Innards are gross, but good for you
|Mongolians love eating the internal organs of sheep, goats, cows, and horses. Americans can't stand it.|
Mongolians eat quite a bit of organ meats. Most of us Americans did not grow up eating organ meats, and find them difficult to stomach. Some Mongolians don't care much for it either, and that may be why my school's kitchen did not cook гэдэс, which is great since I had lunch there most of the time. Other Mongolians though love it and even say it is one of their favorite foods. The first time I ate innards was right after the first time I saw a goat slaughtered, because internal organs spoil faster than muscle meat, and I personally don't care much for them.
It’s also true that Mongolian traditionally eat vegetables a lot less. This was one of the biggest diet complaints from a lot of volunteers, especially our vegetarians (I’m not sure how they pulled that off). The concern over vegetables is serious enough that the PCMOs (Peace Corps Medical Officers, i.e., our doctors) gave us bottles of vitamins when we arrived. The steppe can get pretty lush in August, but in general growth only occurs within a 3-4 month space each year. Even when the weather's warm though, growth is limited by permafrost in some places. There isn't a whole lot you can grow and much of it has to be transported long distances. Hence the main vegetables are ones like potatoes that can be grown and stored easily, and in many countryside shops you will only find potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage, with an emphasis on the potatoes. Mongolians put these in soup, but both the quantity and variety are small compared to American meals.
So how is that Mongolians manage to stay alive, with so much red meat and so little green? The answer may be гэдэс.
|Mongolian boiled goat guts: a delicious bowl of Vitamins A and C|
Organ meat may be essential to the diets of many groups of people around the world, and not just Mongolians. The Inuit traditionally ate an almost all-meat diet full of fat. We might expect them to waste away from vitamin deficiency. Traditionally though, they didn't. That's because here are no essential foods, only essential nutrients, and nutrients can come from many sources.  Americans generally assume they can only get vitamin C by eating things like oranges, but meat also has Vitamin C, if you eat it raw. Understandably, we don’t eat raw meat because of the risk of food poisoning, but if you have no other source of this essential nutrient, that may tip the scales in favor of eating raw stuff. The Inuit ate a lot of raw meat, and also ate internal organs. (Not too much though: seal livers contain so much vitamin A that they can kill you! )
The Mongols are similar to the Inuit in some ways. They live in a harsh environment with few veggies, and while they don’t eat raw meat, they do eat lots of fat and organ meats. Organ meats contain more vitamin C than muscles, and also other nutrients like vitamins A and D. The liver is an especially good source of vitamins.  This may be why I have been told that гэдэс is necessary for good health, and why Mongolian children are chided to eat their гэдэс the same way that American children are told to eat their vegetables. While they may not have been able to explain exactly why it was good, they were on the right track.
Meat isn't the only source of nutrients, of course. Mongolians also get vitamin C from fermented horse milk  and tea.  Another intriguing possibility is that Mongolians may simply be inherently better at absorbing nutrients from the kinds of food which are traditional in Mongolia.  It may not be quite enough, since studies show that Mongolians are at risk for a number of health problems. But they are doing better than we might expect, and other factors like health care and smoking may play a part in bad results. People work with what they have, and like many other cultures around the world, the Mongolians' traditional diet has been honed to make the best use of the their environment. Keep that in mind the next time someone offers you buuz filled with minced sheep rumen.
- A lot of people have said something like "There are no essential nutrients," but the place I read it was in the Discover Magazine article "The Inuit Paradox," where the authors quote Harold Draper. The article, by Patricia Gadsby and Leone Steele, is on Discover's website at http://discovermagazine.com/2004/oct/inuit-paradox. There's a
lot of interesting stuff in this article, including the fact
that a diet without enough fat can also be toxic, and that Inuit
have much fewer heart attacks, but more nosebleeds.
- Rodahl, K. and T. Moore, "The Vitamin A Content and Toxicity of Bear and Seal Liver."
- For example, according to the a serving of cooked lamb liver contains 22% of the daily value of vitamin C, and 1676% of the DV of vitamin A. (http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/lamb-veal-and-game-products/4669/2).
- Kumiss has 98 mg of vitamin C per liter, according to Joseph Needham:
- “It's said that an important source of vitamin C for the
Mongols was tea (imported from China) - the leaves and all being
I can't find the origin for the assertion that Mongols got it this way. However, according to the USDA, brewed green tea contains 0.7g of vitamin C per cup: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/4329?fgcd=&manu=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=35&offset=&sort=&qlookup=tea.
- From N. Oyunbayar: "Before 1992 there wasn't much research in this area. But now
we know from our research that Mongolians are better able to
absorb foods with more acid. So, traditional food should be kept
in the country."
I don't know if this is true though or what research they are referring to. The text is originally from Ger magazine, which is no longer available.