My Citizens! We are coming up on a thrice-holy weekend for the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ faiths – Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) starts this evening at sundown, it is Good Friday today with Easter on Sunday and we are also in the middle of Ramadan! Truly an auspicious weekend indeed to have recipes for any or all of these blessed holidays – so, to celebrate…here is a Mongolian recipe that has nothing to do with ANY of them! I walk My OWN path, there are plenty of recipes already here for these holidays. 😉
I, the Khagan of Kindness, have always felt a pang of sympathy for those who are rarely talked about or understood by outsiders, and few facts are known by most about the history of this mighty region.
EXCEPT when it comes to its most famous/notorious ruler – Genghis Khan (Emperor Genghis), more properly referred to as Chinggis Khaan in Mongolian! Today’s recipe provided an important food source to the so-called ‘Golden Horde’ of Genghis Khan, so let’s dive into both the history and recipe as one!
First off – the etymology (origins) of the word ‘Khaan’: Khaan (Khagan, ᠬᠠᠭᠠᠨ) is a title that was used only by the supreme ruler of the Mongol Empire. For those of you who enjoy Star Trek, you’ll assuredly know about Khan Noonian Singh and his name is a direct callback to the Mongolian term! For the record, however – ‘Khaan’ is NOT pronounced this way, despite the extra a – Kirk went a LITTLE too far in his first attempt at Mongolian linguistics! 😉
Getting back to history, surprisingly little is known regarding the history of Genghis Khan (I’ll be using the standard English spelling moving forward) – but this much we DO know:
Genghis Khan (May 1, 1162 – August 25, 1227) whose birth name was actually Temüjin, was the founder and first Great Khan (Emperor) of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia, and, after being proclaimed the universal ruler of the Mongols, or Genghis Khan, he set in motion the Mongol invasions.
These invasions ultimately conquered much of Eurasia, and witnessed raiding as far west as Legnica in western Poland and as far south as Gaza. During his life, he launched campaigns against the Qara Khitai, Khwarezmia, the Western Xia and Jin dyansty, while his generals raided into medieval Georgia, the Kievan Rus’, and Volga Bulgaria.
According to the Secret History, Temüjin was named after the Tatar chief Temüjin-üge whom his father had just captured. The name Temüjin is also equated with the Turco-Mongol temürči(n), ‘blacksmith’, and there existed a tradition that viewed Genghis Khan as a smith, according to Paul Pelliot, which, though unfounded, was well established by the middle of the 13th century.
The honorary title Genghis Khan is possibly derived from the Turkic tengiz, meaning sea, making his title literally ‘oceanic ruler’, interpreted figuratively as ‘universal ruler’.
Genghis Khan and his empire have a fearsome reputation in local histories. Many medieval chroniclers and modern historians describe Genghis Khan’s conquests as wholesale destruction on an unprecedented scale, causing great demographic changes and a drastic decline of population as a result of mass exterminations and famine. A conservative estimate says four million civilians (whereas other figures range from forty to sixty million) died as a consequence of Genghis Khan’s military campaigns.
In contrast, Buddhist Uyghurs of the kingdom of Qocho, who willingly left the Qara Khitai empire to become Mongol vassals, viewed him as a liberator. Genghis Khan was also portrayed positively by early Renaissance sources out of respect for the great spread of culture, technology and ideas along the Silk Road under the Mongol Empire. By the end of the Great Khan’s life, the Mongol Empire occupied a substantial portion of Central Asia and China.
Due to his exceptional military successes, Genghis Khan is often considered to be one of the greatest conquerors of all time.
Beyond his military accomplishments, Genghis Khan also advanced the Mongol Empire in other ways. He adopted the Uyghur script as the Mongol Empire’s writing system, maintained the strict but fair rule of Mongol law across his vast territories, practiced meritocracy and encouraged religious tolerance. Present-day Mongolians regard him as the founding father of Mongolia for unifying the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia.
His bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political environment also considerably eased communication and trade between Northeast Asia, Muslim Southwest Asia, and Christian Europe, boosting global commerce and expanding the cultural horizons of all the Eurasian civilizations of the day. So – a complex legacy from a fearsome man indeed!
