Mongolian Cuisine and Cursing

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Dining with polyglot friends (he’s a Sinologist who also works with Georgian and Basque and speaks a bewildering variety of Asian languages, she interprets Mongolian and speaks the most exquisite Swedish), my wife and I learned something about Mongolian cuisine and cursing.


Mongolia has kind of a heavy-metal reputation. I mean, leave them to their own devices and they’ll conquer Eurasia. But as it turns out, these people cook really bland food and use extremely low-key expletives.

Salt is the only spice in regular use. A typical meal may consist of a pound of boiled goat and a bowl of yoghurt. Put pepper or garlic in the food and grown men will complain of your fiery ways in the kitchen.

As for cursing, when a Mongolian hits his thumb while hammering nails, he is likely to blurt “Carrion!”. More commonly, an angry Mongolian snarls a short word meaning “used tea leaves”, cf. our “dregs”. Young people sometimes use the Russian equivalent of “cunt” as an expletive, but they pronounce it in such a way that no Russian takes offence.

This is how Genghis Khan must have done it. He conserved his strength. No swearing at recalcitrant horses, no foul-mouthed outbursts after an evening of kumis and overtone singing. He just went out and conquered. And if occasionally a campaign didn’t quite go his way, he would frown and be heard to mumble, “Used tea leaves”.

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