James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

How to Make Curdled Milk on Toast Sound Appetizing

How to Make Curdled Milk on Toast Sound Appetizing

Urum in Mongolia

It’s my fifth morning in Mongolia, and I silently welcome a respite from meat.
I’m sitting on a low stool at a table in a nomadic family’s kitchen tent in the arid Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Yurts—or gers—dot the wide, dusty valley every kilometer or so, and hundreds of goats and sheep rip short grasses and shrubs from the earth.

I think back on my first few meals. There were the large mutton-filled patties called khuushuur, and the platter of tender goat intestines piled high, and then the rich minced beef dumplings. And the night before, a stew of goat, carrot, onions, and potatoes simmering on a pressure cooker over the fire. The father made me back 20 paces away when he took off the lid, just in case.

All were delicious, but the lighter breakfast the mother is preparing this morning will be a nice break. In the summer, they cook meals in in this tent, because cooking makes the round, intimate ger too warm.

Cups of milky tea are placed on the table to start, and the smell of the fire just outside the tent wafts inside. I’m sitting with Zoe, a 25-year-old Mongolian woman. Her parents are family friends of the family I’m staying with, visiting for the weekend from Ulaanbaatar.

A bowl of urum lands on the table. The night before, the family’s 14-year-old daughter milked the cows. The milk was then gently simmered in a large pot. Once a thick layer of skin had formed on the milk, it was scooped off. Urum is a kind of clotted cream, pale yellow with an uneven texture, resembling scrambled eggs that haven’t been stirred quite enough.

Zoe and I take turns slowly spreading urum across pieces of cinnamon-brown, warm fried bread. I eat a few bites, enjoying the surprising coldness of the cream on a morning that’s already hot at 8 a.m. Zoe stops me, and urges me to sprinkle white sugar evenly over the surface.

As we eat, Zoe tells me about her life in Los Angeles, where she has been studying business for the last few years. She is home for a brief summer holiday and she misses Mongolia, especially the food. She says one day she may like to work in tourism, splitting her time between the U.S. and her home country.

We finish our tea, and the family’s young children begin to file into the tent, ready for their own breakfast of urum and fried bread. Our cups of tea are refilled. Tiny brown calves wander past the tent opening, their lovely white eyelashes bright.

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