by Tara Munch
Hey! It Tsagaan Sar and I am so excited! And not just because I get a five day weekend! My housekeeper invited me to her house for Tsagaan Sar. I am pretty sure that it is the equivalent of me inviting this newly immigrated Vietnamese family to Thanksgiving when I was in high school.
Tsagaan Sar, meaning white moon or white month, is the Mongolian lunar New Year festival. There is a ton of debate about when to actually celebrate it. Some people celebrate it at the same time as Chinese New Year, but apparently it is culturally more related to the Tibetan New Year or Losar than to the Chinese New Year. Mongolians like to deny any Chinese origin or influence of their new year so it is often at a different time. My friend Trudi pointed out that the timing of Tsagaan Sar and Losar sort of indicate cultures that want to stick it to China. There might just be some truth in that theory. Traditionally it is celebrated two months after the first new moon following the winter solstice. In the 1960s, the communist government tried to transform it into Cattle Breeders' Day and official celebration was stopped. On the day of Tsagaan Sar the government made huge efforts to make sure that everyone showed up to work. Nevertheless, like with other traditions and religious activities that the communist government tried to suppress, some families celebrated in secret, especially in countryside. Really, when there is no one else within a hundred miles, what would stop you from doing what you wanted? It became a traditional holiday again in the late eighties . It is still celebrated very much the same way that is always has been with the main emphasis being on renewing ties with family. It is is one the main two big public annual events, next to the Nadaam.
“Amend uu” or “Amar bain uu” are the greeting that I was taught but was too shy to really use effectively. I keep forgetting who to say which greeting to and I am always paranoid that I am saying it wrong. There is also lots of etiquette around Tsagaan Sar such as giving a gift of blue cloth or some money but this money must be given to the oldest person that you are visiting. When you greet the person you’re visiting you (if you’re younger) you have to lay your arms out before you and allow the older person to lay their arms above them. If you are older you do it the opposite way. If the person is very old they will give you a kiss. If you are the same age as the other person you have one hand on top and one on bottom. It is all very confusing but they are very forgiving of the idiot American girl. I also learned "Listen to him" which is what you say after a toast. Unfortunately it sounded so much like gorilla bollocks that I immediately forgot the real words and thus will never be able to respond correctly to a toast!
Mongolians also visit friends and family on this day and exchange gifts. A typical Mongolian family will meet in the home dwelling of the eldest in the family. When greeting their elders during the White Moon festival, Mongolians grasp them by their elbows to show support for them. The eldest receives greetings from each member of the family except for his spouse. During the greeting ceremony, family members hold long pieces of colored cloth called khadag. After the ceremony, the family eats botz and drinks arkhi, and exchanges gifts.
The day before Tsagaan Sar is called Bituun. On this day, families gather together--immediate family usually, in contrast to the large feast gatherings of White Moon day--and see out the old year. Mongolians are supposed to settle all issues and repay all debts from the old year by this day. I wonder if this is something that still goes on. The Mongolian economy is sort of scary right now and I can't imagine that everyone was able to get out of debt. You are also supped to eat yourself sick at this meal because if you are hungry after Bituun you will be hungry for the whole coming year.
Speaking of years is everyone aware that this is the year of the ox? I wasn't. This is bad news for me as I was born in the year of the Rooster. Apparently this year is going to suck for me unless I go to a lama and get it fixed. My housekeeper who figured all this out is very concerned and made an appointment to take me to the lama to fix my year.
Tsagaan Sar is much like Thanksgiving in that half the point is seeing your family and the other half is eating yourself sick. There is a ton of visiting for Mongolians around Tsagaan Sar. That is unless of course you’re a 90 years old and there isn’t anyone older than you. Mongolians are supposed to visit all of their friends and family that are older than they are. They visit you if they are younger.
Odd number and the color white are very important at this time of year. Why? I couldn’t tell you. No one has explained this to me in a way that I understand.
Javsung (my housekeeper) lives in the ger district. She doesn’t live in a ger but she doesn't have running water and the bathroom is an outhouse. Both interesting and intimidating. Her husband had gone to dogsled out in the country but her children, sister and brother-in-law were there. None of them aside from Javsung spoke English and Jennifer and I don't speak Mongolian well at all so conversation was limited to mime and smiling and nodding like an idiot. She started feeding us the minute we stepped in the door. We walked in to see her sister hand making the khuushuur. Javsung handed Jennifer and I Su tay tse which is Mongolian traditional tea. It is basically hot, salty milk. Calling it tea really is a misnomer. Tea implies dangerously steeped. When I say tea I mean that the milk and salt are allowed to look at the teabag in terror and then brought out to you. I drank this (it quickly grew on me) while I watched the fascinating process of hand making all of the food. This didn’t last long as we were escorted into the main room to see the table laden with all sorts of interesting Mongolian delicacies.
There was a whole skinned, boiled sheep but minus its head and legs. It is called bituuleg. I have to say that I am pretty relived about the lack of head. There is just something wrong with your food looking back at you. I was told a couple of times how this was prepared but all I really retained was the seven or so hours of boiling. It is served cold. The tail (being the fattiest part), is the best part of the whole animal. There’s a knife on the carcass and Javsung
would carve a hunk of meat for me whenever she caught me not eating something.
Arosh, which is dried, sour milk curd that can either come as solid as rock or slightly soft like fudge. Sour and sort of solidified sour cream only MUCH more so. Hard to explain and not really something that I learned to love. There are some things that you just have to have grown up with to really appreciate. There was also another dish that is presented called Ul Boov which is the traditional long molded flat biscuit. .I managed to avoid (mostly because Javsung didn't make a point of offering it). The biscuits and the arosh are stacked up in a sour milk curd sort of tower thing which is always stacked in an odd number of rows symbolizing good fortune and abundance.
Next came the khuushuur, a fried mutton or beef dumpling. I have not liked them before but Javsung makes hers with green and red peppers as well as paprika and they were wonderful. I think I ate something like 9 or 10. Thank goodness that they are small. I think that it just goes to show that you have to have traditional food made by someone that you know in order for it to taste right. Think Home cooked taste that is often advertised in restaurants. Just not the same. I vow here and now never to make judgments about a cultures cuisine until I have been to someone's grandmother's house and had the real stuff.
I heard (but didn’t see that I am aware of) that some Mongolians hold the fresh khuushuur between their palms and also with the tips of all fingers so the blood will circulate better in the hands. This is believed to be healthful according to Javsung.
Botts is minced mutton mixed with a bit of onion and occasionally some cabbage inside a moist kind of pastry dumpling. They sort of look like pot stickers. Basically hoshuur that has been steamed. Actually, scratch the basically. They are the hoshuur that has been steamed. Not bad. When you bite into them lots of mutton juice leaks out of them. I've been told that the more of this liquid that there is the better it is. I might have eaten more but I was slowing down at this point. Niestler salat was another offering on the table. As far as I can tell this was just potato salad mixed with mayo and some other vegetables. There was a also a vegetable platter that Jennifer informs me is new as last year two of the teachers that Javsung invited happened to be vegetarians Oh, let’s not forget Vodka. Shot after shot after shot for as long as you can stand. So for me: one.
As if that wasn't enough after all this Javsung brought out cake and ice cream. She bought the cake so I don’t feel bad about ????? maintain that dessert in Asia is universally disappointing. It looks beautiful and right but never tastes right. Think about the desserts at Chinese restaurants in North America. It wasn’t optional though and Javsung gave me about three helpings of Ice Cream because "Ice cream with cake is nice I think."