Dear Friends and Family,
Tsetsgee Enkhsaikhan may be the most knowledgeable woman about cheese in all of Mongolia. Over the past twenty years, she launched Mongolia’s first yak cheese company, became project manager for the U.N. initiative, “Rehabilitation of the Mongolian Dairy Industry,” and was elected as a board member to the Worldwide Traditional Cheesemakers Association. To top it off, Tsetsgee speaks perfect English (having studied cheesemaking in Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Italy) and she invited me to her office at the Mongolian Food and Agricultural Organization to discuss “everything cheese.”
In response to my questions about the difficulty of making cheese in Mongolia, Tsetsgee surprised me. The greatest challenge, she said, is getting people to eat more cheese. As she put it, “Mongolia is first a milk society, not a cheese one.” Her words brought me back to yurt life with Chimgee and Haygaa, who showed me how to carefully bless the earth with milk drops (not cheese curds), but did not fit the bulk of my observations; such as the abundance of cheese in Ulaanbataar supermarkets or the widespread rural cheese-making practice.
While its true that two-thirds of Mongolians still live nomadically and make cheese all summer, Tsetsgee explained that the countryside is riddled with poverty, alcoholism, below average education and the inability to transport many goods — like cheese— to urban markets (blame the lack of roads and cars). As a result, cheese-making in Mongolia has remained more about conserving the valuable fat and protein in milk than producing a great tasting product.
The “tragedy” of the situation is that most Mongolians do not associate Mongolian cheese with quality and will either opt for the fresh dairy, such as milk or yogurt, or “classier” cheese from other countries (namely Russia and Poland). Seventy percent of foreign cheese is now flooding the Mongolian market but few herdsmen bother to compete; believing that, even if they increased milk production and made more cheese, they would not be able to sell it and find themselves overly burdened by the extra milk and a surplus of food.
Couple this reality, which Tsetsgee would refer to as a “struggling cheese culture,” with the fact that many Mongolian herdsmen are also moving to Ulaanbataar in search of better lives, and the future of Mongolian cheese-making looks rather bleak.
Tsetsgee, however, remains optimistic. She informed me that the government now recognizes the potential of cheese to stimulate the rural economy and is taking some action. In addition to creating an emergency assistance program to stem the rural exodus of herders, the Mongolian National Dairy Development Board raised its tax on foreign cheese imports from 5 to 15 percent last February.
“The influence of Western culture and food isn’t bad for our dairy industry either,” she added. Thanks to foreign imports and the growing popularity of American-Italian cuisine (such as pizza and spaghetti), more and more Mongolians are becoming curious about cheese, interested in cooking with it, and aware that not all cheese is “dry, tough, and bitter.”