Setting the Scene
Tsagaan Sar (literally White Moon) is the three-day holiday during which Mongolians celebrate the Lunar New Year. My host family from last summer invited me to spend the holiday with them, a holiday during which families first visit elders, then friends, and finally neighbors over the course of the three days, respectively. I made my way up to Selenge Province with two friends who were staying with their host families as well. During my first day back with my family, my host mother pulled out two cow feet to which I chuckled and wondered what use cow feet are to cooking. Little did I know that not only would she skin (unsure what word to use for the process of taking off the outer layer of the cow’s hoof) the cow hooves, she would also chop the insides of the hooves and boil the chunks with the rest of the meat from the cow’s legs. Once the concoction is finished, it is placed outside to chill. When my host mom brought the bowl back into the house, there was jello with chunks of meat in it: эстүжин (estujin).
From what I discovered, estujin is a meal typically reserved for winter time and served around Tsagaan Sar. Estujin is considered a delicacy. As my host father said (in Mongolian), “estujin is a very Mongolian food. It is delicious”. Onions and garlic are added for flavor, but the true health benefit comes from the collagen found in cow hooves. Besides providing the gelatin for the meal to freeze in the cold, collagen is thought to revitalize your skin and make it smooth, according to my Mongolian counterpart. For me, it was a new experience trying animal body parts I never thought I would eat. The meal overall was akin to kocsonya, a Hungarian meal that starts out as broth with meat, and through the addition of pig ears that provide gelatin, ends up a jello concoction after being left outside to freeze. No wonder the Magyar people are often confused as descendants of the Huns… some of our food is pretty similar to Mongolian food!