Mongolian Dishes Without the Meat!
Think Mongolian cuisine is nothing but mutton? Everything you know about Mongolian food is about to be turned on its head.
OK yes, it's true that, much like the cuisines of Bhutan and Tibet, the traditional Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat and dairy products. But these days, many Mongolians are changing their eating habits and expanding the limits of Mongolian cuisine.
And yes, it's absolutely possible to travel to Mongolia as a vegan. You can even enjoy lots of traditional Mongolian dishes in vegan versions!
In this article, I'll share the many vegan Mongolian dishes that I tasted during my three-week visit to the country.
These include dishes served in vegan restaurants in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, as well as dishes that our local guide Ulzii prepared for my husband Nick and I as we traveled with her around the country.
For more about that trip, see my article on the top things to do in Mongolia.
Mongolia: The Land of Mutton
I had been dreaming of visiting Mongolia for more than a decade, but I was really dreading having to eat Mongolian food. And that was even before I was vegan!
Everyone I'd ever met who had been to Mongolia had told me how horrible the food was. Every single dish had mutton in it: mutton soup, mutton dumplings, mutton with rice, deep-fried mutton ... you get the picture.
Weary travelers complained that the smell of mutton permeated everything and was impossible to escape from. Even their clothes, bedsheets and pillowcases smelled of mutton.
I'm very happy to report that my travels in Mongolia were completely mutton-free. Apart from when visiting nomadic families in their gers, I didn't even have to smell it that often.
I certainly saw lots of sheep running around, though! The human population of Mongolia is just three million, while the population of animals raised for food is 12 times that.
You'll rarely, if ever, see a pig or a chicken here, though. The five main animals raised by Mongolian nomads are horses, camels, yaks, goats and sheep. Of these, by far the one most commonly eaten is the sheep.
Camels and yaks are used more for their milk, and goats are used for their wool (cashmere is a huge industry here). Horses are used for transport and racing and are deeply loved and revered, although nowadays it's also becoming more common to eat horse meat.
Even though Mongolia is a Buddhist country, Mongolian Buddhists, just like Tibetan Buddhists, generally do not practice vegetarianism.
Mongolian Food Culture
Mongolia doesn't have a strong food culture, and local vegans have told me that this is one reason why they didn't find it so difficult to change their diet.
Food just doesn't carry as much importance here as it does in other countries. People eat food because they have to in order to survive, but they don't think that much about it.
On the one hand, this makes it easy for people to give up certain foods if they are not that culturally attached to them. On the other hand, they can be reluctant to spend a lot of time in the kitchen learning how to cook new things.
Mongolians generally make do with the ingredients they have, which in the case of nomadic herders is meat and dairy products and not much else, and they're OK with that.
It's the exact opposite of the situation across the border in China, where produce is available in abundance, there are street food vendors on every corner, and eating is seen as one of life's greatest pleasures.
And so, whereas Chinese cuisine contains hundreds if not thousands of different dishes, the number of authentically Mongolian dishes is probably in the single digits.
I say "probably", because it's hard to know what should be considered authentically Mongolian. A large percentage of the most popular dishes eaten in Mongolia originated in Russia or China, but they are now so common that they could be thought of as local dishes.
Mongolian Dining Customs
In restaurants, Mongolian dishes are divided into first courses and second courses. First courses are mostly soups served in a bowl, while second courses come on a plate.
But portions are rather large, so people typically order one course, not both. Lunch is the biggest and most important meal of the day, so at a catered function you'd often be served both a first and second course for lunch and one or the other for dinner.
Traditional Mongolian Dishes
These steamed Mongolian dumplings are the closest thing you'll find to fast food in Mongolia. International chains like McDonald's haven't made it here yet, but in Mongolian towns you'll find a buuz joint on just about every street.
Buuz are round, similar in shape to xiao long bao (小笼包) in China, but with a thicker outer wrapping. On the inside, they are usually filled with mutton, but vegan restaurants in Ulaanbaatar serve veggie-filled versions.
Khushuur are made from the same dough as buuz. The difference is, while buuz are steamed, khushuur are deep-fried, leaving them golden and crispy on the outside.