Genghis Khan was probably born in 1162 in Delüün Boldog, near the mountain Burkhan Khaldun and the rivers Onon and Kherlen in modern-day northern Mongolia, close to the current capital Ulaanbaatar. The Secret History of the Mongols reports that Temüjin was born grasping a blood clot in his fist, a traditional sign that he was destined to become a great leader – it certainly symbolized his bloody conquests, no question about that!
Genghis Khan had a notably positive reputation among some western European authors in the Middle Ages, who knew little concrete information about his empire in Asia. The Italian explorer Marco Polo said that Genghis Khan “was a man of great worth, and of great ability, and valor”, while philosopher and inventor Roger Bacon applauded the scientific and philosophical vigor of Genghis Khan’s empire, and the famed writer Geoffrey Chaucer wrote:
The noble king was called Genghis Khan,
Who in his time was of so great renown,
That there was nowhere in no region,
So excellent a lord in all things
In Mongolia, Genghis Khan has been revered for centuries by Mongols and many Turkic peoples because of his association with tribal statehood, political and military organization, and victories in war. As the principle unifying figure in Mongolian history, he remains a larger-than-life figure in Mongolian culture. He is credited with introducing the Mongolian script and creating the first written Mongolian code of law, in the form of the Yassa.
During the communist period in Mongolia, Genghis was often described by the government as a reactionary figure, and positive statements about him were avoided. In 1962, the erection of a monument at his birthplace and a conference held in commemoration of his 800th birthday led to criticism from the Soviet Union and the dismissal of secretary Tömör-Ochir of the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party Central Committee.
In the early 1990s, the memory of Genghis Khan underwent a powerful revival, partly in reaction to its suppression during the Mongolian People’s Republic period. Genghis Khan became a symbol of national identity for many younger Mongolians, who maintain that the historical records written by non-Mongolians are unfairly biased against Genghis Khan and that his butchery is exaggerated, while his positive role is underrated.
Now, as to the eating habits of the Golden Horde – this much is known:
Mongolian cuisine predominantly consists of dairy products, meat, and animal fats. The most common rural dish is cooked mutton and the extreme continental climate of Mongolia has influenced the traditional diet. Use of vegetables and spices are limited.
During the Mongol Empire there were two different groups of food, ‘red foods’ and ‘white foods’. White foods were usually dairy products and were the main food source during the summer. The main part of their diet was ‘airag’ or fermented mare’s milk, a food which is still widely drunk today. The Mongols rarely drank milk fresh, but often used it to create other foods, including cheese and yogurt. Today’s recipe for aaruul falls into this category.
In Mongolia, more than 2000 kinds of meals and dishes can in fact be made of milk! As Mongol nomads happen to have a dairy diet for almost half of the year, they have developed their own very unique tradition, methodology, and technique in processing milk – aaruul is just one example of ‘Tsagaan Idee’ (white foods)! ‘Red foods’ were usually meat and were the main food source during the winter, usually boiled and served with wild garlic or onions.
The Mongols had a unique way of slaughtering their animals to get meat. The animal was laid on its back and restrained. Then the butcher would cut its chest open and rip open the aorta, which would cause deadly internal bleeding. Animals would be slaughtered in this fashion because it would keep all of the blood inside of the carcass. Once all of the internal organs were removed, the blood was then drained out and used for sausages.
The Mongols also hunted animals as a food source, including rabbit, deer, wild boar, and even wild rodents such as squirrels and marmots. During the winter, the Mongols also practiced ice fishing. The Mongols rarely slaughtered animals during the summer but if an animal died of natural causes they made sure to carefully preserve it. This was done by cutting the meat into strips and then letting it dry by the sun and the wind.
During the winter sheep were the only domestic animal slaughtered, but horses were occasionally slaughtered for ceremonies.
Meal etiquette existed only during large gatherings and ceremonies. The meal, usually meat, was cut up into small pieces. Guests were served their meat on skewers and the host determined the order of serving. People of different social classes were assigned to different parts of the meat and it was the responsibility of the server or the “ba’urchis” to know who was in each social class. The meat was eaten with fingers and the grease was wiped on the ground or on clothing.
