Happy lunar new year from Mongolia!
This past week, we have been busy welcoming the year of the monkey – so no, the lunar new year is not “just” a Chinese thing but is celebrated widely here in Mongolia as well. Well, Цагаан сар or “Tsagaan Sar” as it’s pronounced (which translates to “white moon”) was forbidden during communism but has been widely celebrated again since 1990.
The lunar new year spans a period of three days and the kids’ school kicked off the celebrations with an amazing assembly of children explaining and demonstrating the various customs and traditions. Even Juliana got her chance to rock the stage with her class’ rendition of the Mongolian nursery rhyme “goyo goyo.” I am still trying to figure out the lyrics….I think we can safely say that my children’s ability to speak and understand Mongolian has surpassed mine.
So what happens during Tsagaan Sar? Typical of any holiday, food and customs play a major role. During the three days, it’s customary to visit family and friends – starting with the oldest and working your way down. It’s not atypical for Mongolians to visit 10 or more homes during a single day. And, it’s a really lovely time to be out and about as everyone is dressed in their finest deel.
When you arrive at someone’s home, there is a traditional greeting in which visitors greet the eldest person, asking them Амар байна уу? (“are you living peacefully?”) while usually (but not always) holding a blue silk cloth, the khadag. After this greeting called Золгох, visitors present their presents – typically money or vodka. And then it’s time to sit and eat …. and drink.
What food is there? Well, let’s say it’s not a place for vegetarians as there is pretty much an entire sheep lying on the table. With the fat tail, of course. From what I understand, it’s a fairly time-consuming and intense process of preparing the sheep that is served in big pieces for guests to slice for themselves. There are also stacks of bread decorated with curds and sugar cubes – the layers have to be an odd number and the higher the stack, the older the oldest person living in the home. There are also pyramids of cookies and potato salad and sometimes there are other forms of meat offered as well but by far, the best food served during Tsagaan Sar are buuz – steamed dumplings filled with minced beef, sheep, or horse meat. Simply delish! I think the kids devoured about a dozen each.
So yes, there is tons of food involved during the celebration: it’s belief that eating rich during the new year celebrations will ensure a rich year to come.
Oh, and then there are the drinks. Oh, the drinks. I mentioned vodka earlier and that certainly plays a role during the new year but so does airag, fermented mare’s milk, as well as the local favourite сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai) or milk tea. Do not let the word “tea” confuse you here as this is a true Mongolian dairy specialty of warm milk, salt, and butter; there are different preferences for making milk tea but it is about as far away from being a “tea” than you can imagine. What does it taste like? Let’s just say it has a very distinctive taste and while I have had some versions that were drinkable, I often have a hard time smelling it.
And then there’s the airag. Sure, we’ve all heard about Mongolia’s love for fermented mare’s milk and you see it when you grocery shop in the local markets because it’s sold in old plastic bottles and containers since it’s really not regulated …. or pasteurised. Last night, at my co-teacher’s Tsagaan Sar, I had my first encounter with airag and I think I can safely say it will be my last. During Tsagaan Sar, there is traditionally a “communal cup” that gets filled with airag or vodka and then passed around for all guests to take a sip. The cup then gets filled again and passed around again. And then this happens a third time.
I’ll be honest: the airag is tough to drink. It smells sour beyond sour (side note: I enjoy sour drinks but this is….well, another kind of sour) and it does not go down easily. I made it through two rounds of tasting but then politely just touched the cup to my lips the last round …. and then I gladly welcomed those three rounds of vodka that followed.
So, now we’re ready for spring….you know, since Tsagaan Sar marks the end of winter…. let’s see if the weather cooperates. Happy year of the monkey!