Hello, readers of Hopie's Kitchen. I was recently in Mongolia, where I was lucky enough to sample some unique Mongolian dishes, so Hopie asked if I would write about it a little.
There were three Mongolia-only drinks I wanted to make a point of trying: Mongolian tea, fermented mare's milk (called airag), and Chinggis brand vodka ("Chinggis" being the more authentic Mongolian spelling of "Genghis", as in Khan). I didn't get a chance to try the second, and I can't tell you how to make the third, so I guess tea it is.
Mongolians call their tea "süütei tsai", which literally means "milk tea". I find this a bit misleading, because the key feature of the tea is not the milk. It's the salt. My host mom in Russia tells me that Mongolians drink their tea with milk and salt because the mixture provides both protein and electrolytes, which they need for long days of the nomadic herding lifestyle. However, it's popular enough to be found all over the place in Ulaanbaatar, where the closest thing to herders I saw were the policemen trying desperately to control the terrifying Mongolian traffic.
Every non-Mongolian I've met talks about this tea as something horrifying that is an "acquired taste". Maybe there's something wrong with me, because I acquired it on my second sip. I found this tea so intriguing and oddly addictive that I couldn't believe the recipe was so simple—I was sure there was something else giving it its flavor. But it's really just three ingredients.
Magdalena assures me that, yes, this is a group of yaks.
Start with some loose tea. Any black tea will do. Boil some water in a saucepan, add tea leaves, and steep to your desired tea strength.
Next, add milk. The water-milk ratio in Mongolian tea is about 1-1, so add a lot. Just tell yourself you're making yourself strong for a long day of sheep-herding.
Instead of stirring, Mongolians will take a large spoon, lift some of the mixture out of the pot, and let it splash back in. This makes the milk light and frothy. I guess you could always just stir with a whisk, but why would you do that when you can pretend to be in a Mongolian ger, making your süütei tsai over the fire?
When the mixture is starting to boil again, take it off the heat and stir in some salt. This part is tricky, because the amount of salt really makes or breaks this beverage. I tried in vain to find a recipe that provided a concrete amount, so that I would have an actual proportion to go by, but most recipes for Mongolian tea say "add salt to taste." I don't know about you, but the amount of salt I usually prefer "to taste" is none.
Just start with a little bit, and gradually add more until it hits the perfect balance. Too little salt, and you won't taste a difference at all; too much, and it will just taste salty. Just enough, and you won't even be able to tell what the unusual ingredient is—it'll just give your tea a slightly enhanced flavor.
Made right, this tea has a rich, smooth taste. "It reminds me of caramel, but without the caramel part," I remarked the first time I tried it. ("I have no idea what you're talking about," my friend responded.) It truly does add up to more than the sum of its parts, so even if you are one of the apparently many people who don't love this tea as much as I did, it's worth a try. Be a little adventurous, like Chinggis Khan, who adventured out to defeat the enemies of the Mongolian empire, or like J. Enkhjargal, the architect who decided to build a 131-foot statue of Chinggis Khan in the middle of the Mongolian steppe.