“The greatest joy is to vanquish your enemies, chase them before you, rob them of their wealth, see those dear to them bathed in tears and to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”
So said Temujin, the country boy from Deluun Boldog, who rose up to become Universal Ruler – the Genghis Khan. Leading a pony-borne blitzkrieg of over 100,000 men, each one equipped with a powerful composite bow made of wood, horn and sinew, Temujin conquered a dozen cities and wiped out more than 18 million people in little more than a decade. Eventually his empire extended from the Volga River to the Pacific Ocean.
The sucess of the Mongol invaders was inexorably intertwined with their steeds – the Mongolian horse. Almost Centaurs, the Mongols spent so much time on horse-back that they grew up bowlegged, and any distance farther than a hundred paces meant riding there on a horse. A tough little bugger who survived climates and conditions that killed other breeds, the Mongolian horse was supremely self-sufficient, able to self-forage and survive on grass and twigs.
These hardy equines also provided a major part of the rampaging horde’s diet – mare’s milk. This was also drunk fermented as an alcoholic brew called kumis. It was very popular, and powerful stuff too, and its abuse lead to many a nobleman dying young. The best way to drink kumis was after a victory while sitting on benches made of planks lashed to the backs of prisoners. Fermented horse milk produced almost constant diarrhea, but since the Mongol horde were tough outdoorsmen, no one gave a shit.
On forced marches there wasn’t always time to stop and suck on a mare’s teat and the riders would open a vein in their horses’ necks and drink the hot blood.
When things weren’t so hectic, the Mongols would search for marmots, large burrow and cave dwelling squirrels, and these could be eaten steeped in sour milk or just roasted in their skin. Steppe hamsters were another source of meat, as were dogs and rats. An army living off the land couldn’t afford to be fussy. And, mark these words well dear reader, whatever food was available was to be shared equally amongst all the men, even if it meant just a mouthful.
If at the end of a hard days riding there was nothing edible at hand, a handful of borts dissolved in boiling water provided a nourishing broth. Borts was dried horse, sheep or camel meat, prepared like jerky or biltong, and then ground into a powder. Borts was carried in linen bags that allowed contact with air and in the dry Mongolian climate this process preserved the quality of the meat for months.
Also with a long use-by-date, was aaruul, a hard cheese made from sun-dried curds, and like borts it took up little space on a pony’s back.
Though crossing rivers and passing by lakes, the Horde didn’t break out rods or nets. Fish was only caught if it was of massive size and therefore capable of feeding an aravan (platoon) or two. Like water fowl and chickens, fish was considered unclean.
Vegetables were also looked upon with disdain; no better than grass. Every red-blooded warrior knew that ‘Meat is for men and grass is for animals.’ However, when a feast was in the offing – chunks of sheep, horse or camel boiled in a meaty broth – then things like wild onions and garlic, wild pears, bird cherries, garden burnet root, cinquefoil root and seeds might find their way into the pot.
When the Horde began to settle their conquered lands the traditional ways of cooking and eating could be once more indulged. Aaruul and other cheeses were made, also yoghurt and of course, copious amounts of kumis. Flocks of sheep now proliferated and stockpiles of borts were built up for future campaigns. There was time for the old school ways. Ulaan Idee – red foods like meat were mainly eaten in the winter and spring. In winter the meat was stored outside, frozen solid, until needed, but kept in wooden cages to keep wolves and wild dogs off it. In summer and fall Tsagaan Idee – white foods like dairy products were eaten.
In this blissful domestication, with wives and kids around them, the hard-bitten warriors could let down their culinary defences a bit. In these new lands there were new foods, and things like rice, soybean, chickpea, sesame seed, wheat and barley became part of their diet. Best of all was millet, which when fermented made a drink to rival kumis.
Even the ‘food of goats’ was now consumed – peaches, plums, cherries and grapes. Walnut, ginkgo nuts, watermelons, cucumbers and radishes. And meals got perked up with spices like pepper, fennel, coriander, ginger, cardamom and turmeric. Just don’t tell the boys on the front-line.
Though these newfangled ingredients were used, Mongolian cooking was fairly simple, based on roasted and boiled meat. Even today Mongolia is rated as one of the most least vegetarian countries in the world.
Though cooking was considered women’s work, the Universal Leader – Genghis Khan – appointed his most trusted men as his own cooks, as he was paranoid about being poisoned. These boys were high-ranking officials of the empire and were often key in keeping the peace. They had to maintain the precise order in which people were served food, otherwise serious violence could break out. Not surprisingly, weapons were banned from the dining table.
Yep, the Mongols were tough as iron, and they had to be as the planet’s premier empire builders. Their leader struck terror into the hearts of millions, but he was actually a pretty socially conscious bloke for a barbarian. With much thought he carefully unified an empire and applied codified laws known as the Yassa that kept the Pax Mongol.
But his management style certainly trickled down to his troops. It’s reckoned that they killed ten percent of the world’s population while on the job.
Apparently, the Universal Leader had learnt to be very hard very young. While still a kid, his father was poisoned, and he, his mother and brothers were cast out to perish in the wilderness. They survived eating ‘goat food’ and fish and birds, while being menaced by desperate bandits and suffering minus 35° winters. It was harder than hardcore; the perfect place to forge a frozen heart and a hammer out a will of steel.
And when Temujin the teenager first killed a man – it was his brother. The motive for this act of fratricide was a marmot, caught and eaten by his brother – and not shared with his starving family.