Last weekend I hosted a couch surfer from Hong Kong named Jody. She was everything I’d hoped for in a couch surfer; she was friendly, open-minded, curious, and she loved talking about food. She also brought some Hong Kong-style powdered milk tea, which we sipped on while discussing everything from sachertorte to uralic linguistics  to the Ryugyong Hotel. It was great.


We also talked about her milk tea- how it reflected the influence of British culture in Hong Kong, how it comforted her when she was homesick, and how it resembled other drinks throughout the world. We noticed that many milk teas can be found throughout Asia; Thai iced tea with condensed milk, Tiawanese bubble tea, Indian masala chai. All this talk about tea and milk transported me back to the floor of a Mongolian ger, a setting where I’d experienced some of the strangest culinary experiences of my life- and where I’d certainly consumed my most memorable cups of milk tea.

Gobi Desert living.

A few years ago I spent two weeks in Mongolia with three of my friends. In Ulaan Bataar we, too, used couch surfing to find accommodation. We ended up on the outskirts of town in a working-class neighborhood, sleeping in a backyard ger (Mongolian yurt) behind the house of a German woman and her Mongolian husband. After hours of toy gun fights with their two children, making horse meat dumplings and trying to wash (and condition) my hair using only one tiny bucket of water , the real adventure finally began. We ventured out with carrots, potatoes, bottled water, and lots of vodka- into the roadless Gobi desert in an ancient Soviet van owned and driven by our host’s friend, Gunga.

Our host’s son enjoys his horsemeat dumplings.

Gunga and his van.

We were paying Gunga to be our tour guide, but it didn’t feel like an organized tour. We’d drive hours and hours following barely-visible car tracks, bumping around and being tossed about, seeing nothing but endless snowy desert until we’d spot a lone gerAt this point Gunga would get out and ask the family if we could eat with them and share their home for a night. Sometimes they’d ask for a few dollars, sometimes they’d expect nothing more than to share our vegetables. I was amazed at the level of hospitality they offered in exchange for so little. I guess it’s a way to deal with the dangers of living so remotely in such a harsh environment; to a real Mongolian traveler, a shut door in the middle of nowhere could mean no shelter for the night, and a serious threat to life. It seemed kind of absurd that this hospitality was so easily extended to a van full of American tourists- there were camps along the tourist trail where we perhaps could have stayed, but I wasn’t complaining. We saw so much of the real Mongolia staying with these families- and I’ll never forget playing cards, drinking vodka, arm wrestling, or eating mutton fat with them.

Al and some of our Mongolian hosts during a particularly rowdy evening.

The families we stayed with for the most part were nomadic- as has been the case in the Gobi for eons. Their homes are thus portable, small, and kept tidy with very, very few possessions. The whole family usually shares one gersome sleeping on beds and some on the floor, all facing with feet towards the door (as is the custom). We’d sleep on the floor among them, warm and cozy at bedtime as the stove in the center of the ger burned camel and goat poo, and freezing to death as it finally burned away and the family began to wake before sunrise.

Gunga’s mom, sitting in her ger and chatting on her cell phone!

In entering these homes we were taught a seemingly endless array of rules for politeness and respect that Mongolians use to keep their lives and homes in order. Even just for drinking, it was hard to keep track of them all. Do not drink while standing. Do not hold the cup from the rim, but rather the bottom. Do not hold things you are offering to others with the lateral edges of your fingers, but rather the palm. If a drink is dropped, dip your fingers into it and touch it lightly to your forehead. When accepting a drink that is offered to you, accept with the right hand extended and the left hand supporting the right elbow. Always offer a drink or snack to your guests. While it seems like all these ‘don’t’s would be stifling, we were never expected to perform all the customs accurately, and our hosts were always understanding and incredibly kind to us. But there was one rule that we really did need to follow: Never, ever refuse tea, food or dairy products- accept the offer and eat/drink it, or at least pretend to. 

Al has politely accepted his bowl of airag, fermented camel’s milk.

This last custom would come to define my most memorable experiences in Mongolia- those in which I accepted and ate foods that I otherwise might have run in the other direction from. In the end, it was the most valuable lesson I learned, and something I’ve carried with me on all of my subsequent travels- to try everything, especially as a guest.

