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White and Red: The Mongol Diet

In our class a week from now we will be covering the Mongol Empire, and I am definitely looking forward to it.  A certain name will likely come to mind with the mention of the Mongols; and that name is Genghis Khan - the man that founded the largest empire to date. The Mongols are known far and wide for their military conquests, but what fueled these individuals?  What did they ingest on a daily basis to give them their boundless energy?

The cuisine of the Mongol Empire can be divided into two main groups: White foods and Red foods.  And while they were separated into two categories, everything the Mongols consumed predominantly came from their herds of livestock; these animals traveled with them as they moved from place to place (as they were a nomadic group of peoples after all).  Now, returning to what the two categories encompassed; the White foods were all dairy in nature, and included products such as cheese, yogurt, and a favorite of theirs, airag, "or fermented mare's milk which is [still] widely drunk today". I tried some of this airag myself, while on a school excursion to Mongolia several years back; however, I found it a tinge too pungent, but I guess it is an acquired taste.  It should be noted that these White foods were largely consumed during the summer.

Red foods, on the other hand, were consumed during the winter and consisted of meat from "five types of animals": sheep, goats, cattle (mainly yak), horses, and camels.  The protein and fat from all this meat provided the Mongols with a great source of energy and warmth.  However, as the Mongol nomads did not plant crops or possess an abundance of spices, their meaty meals were rather bland.  The only non-animal products they used were the occasional wild onion or garlic.  Mongol warriors who were constantly on the move were known to sometimes "knick a vein in their pony’s neck and drink a few gulps of the horse’s blood".

As can be seen by the types of food the Mongols consumed, they did not have the most balanced or exciting diet.  If I had to eat solely meat and milk products every single day I would definitely find myself getting bored of the food before long.  A diet such as this, lacking in vegetables and fruit, would be detrimental to the human body. The Mongols were also known be lovers of alcoholic drink, which was not very beneficial to their health as well.  Although their diet provided them with abundant energy, the excessive consumption of meat led to certain side effects; ailments such as gout were prevalent among those of the Mongol empire. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, suffered from gout, and he was known for being "grotesquely fat" during the later stages of his life. And he was not the only one.  Mainly during the period when the Mongol Empire was at its peak, obesity was a common problem; as a result, cardio-vascular issues were also suspected to be fairly widespread.

The benefits of the Mongol diet, though aiding in their mobility and giving their warriors inexhaustible energy, turned out to be rather short-lived.