What did the Mongols eat? For the most part, whatever simple foods they could find on the Steppe. Khans ate much better, however. As with all peoples, the Mongol’s diet depended greatly on where they lived. Mongolia, then and now, had a harsh climate, with long, bitterly cold winters and short, hot summers. Living as they did in an inhospitable climate, the Mongols ate foods they got from their animals. Farming was not possible for the most part, so the most prominent foods in the Mongol diet were meat and milk products such as cheese and yogurt. The Mongols were a nomadic, pastoral culture and they prized their animals: horses, sheep, camels, cattle and goats. As their herds ate up the grass, the Mongols would pack up their gers, tent-like dwellings they lived in, and move their herds to fresher pastures.
Thus, their food groups were predominantly milk products and a variety of meats. While the Mongols appreciated milk products, they didn’t drink fresh milk; instead they fermented milk from mares, making an alcoholic drink known as airag or kumiss. After women finished milking the cattle, goats and sheep, they would process the milk into milk curds, yogurts and airag. The usual beverages were salted tea and airag, fermented mare’s milk.
White and Red Foods
The Mongols had two main food groups—the white foods and the red. The white, of course, were the milk products. The red foods were meat, and Mongols ate meat from all of their animals. Meat was either skewered and roasted over fire, or boiled into stews and soups. Whatever vegetables the Mongols gathered on their journeys also went into soups and stews. Usually, they could find wild onions and garlic, but tubers, roots, seeds and berries also went into the stewpot.
Generally, the Mongols ate dairy in the summer, and meat and animal fat in the winter, when they needed the protein for energy and the fat to help keep them warm in the cold winters. In the summers, their animals produced a lot of milk so they switched the emphasis from meat to milk products.
Nomadic Life Style
As nomads, the Mongols didn’t have ovens, so they couldn’t make bread. Since they didn’t farm, they also didn’t have many vegetables. What they had was what they could find on the steppes. Wild onions and garlic were avidly sought after and used both as food and medicine. After the coming of the empire, however, Mongols gained access to some Chinese foods such as rice and flour, which could be used to make noodles and quick breads. The Mongols also began to use some spices, although in general their foods were hearty, but bland.
When Mongols were on the move, a warrior’s wife might hand him a bag of meat, onions and flour or rice. The warrior would stick the bag under his saddle and the heat from the friction of his body and the horse’s would cook the ingredients in the bag into a kind of stew. Mongol warriors would also knick a vein in their pony’s neck and drink a few gulps of the horse’s blood. If he were riding a mare, the warrior might also grab a few mouthfuls of milk from the mare’s teat during a brief stop.