In a landscape so barren where almost nothing grows, animal products rule; sheep, goats and camels and their respective milks form the basis of the diet (not to mention fuel for the fire and construction materials). And these milk and meat products, served sans spices, are definitely different than the ones I’m used to.

Here, somebody offering you a giant piece of mutton fat, a prized part of the animal, is an honor- and it’s not something to turn away. Take the chunks of pure mutton fat and chew them and swallow them, even if they jiggle around and stay in one piece and you have to eventually swallow them whole despite your gag reflex nagging at you and all your cultural taboos freaking out and screaming “whaaat!?!?”. Take the rock-hard, incredibly stinky morsel of Mongolian cheese (which one blogger  hilariously referred to as ‘Satan’s Parmesan’) and keep it in your mouth until it dissolves. Drink the translucent, somewhat murky, pungent cup of ‘goat vodka’, and keep drinking it until you wake up in the middle of the night feeling sick, and the old Mongolian matriarch stops you as you re-enter the ger after puking in the desert with another cup of it to help you sleep. You’ll survive, and remember it forever. I did, and I will.

And don’t forget to brush your teeth!

Mongolians also have their own version of milk tea, called ‘suutei tsai’, and it was probably the one thing we were always offered, no matter which ger or restaurant we entered. It’s definitely one of the strangest milk teas out there, and why? Because it’s flavored with SALT.

Our very first cups of the stuff, in a restaurant-ger outside Ulaan Bataar.

It’s usually made with four ingredients: water, milk, tea, and salt. Sometimes green tea, sometimes black tea, sometimes butter or fat is added, sometimes it’s turned into a soup.  The tea usually comes from a condensed block made of tea stems and lower quality tea leaves. It’s heated with milk and water, while someone takes a scoop, lifts it out and pours it back in from a height (similar to what you might see in the traditional production of chai masala in India). The tea is strained and then salt and/or butter is added.

I remember it being very milky and salty- to me, the tea taste was much more subtle, if I could taste it at all. I was struck of course by the salt, as well as by the taste of the fresh, unpasteurized milk – something that’s delicious, hearty and healthy but which is largely prohibited in our American farm system. I was never sure what kind of milk I was drinking- it could have been sheep, cow, camel, or even horse (cows are a less common, more recent phenomena in Mongolia)- but it was all fatty and filling, warm and strangely satisfying. Upon the first sip it always seemed too salty but by the end of the bowl I was loving it and wanting more.

It’s not easy to find information about the history of this beverage but some things seem plausible to me given the surrounding environment and lifestyle. Of course, milk products have been a staple of the Central Asian and Mongolian diet for thousands of years- though mostly in the form of a fermented, yogurt-like horse milk drink similar to the one Al is drinking in the photo above (though his is made from camel). I assume there were plenty of benefits to fermenting milk – it’s easier to digest, doesn’t go bad as fast, contains healthy bacteria and a wee bit of alcohol to help with the cold winds. But why take milk and heat it with water and tea and salt? Perhaps when tea arrived in Mongolia, people wanted a way to drink it and fermented milk just didn’t cut it. And perhaps they used milk (or milk and water instead of just water) because in many parts of the desert water is so scarce. I’m not sure whether water is less abundant than milk for nomadic Gobi desert inhabitants, but either way, water is so valuable that it’s rarely just drunk by itself. And the salt? Maybe it gave drinkers some electrolytes- useful for their physically-demanding nomadic herding lifestyle.

Or maybe they just like the taste. What do I know? A few times I actually poured instant coffee into my morning milk tea, so maybe I should stop trying to sound like an authority on authentic Mongolian drinks. Instant coffee is bad enough, and it’s even worse with salt, but I’m a total slave to my caffeine addiction. Oh well, I think I get some brownie points for swallowing all that ‘Satan’s Parmasean’.

To leave you with a happy feeling and a desire to venture into the Gobi, here is a barely-visible video of Mark arm wrestling with Gunga on the floor of a ger. At the end you can hear Gunga speak the only English phrase he knew: “Gunga good”. You can also hear the communal laughter that came from perfect strangers sharing a tiny one-roomed home in the middle of nowhere. It reminds you that whether it’s couch surfers coming to Switzerland or Americans roaming the Gobi, it’s important to open your home, your life and your mind to others.

gunga from Molly McDonough on Vimeo.