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Foods tailored for life on the grasslands
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Mutton is one of the most popular dishes in Inner Mongolia. [File photo] 

By Nina Lenton

Hearty fare abounds in Inner Mongolia autonomous region where even during the summer months, overnight temperatures on the grasslands plummet to low single figures. A recent trip up north allowed me a brief foray into this stomach lining cuisine.

The traditional lifestyle of the nomadic Mongolian herdsman meant a heavy reliance on animal products - meat and dairy products. Starchy staples included wheat, barley, oats and millet in the form of noodles, dumplings and fried grain.

Visitors traversing the Mongolian grasslands today can develop an aversion to the omnipresence of mutton - which features at every meal and scents every yurt. Nevertheless, the quality of the Mongolian meat - thanks to months of the animals chomping on the vast green pastures and drinking fresh water - cannot be disputed.

Free range, grass-fed animals also have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids in their meat and milk versus those that are barn-fed.

On special occasions, or when wealthy tourists splash out, whole lambs are stuffed with spices and roasted until golden over an open fire (kao quan yang).

The family we stayed with said a whole lamb fetches around 1,000 yuan ($147) in the market, so understandably this is not an everyday dish.

More commonly, mutton is served as shouba rou - boiled mutton eaten by hand. The mutton, usually from the leg of the lamb, is placed in an iron pot with water and no seasoning and boiled until tender. Once cooked, it is sliced off with a knife and may be dipped into spices or seasoning before being eaten by hand.

Lamb is also minced with vegetables, such as onion and carrot, and used as filling for wheat wrappers to make dumplings known as shaomai. These are then pinched into the shape of pomegranates before being boiled or steamed for a few minutes.

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