They are formed into a pocket shape, kind of like empanadas in many Latin American countries. The traditional filling is mutton (this is going to be a running theme), but veggie versions are available at Loving Hut and Luna Blanca in Ulaanbaatar.
I was told by a local vegan that you can sometimes find veg-filled khushuur in mainstream restaurants too, but I didn't come across this myself.
Bansh are another type of dumpling, similar to buuz. The main difference is that they are much smaller than buuz, sometimes even small enough to be eaten in a single bite.
These dumplings are generally served in one of three ways: in soup, known as Banshtai Shol (Банштай Шол); in milk tea with rice, which is called Banshtai Tsai (Банштай Цай), or steamed, which in Mongolian is Jeegnesen Bansh (Жигнэсэн банш).
At Agnista, a vegan restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, I also had the chance to try fried dumplings, which in Mongolian are called Sharsan Bansh (Шарсан Банш). Apparently these are not really traditional, but they were delicious!
This is a type of soup usually made with meat and small lumps of flour. It's considered to be a light meal, due to its relatively low fat content. That is, compared to the fatty mutton that makes up most Mongolian meals.
Bantan is often given to toddlers as their first solid food. When our tour guide Ulzii made bantan for us, she replaced the meat with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and lots of vegetables.
I had low expectations for this dish, but I loved it the way Ulzii made it! Watching her roll out the lumps of flour inside our ger in the Gobi desert is one of many fond memories I have of our Mongolia trip.
This is one of very few Mongolian dishes that is sometimes vegan in its traditional form, without any adaptations. The only other example I've come across of a naturally vegan Mongolian dish is boortsog, which we'll talk about later.
Gambir is basically a type of fried bread, made with just water, flour and sugar. The reason it's only sometimes vegan is that it can be fried in either oil or butter.
It's also sometimes called Бин (pronounced like "bean"). Gambir is often made when there's leftover dough after making a batch of buuz, khushuur or bansh.
The most common way to eat gambir is as a sweet pancake, topped with jam. While we sometimes ate it with peanut butter and jelly, I also enjoyed it with savory dishes like fried cabbage.
Guriltai Shul (Гурилтай Шѳл)
This is a typical noodle soup, which usually contains meat but can also be made without it. Different vegetables can be added as well, such as carrots, onions, potatoes and celery.
For Mongolians, this is classic comfort food and is the perfect thing to eat when you're feeling a bit under the weather. In local slang, it's sometimes referred to as lapsha.
You can find vegan versions of Guriltai Shul at Bosco Verde and at Luna Blanca in Ulaanbaatar. The latter offers the option of regular wheat noodles or somewhat healthier rye noodles.
Budaatai Shul (Будаатай Шѳл)
This is another popular soup in Mongolia. The difference between Guriltai Shul and Budaatai Shul is that the main ingredient in Guriltai Shul is noodles, while the main ingredient in Budaatai Shul is rice.
In addition to the rice, Budaatai Shul usually contains meat, potatoes, carrots, and perhaps some other vegetables.
It's commonly eaten in Mongolian homes but is not often seen on restaurant menus. Ulzii made it for us a few times during our trip together, and she added TVP and some dried spinach to increase the nutritional value.
Speaking of nutrition, this next one on the list is definitely a special treat rather than a nutritional meal. It's also the second of the two items on this list that are already vegan without needing any adaptations.
Boortsog is a sweet made from deep fried dough and can be purchased ready-made in grocery stores throughout Mongolia. It falls somewhere in between a cake and a cookie, in terms of texture and softness.
Traditionally, boortsog are fried in mutton fat, but there are some accidentally vegan versions that are fried in oil instead. We came across this bag of vegan boortsog near Khovsgul Lake.
Boortsog are typically eaten with jam, either for breakfast or as a sweet snack. The homemade version calls for the same type of dough as piroshki, described below in the next section.
I left this dish for the end, because I wasn't sure if it belonged with the traditional Mongolian dishes or the not-quite-so-traditional ones.
Tsuivan is essentially fried noodles and was almost certainly borrowed from Chinese cuisine. And yet, it's become so popular in Mongolia that it's one of the most common menu items in restaurants throughout the country.
