The Story Beyond the Plate — A Reflection of Mongolian Culture and Land Intertwined

by | Sep 7, 2023 | Blog

Livestock in MongoliaI learned from my father to pay attention to the land! Even though my father’s travels never extended beyond his tri-state region after World War II, it did not squelch his desire to know the status of agriculture wherever I traveled. During my travels over the years, throughout and beyond the U.S., he always asked about the crops, the livestock, and most importantly, the land!

Even though his questions are now memories, I still look for the story beyond my plate wherever I go. And, oh the places we did go this summer — from Colorado to Mongolia with Seoul in between! From the mountains to desert and sea, our food is truly a reflection of culture and land intertwined.


Trekking Across the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky

What a unique opportunity my husband and I had this summer exploring the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky” with a 16 member Ulaanbaatar/Denver Sister Cities Committee delegation, led by good friends and colleague, Mary Lee Chin, MS, RDN and her husband, Jim Wagenlander, the Honorary Consul General to Mongolia. For some, this ancient land is hardly known, but when you experience it through the eyes of its citizens and those that have known it for 30 years, the endless sky tells a story beyond the view.

While this was not a food or farming related trip, one does become intrigued to understand the “farm to plate connection” when livestock outnumber people! Mongolia, a landlocked independent country between China and Russia, is home to one of the last nomadic people with herdsmen moving their millions of head of livestock across the steppes and desert during the warm months to find food and water and trying to keep them alive during the winter.

With a population of approximately three million in a country almost the size of Alaska, it is the world’s least densely populated country except in the cities. Today, about 45% of the population lives in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Overall, 70% of Mongolians now live in the cities, not the pasturelands; a population trend that is not unique to Mongolia.

It’s Our Culture

Mongolian mutton being cut for a group mealWhat we eat or don’t eat depends on tradition, lifestyle, what the environment will grow and the efficiency of the food system. With Mongolia’s nomadic culture, self-sufficiency has always been essential, and the traditional diet reflects it. A high meat and dairy diet, consisting of mutton, beef and goat and an array of dairy products from horses, cows, goats, camels, cows, sheep, and yak reflects the Mongolia’s centuries old cultural influence and the reality of a limited food supply.

Mongolian mutton dishWhile our meals were more “westernized” with soups and salads, the meat offerings reflected the culture. For my husband and I, mutton wasn’t unique as its one of Owensboro’s barbeque specialties (just without the hickory smoked flavor!). Mary Lee commented that years ago, Mongolians would say, “we eat the animals, and they eat the grass, so we have no need for plants in our diet!” While vegetable may not be high on the typical Mongolia food list, cabbage, carrots and potatoes became “mainstays” due to the Soviet influence while the country was under Russian rule from the 1920s to 1990.

Over the years, international influence, economic influx, and television cooking shows have given rise to more variety in the diet (including fruits and vegetables) and a vibrant food scene, especially in the capital city.

It’s Still About the Land

Livestock in MongoliaCulture impacts food preference but so does the environment. In the Gobi Desert, sandy soil produces various native plants for livestock grazing, but not for growing food — just like the desert and mountain regions in the U.S. Public water wells exist for watering livestock but infrastructure like irrigation for crop production does not.

With harsh winters and frequent moving of herds during the warm months, the planting of agricultural crops or gardens are minimal to none. While water supply, climate, soil quality, and crop production knowledge are key to growing food in the U.S., they are barriers in Mongolia.

Food Supply Needs or Wants?

We eat beyond our borders, regardless of where we live! In the U.S., our palates and purses demand variety year-round. Even though the U.S. supplies approximately 86% of what we eat, the expectations for year-round accessibility to cultural delights and fresh produce has increased our reliance on other countries. For example, Mexico and Canada provide more fresh varieties of fruits and vegetables than is grown here.

For Mongolia, it’s quite the opposite! It is estimated that 95-99% of the food consumed in Mongolia comes from crops not grown in the country.  The country’s reliance on China, South Korea and Japan for produce is a “need, not a want.” Even though our hosts told us more produce was being grown in greenhouses around the capital city, the supply is limited, and costs are higher.

With approximately one percent of the land suitable for crop production and a short growing season, Mongolia is limited to what it can grow; it’s primarily spring wheat with some barley and oats, along with potatoes and vegetables such as cabbage and carrot. In fact, Mongolia is considered self-sufficient in wheat and potato production along with livestock and dairy. But for the nomads, the benefit of animal production extends beyond food, it’s an economic driver. Think cashmere and wool!

Two Distinct Countries, But Common Challenges

Last watering of the day for livestock in MongoliaThe Mongolia nomadic tribes existed for centuries before farmers and ranchers in the U.S., but challenges are similar. Farming is hard work and in Mongolia, the work is compounded by a harsh winter and constant moving. While continuing a Mongolian family’s herd from one generation to another may have been the expectation of the oldest son, that scenario is changing. During a visit to a nomadic ger, one of the herdsmen indicated that he was the only son that had stayed to tend the livestock. His brothers had become educated and moved to the city. Whether this is an isolated incident or not, the reality rings with familiarity regardless of the country.

Unfortunately, the changing agrarian lifestyle impacts health status as well. As described, the traditional Mongolia diet is high fat, high protein and calorie dense, which was a benefit for a nomadic lifestyle requiring lots of activity and survival of harsh climate conditions. But when lifestyles become sedentary and the calorie intake doesn’t change, problems arise. Mary Lee mentioned many Mongolian friends have expressed concerns about the subsequent rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes, gout, cancers and heart disease they have personally experienced or have seen affect their families — a situation which is all too familiar in the U.S.

It’s Not a Comparison, But Reality

While the U.S. and Mongolia are miles apart beyond the geographic realties, looking beyond our plates gives us perspective. Often, we “complain” about the complexity of the U.S. food system, but the food on our plates is not limited by geographic location or seasonal influence. We have the agricultural technology and ability to grow food for ourselves and others. Yet, both countries face the reality of a shrinking labor force, aging farmers and increasing health concerns. Food is complex but looking beyond our plates can bring solutions and most importantly, appreciation!

Note: Special thanks to Mary Lee Chin for her contributions to this blog-sharing her 30 years of insights and love of Mongolia.