start stirring the mix. The more you stir, the better it gets, so you need to stir a lot. After a long session of mixing and stirring, you let it rest overnight, and it will be ready the next morning. After it’s done, you have about a week to finish it, because every day it’s going to get a bit sourer.
During the summer, Mongolians drink a lot of Airag. Similarly to Aarul, summer is the season when you can milk your animals, so dairy products are more popular at that time. During Winter, the mares need their milk to feed the baby horses, so Mongolians don’t milk them. The season with the best Airag, however, is Autumn. They say Airag then is tastier and stronger. That is the one I tried, so I guess I have to consider myself lucky!
#19 Suutei Tsai
This is one of my favourites. Suutei Tsai is traditional Mongolian salted hot milk tea.
The preparation is quite simple: boil water, add tea and wait until it brews. Then, add salt and milk to it. The milk can come from a cow, sheep, goat or camel, but not from a horse. It’s quick to prepare and absolutely delicious. I love milky teas, like Pakistani chai, and this was no exception. Very unique and very tasty.
Suutei Tsai is a very popular Mongolian tea, many families make it in the morning. When the tea is ready, the family will usually spill some of it “to the Sun” as an offering and pray a few words. Maybe bless the house, or ask for a good day. It’s a tradition that comes from Tengrism, the ancient Mongolian religion.
If you want to try Suutei Tsai, you can find it in the cities, but it’s more popular in the countryside. In cities, Mongolians also drink black tea with no milk. However, outside, most drink tea with milk.
#20 Nermel Arkhi
If you need to get drunk like a true Mongol, you need to try Nermel Arkhi, homemade vodka distilled from yoghurt.
This liquor is popular all over the country, and Mongolians make it themselves. As I said before, you make Nermel Arkhi with dairy, with mare’s yoghurt. You cover the yoghurt with a cylinder of metal called burheeg, suspend a bucket on it and cover the entire thing with a bowl or a pot. You fill the bowl with water and boil the yoghurt. This evaporates the contents that then fall into the bucket.
If you visit a Mongolian ger in the countryside, you should give it a go. When I tried Nermel Arkhi, I found it surprisingly strong, and I could definitely find milky notes in it. Apparently, you can add butter to it to make it smoother, but I didn’t try it.
Mongols used to use it as a medicine and even as a remedy for sleeping better. They told me a good chug of hot Nermel Arkhi will make you sweat, relax and help you get a good night of sleep.
I hope that now you have a good idea of what is Mongolian food and what are traditional Mongolian dishes. Exploring a country through its cuisine is one of the joys of travelling, so if you visit the country and want to try real Mongolian food, don’t be afraid to dive in and try anything from this list!
Mongolia is a vast country, and this list doesn’t cover a fraction of the typical Mongolian food out there. If you think we missed something important, let us know in the comments!
Until your next adventure!