The noodles are typically stir-fried with cabbage and carrots, and meat if desired. When Ulzii made it for us, she often added other veggies like potatoes and spinach, but that's not the norm.
Tsuivan without meat is one of a trio of vegan/vegetarian dishes that are commonly available in mainstream restaurants and tourist ger camps in Mongolia.
On the few occasions when Ulzii didn't cook for us and we ate in restaurants instead, this was usually what we ordered. The other two common veggie dishes are pasta with tomato sauce and veggie fried rice.
If you're traveling independently and self-catering (not an easy feat in Mongolia), here are some vegan meals you can cook on a camp stove or backpacking stove.
Not Quite Traditional But Very Common Mongolian Dishes
Like tsuivan, these dishes did not originate in Mongolia, but over time they have become Mongolian staples. Some, like neeslel salat, are now an integral part of Mongolian traditions and customs.
Budaatai Khuurga (Будаатай Хуурга)
We talked about Budaatai Shul earlier, which is rice soup, so you might have figured out that budaatai means "rice" in Mongolian.
Budaatai khuurga is fried rice, and, like fried noodles (tsuivan), it is very common. Rice doesn't grow in Mongolia, so it can't really be called traditional, but budaatai khuurga is a dish that Mongolians have adopted wholeheartedly.
It's easy to order it vegan in any restaurant just by leaving off the meat. The spruced up version pictured here, with veggies, plant-based meat and a mix of white and purple rice, is from the Loving Hut on Peace Avenue in Ulaanbaatar.
By the way, there are at least half a dozen branches of Loving Hut in the Mongolian capital! Supreme Master Ching Hai, the spiritual leader who started the international restaurant chain and who advocates for veganism, has a strong following in Mongolia.
In fact, even the other vegan restaurants in town, like Agnista and Bosco Verde, are also run by Ching Hai followers.
Baitsatai Khuurga (Байцаатай Хуурга)
Whereas budaatai khuurga means "fried rice", baitsatai khuurga means "fried cabbage". Cabbage is one of the few vegetables that grows fairly easily in Mongolia's harsh climate, which perhaps explains its popularity.
The other common vegetables are carrots, potatoes and onions. Anything else would be considered pretty exotic here and would probably not be available outside of Ulaanbaatar.
Fried cabbage is usually eaten with rice or bread, but my favorite way to eat it is with gambir.
Neeslel Salat (Нийслэл Салат)
The name of this dish translates as "capital city salad", so I suppose it's associated with Ulaanbaatar, although I first tasted it at the house of a local family in the town of Mörön.
In any case, it's just a fancy name for potato salad, and I was told that in the past five years people have started calling it "potato salad" instead of "neeslel salad".
This dish is always eaten, together with buuz, at the White Moon Festival. Similar to the Spring Festival in China, this is one of the most important holidays in Mongolia and is focused on eating and socializing with friends and family.
Of course, the usual version is made with egg-based mayonnaise, but the vegan family in Mörön who invited us to dinner at their home made their own vegan mayo from scratch.
I've also seen a vegan version of neeslel salat served at Luna Blanca as a lunch special.
If you've ever been to Russia, you're probably familiar with the fried dough pockets known as пирожки. In Mongolia, the name is spelled slightly differently, but the concept is the same.
These greasy, cheap and filling snacks are very popular with Mongolian students. As our guide Ulzii told us, if a café doesn't serve piroshki, it's not a student café.
Of course, in Mongolia they are usually filled with meat, but Ulzii made us some absolutely delicious ones filled wiith potatoes, cabbage, carrots, bell peppers and onions.
It was one of the best things we ate on the whole trip!
For my top tips on what to eat in Russia and much more, see my article on things you need to know about Russia.
Another classic Russian favorite, Mongolians have adapted this beet soup and made it their own.
Oddly enough, the main difference is that the Mongolian version contains more veggies! Not what you would expect from this meat-obsessed country.
The additional vegetables make it more like a thick stew than a soup, and it also has less of a sour taste than the Russian version.
Ungar Goulash (Унгар Гульяш)
Whereas most of the not-quite-traditional dishes in this list have been adapted from Russian or Chinese cuisine, this one comes from Hungary.