The most commonly imported fare was liquor. Most popular was Chinese rice wine and Turkestani grape wine. Genghis Khan was first presented grape wine in 1204 but he dismissed it as dangerously strong. Drunkenness was common at festivals and gatherings. Singing and dancing were also common after the consumption of alcohol.
Now – getting on to today’s recipe – as eruditely noted on fondazioneslowfood.com:
Aaruul or Mongolian curd cheese is one of the main foods of Mongolian nomadic peoples. They prepare a sufficient amount of milk products in summer, when is the favorable time for pastoralists to get output of livestock, and they consume the products in other seasons. They make different dairy products depending on what type of animal they keep: sheep, goat, camel, horse, cow or yak.
It is not common to produce aaruul or other cheeses from mare’s milk or camel’s milk because these are usually made into unpasteurized airag (fermented mare’s milk) and khoormog (fermented camel’s milk). The dairy products are also mixed with wild plants and fruits that add a unique taste. Aaruul can also be sweetened with sugar and fruit.
So-called xorxoi (“worm”) aaruul is produced by pressing the milk curds through the holes of a wide-eyed sieve; bazmal (“grabbed”) aaruul is molded in the palm of the hand.
Aaruul is made by mixing cheese curds with sugar and wild berries and cutting the curds into different shapes and patterns. Milk aaruul is made of curds that are boiled in fresh milk and then sliced and dried. Aaruul made of airag curd has a very unique and strong taste. Western Mongolian aaruul is soft and oily due to the use of unpasteurized milk. The aaruul of Ajiin Bor is very popular for its milky taste and consistency.
The products are preserved in natural ways that ensure their quality for long periods. Traditionally, Mongolians believe that hard aaruul is good for strengthening the teeth and gums.
Aaruul can be consumed in a variety of ways, other than chewing it and eating it solid. It can be used as a calcium-rich drink by placing it in water and letting it dissolve. The dried pieces can be stored almost indefinitely. However, they can get quite hard, so most people suck on them, rather than bite them. The taste may vary regionally and depending on the milk used, but usually includes a combination of sweet and sour flavors.
Aaruul is a common travel provision and one of the core vitamin sources for the nomads. Traditionally dried aaruul, dried in the sun and wind, is a rare product today.
Aaruul today is frequently pressed into decorative molds – TFD Nation shall of course follow that lead! If you are lucky enough to own your own 3D printer (or have access to one), here is a file to print a genuine aaruul mold! For those without, these silicone molds from Amazon will do the trick quite nicely, thank you! If you’re of an academic bent (with a healthy interest in food science – pun intended!) you can read this analysis of different types of aaruul here.
Surprisingly (at least to Me), Mongolia has rich resources of wild berries such as Sea Buckthorn and a major industry has grown around cultivating them, as noted here. I in fact call for flavoring My aaruul with 2 different kinds of berries – Sea Buckthorn and goji berries for true authenticity (use blueberries if you can’t find goji). You can also just use jam made from these berries to simplify things (I do) – Sea Buckthorn and goji berry jams are available at their respective links. You can, of course, substitute other berries but they won’t be traditional.
The dairy portion is the heart and soul of the recipe – please, don’t skimp on quality here! Use the best whole milk you can find – organic and preferably with a very high fat content such as Jersey cow milk! If you’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area – St. Benoit brand is my go-to for whole milk and meets every imaginable quality standard! You could also go super-authentic and use sheep milk instead, as the Mongols would have done – if you can find it! Thankfully, I have found a source for you – get it here!
A gentle reminder – aaruul is INCREDIBLY HARD, do NOT try and bite down on one of these, unless you want to lose some teeth! Dissolve small pieces in your mouth or in hot water ONLY! This is survival food, and was created to preserve the milk virtually indefinitely. I have a few other Mongolian recipes on the blog, click here to see them!
Citizens – I don’t expect you to rush out to make this unusual dish borne of the harsh Mongolian steppes, but I do believe in preserving (pun intended) ancient recipes and this one is very historic and useful to boot if you are a hiker, survivalist or just want to try a dish enjoyed by the great Khan Himself! 😀 In the meantime, enjoy your holy weekend and best wishes to all My Citizens of TFD Nation! 🙂
Battle on, the GeneralissimoPrint
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