The food of the Mongols also consists of milk prepared in various ways, either as butter, curds, whey, or kumiss. The curds are made from the unskimmed milk, which is gently simmered over a slow fire, and then allowed to stand for some time, after which the thick cream is skimmed of and dried, and roasted millet often added to it. The whey is prepared from sour skimmed milk, and is made into small dry lumps of cheese. Lastly, the kumiss (tarasum), is prepared from mares’ or sheep’s milk; all through the summer it is considered the greatest luxury, and Mongols are in the habit of constantly riding to visit their friends and taste the tarasum till they generally become intoxicated. They are all inclined to indulge too freely, although drunkenness is not so rife among them as it is in some more civilised countries.
Tea and milk consitute the chief food of the Mongols all the tear round, but they are equally fond of mutton. The highest praise they can bestow on any food is to say that it is ‘as good as mutton.’ Sheep, like camels, are sacred; indeed all their domestic animals are emblems of some good qualities. The favourite part is the tail which is pure fat. In autumn, when the grass is of the poorest description, the sheep fatten wonderfully, and the fatter the better for Mongol taste. No part of the slaughtered animal is wasted, but everything is eaten up with the utmost relish.
The gluttony of this people exceeds all description. A Mongol will eat more than ten pounds of meat at one sittings, but some have been known to devour an average-sized sheep in the course of twenty-four hours! On a journey, when provisions are economised, a leg of mutton is the ordinary daily ration for one man, and although he can live for days without food, yet, when once he gets it, he will eat enough for seven.
They always boil their mutton, only roasting the breast as a delicacy. On a winter’s journey, when the frozen meat requires extra time for cooking, they eat it half raw, slicing off pieces from the surface, and returning it again to the pot. When travelling and pressed for time, they take a piece of mutton and place it on the back of the camel, underneath the saddle, to preserve it from the frost, whence it is brought out during the journey and eaten, covered with camel’s hair and reeking with sweat; but this is no test of a Mongol’s appetite. […]
They eat with their fingers, which are always disgustingly dirty; raising a large piece of meat and seizing it in their teeth, they cut off with a knife, close to the mouth, the portion remaining in the hand. The bones are licked clean, and sometimes cracked for the sake of the marrow; the shoulder-blade of mutton is always broken and thrown aside, it being considered unlucky to leave it unbroken.
On special occasions they eat the flesh of goats and horses; beef rarely, and camels’ flesh more rarely still. The lamas will touch none of this meat, but have no objection to carrion, particularly if the dead animal is at all fat. They do not habitually eat bread, but they will not refuse Chinese loaves, and sometimes bake wheaten cakes themselves. Near the Russian frontier they will even eat black bread, but further in the interior they do not know what it is, and those to whom we gave rusks, made of rye-flour, to taste, remarked that there was nothing nice about such food as that, which only jarred the teeth.
Fowl or fish they consider unclean, and their dislike to them is so great that one of our guides nearly turned sick on seeing us eat boiled duck at Koko-nor; this shows how relative are the ideas of people even in matters which apparently concern the senses. The very Mongol, born and bred amid frightful squalor, who could relish carrion, shuddered when he saw us eat duck à l’Européenne.
Their only occupation and source of wealth is cattle-breeding, and their riches are counted by the number of their live stock, sheep, horses, camels, oxen, and a few goats—the proportion varying in different parts of Mongolia. Thus, the best camels are bred among the Khalkas; the Chakhar country is famous for its horses, Ala-shan for its goats; and in Koko-nor the yak is a substitute for the cow.
: They have a remarkable way of killing their sheep: they slit up the creature’s stomach, thrust their hand in, and seize hold of the heart, squeezing it till the animal dies.
Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, Travels in Eastern High Asia, Vol. I: Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet, pg. 53-57 (1876)
The Mongolians had no cuisine as we might think of it. They had simple cooking that was the same for everyone: mostly boiled, unseasoned meat. Yet the cook was one of the highest-ranking officials of the empire and in charge of running the court.
The cook was also important in keeping the peace, since the order in which people were served food could lead to great fights and food riots. For this reason, no one could come to a meal with a weapon (but they still threw dishes and anything else at hand).
Mongols categorized food into two groups. Ulaan Idee were red foods (like meat), mainly eaten in the winter and spring. Tsagaan Idee were white foods (like dairy products), mostly eaten in the summer and fall. Vegetables were considered a form of grass and called “goat food.” The Mongols were thoroughly disgusted that farmers ate plants that grew in the dirt and had often been fertilized with excrement.
The Mongols were very particular about butchery. The butcher (usually a young boy) made a small incision in the chest of the goat or sheep, reached inside and pinched off the aorta, which immediately killed the animal. It had to be done outdoors, but in a shadow, so that the sun would not see it, and without spilling the blood, so that the earth would not feel it. Large animals like oxen would be killed by hitting them between the horns with a sledgehammer, so as not to spill any blood. Normally an animal would be consumed within three hours.
Because the Mongols cooked over dung fires, they usually boiled meat rather than roasting or frying it. When on the move, the Mongols often cooked an animal in its own skin by stuffing it with heated rocks. Genghis Khan and his men once avoided starvation by killing a wild horse and cooking it in its hide.
Genghis Khan’s first killing was over food. He killed his half-brother for taking a bird and a fish he’d caught.
In the fall, when the men took the animals far from home to graze and fatten them for the winter, they lived mostly on fermented horse or camel milk supplemented by wild marmots, which they cooked in their skin. Fermented camel and horse milk produce nearly constant diarrhea, but since the men lived outside, it was not considered too big a problem.