Hungarian goulash is known and loved around the world, and it has even made it all the way to Mongolia. It was first introduced during the Soviet era and has remained popular ever since.
For a vegan version made with plant-based meat and served over purple rice, head to the Loving Hut on Peace Avenue.
Vegetables and meat chunks (in this case soy meat) are pierced onto skewers and grilled. I tried this at a vegan restaurant called Bosco Verde, and the soy meat they used really recreated the fatty taste and mouthfeel of mutton.
It was a bit too realistic for me, but I can imagine how Mongolians who grew up eating mutton every day would love it.
This is originally a Russian dish, but it's very popular in Mongolia in summer time. In fact, the locals sometimes call it Mongolian barbecue.
By the way, have you ever seen those so-called Mongolian BBQ restaurants in the United States? The ones where you pick out the meat and vegetables and it all gets cooked on a big grill?
Yeah, that's not really Mongolian. These American restaurants often claim that, in the days of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan and his soldiers would cook meat on their overturned shields, skewering it with their swords.
While it makes for a nice story, there's no evidence to back it up, and you won't find any restaurants like this in Mongolia.
Naashaa Tsaashaa (Наашаа Цаашаа)
I'm not sure how common this dish is in Mongolia, so maybe including it here is a bit of a stretch. But I love the name so much that I just couldn't leave it out.
Not only is "naashaa tsaashaa" fun to say in Mongolian, it translates into English as "come here, go away", which is kind of hilarious.
I tasted it at Agnista in Ulaanbaatar, where it was served up as a stir-fry of tofu, soy meat and vegetables over buckwheat.
From what I understand, "naashaa tsaashaa" is actually the name of this particular brand of soy meat, which is produced locally in Mongolia.
The dish as a whole is not really very traditional, although buckwheat is one of the more common grains eaten in the country. Another Russian import, it's referred to in Mongolia as "triangle rice".
In Mongolia, yeven are thought of as Chinese pastries, and they come in many different shapes and sizes.
Some of them I instantly recognized as the moon cakes eaten in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Others, I would not have identified as Chinese.
On the outside, they are decorated with intricate shapes and sometimes bright colors, and on the inside they are filled with a mix of brown sugar, raisins and split yellow peas.
The most famous, or rather, infamous, drinks in Mongolia are fermented mare's milk (airag) and yak butter tea.
Since they aren't vegan, I didn't try either of these, but I've heard tales from plenty of travelers who did and wished they hadn't.
Luckily, there are some lesser known traditional Mongolian drinks that are much more palatable.
Raisin Juice (узэмний шуус)
I came across this by chance at a roadside restaurant called Tsuivan House where we stopped on our way to Tsagaan Suvraga (White Stupa).
Instead of making grape juice by squeezing the fresh grapes, this juice is made with dried grapes in the form of raisins. In fact, there were several whole raisins in the bottom of the glass.
It had a light flavor and made for a refreshing, cool drink.
Sea Buckthorn Juice (Чацаргана)
Sea buckthorn is a small, orange berry that grows wild in Mongolia and is made into all sorts of things. During our stay we sampled some delicious vegan sea buckthorn cookies, and even some sea buckthorn wine!
By far the most common sea buckthorn product, though, is juice. You'll see it on restaurant menus and also on grocery store shelves. It comes in concentrated form, like a cordial, and can be diluted with either hot or cold water.
Sea buckthorn is very nutritious and is starting to be discovered by the West as a superfood. Hot sea buckthorn juice became my favorite drink while I was in Mongolia. Other berries are often made into hot drinks too, like cranberry (аньс) and blueberry (нерс).
As you can see, there's a lot more to Mongolian food than just mutton. And as a vegan or vegetarian, you don't have to miss out on traditional Mongolian foods!
To fully explore Mongolian cuisine in a plant-based version, I recommend booking a tour with Ulzii of Vegan Travel Mongolia (not sponsored).
Other companies may claim that they can offer veggie meals, but with them you will most likely be eating fried noodles and fried rice every day.
With Vegan Travel Mongolia, you will actually have an enjoyable culinary experience. And that's something not many visitors to Mongolia can say, whether they are veggie or not!