Berkeley is famous for being a culturally diverse community with plenty of different cuisines to choose from. But some of the lesser known cultural cuisines — like authentic Mongolian food — tend to get lost in the abundance of more popular Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants.
Although there is a somewhat large Mongolian community in the Bay Area, the same can’t be said for the community here at UC Berkeley. While it is a tiny population, I was able to make connections with other Mongolian students at UC Berkeley through the Berkeley Mongolian Student Association. There are currently less than 10 members, which allows us to discuss our individual experiences at Berkeley with one another on a one-on-one basis. We were able to become a closely knit group, and we even had the pleasure of dining with professor Uranchimeg Tsultem from the art history department, a Mongolian who earned her doctorate at Cal.
The dinner with professor Tsultem was a connection with the Mongolian community I don’t encounter every day in Berkeley. Sometimes when I walk through campus, I’ll meet a stranger with the potential of becoming friends, and we’ll eventually engage in small talk, starting from the typical “What year are you?” to “What’s your major?” These are questions we all should be fairly accustomed to by now, because we have to answer them about 50 times a day. Eventually, curiosity and awkward silences might get us to the next common question: “Where are you from?”
Now, this isn’t necessarily a hard question to answer, considering everyone is from somewhere, but when you tell this nice stranger that you were born in Mongolia, they may or may not blurt out, “Oh my gosh, I love Mongolian beef.”
However, none of that “Mongolian beef” is authentic Mongolian cuisine from the actual country of Mongolia. That food is a ploy used to market Chinese or Taiwanese food as exotic by placing the word “Mongolian” before it, a common way to falsely advertise a product in order to excite customers into trying something new. Crazy, right?
Now, you may be wondering: What exactly is Mongolian food if that delicious dish you just got from Asian Ghetto isn’t what it’s cracked up to be? Well, typically, Mongolian food doesn’t contain sweet sauces that so-called Mongolian beef is usually slathered with. Most of our staple meals do consist of beef, rice, beef, flour and some more beef. Mutton is very popular as well – as long as there is some kind of meat lodged in there somewhere, we’re good to go. But any form of sweet sauces in our traditional dishes would be unheard of, as we don’t tend to use many spices or seasonings in our foods, unless it’s in the form of salt, pepper and garlic.
When I don’t dine with a Mongolian professor or don’t want to trouble my family for food, there are two restaurants near Berkeley that I would recommend for authentic Mongolian cuisine – Asian Grill in Oakland and Eurasia in Richmond. These restaurants also serve Japanese and Russian foods, but I would recommend trying something from the Mongolian menu, as the cooks at both places are Mongolian.
So instead of Mongolian beef, if you want to try authentic Mongolian food, try buuz (steamed dumplings filled with meat), khuushuur (fried dough pockets with meat inside) or Mongolian potato salad (which includes ham – sorry vegetarians). These are the foods we typically eat during Mongolian New Year, our Summer Festival called Naadam and whenever guests come over. I would also suggest trying authentic Mongolian milk tea, which happens to be salty. You might not be able to imagine what salty milk tea would taste like, but this is literally the essence of the whole Mongolian cuisine experience.
If you want to try something Mongolian people eat on a regular basis, and that most non-Mongolian people like, try tsuivan (steamed noodles, vegetables and meat which are all fried together) or budaatai huurga, our version of fried rice, which, as you probably guessed, contains meat. If you’re feeling adventurous, try banshtai tsai (rice milk tea with dumplings).
Back at professor Tsultem’s home, she served us buuz alongside a few American side dishes. After dinner, we enjoyed some sweet aaruul — a type of dried curd — cookies, candies and Mongolian milk tea. The other students had missed eating homemade Mongolian food and couldn’t believe their luck at finding a Mongolian meal thousands of miles away from home. We were all amazed at the growing number of Mongolian students attending UC Berkeley since Professor Tsultem’s graduate student days.
BMSA has slowly grown as more and more Mongolian students aspire to attend UC Berkeley. Until I learned about BMSA, I hadn’t met another Mongolian student or professor on campus, and now, we all have the opportunity to make our distinct culture, history and food — which does not include Mongolian beef — a part of the Berkeley community.