A Cake That’s More Spiritual Offering Than Last Course

December  1, 2016

From fifth through seventh grade, my best friend was named Elena.* We rode the bus together every day after school. She was a quarter Korean, and she'd been born in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1991, just after the country had detached from the Soviet Union. But her family was mostly from Mongolia.

Photo by Julia Rothman

These all became major talking points whenever she introduced herself to people. In our cosseted New Jersey private school, each student was either East Indian, like me, or some shade of white. Elena seemed terribly ashamed of her own heritage, and so she tried to deal with this insecurity through making fun of herself, as if trying to beat everyone else to an imagined punchline. She would often rib about her “chinky eyes” and being every boy's "Asian persuasion." Other demographics were targets of this cardboard stereotyping, too—she called black girls “Oreos” and called me "curry faggot." But she was her own best disputant.

Her house was a McMansion in East Brunswick, the stooshiest of New Jersey’s constellation of Brunswicks. It had an elevator. Her bedroom was outfitted with a few mini television screens that relayed what everything that surveillance cameras planted in various spots across the house saw. The first and only time I went to Elena’s house was in seventh grade, one Saturday in February. She’d decided to invite eight or so of us—it was a matter of great exclusivity. Her mother and grandmother were there. Neither spoke much English, just Russian and Mongolian, a fact that embarrassed her.

Goy shuu #TsagaanSar

A photo posted by Fb:А.Болор-Эрдэнэ (@bolor_1214) on

She hurried us past her mother and grandmother into a room outfitted with a projector and stereo system. We played spin the bottle; the party was my introduction to Ciara's “Goodies.” There was no alcohol, but the offerings were nonetheless standard party fare from a nearby Shop Rite: Chex Mix. Cheetos. Carbonated sodas.

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Outside the room, Elena's grandmother sat at the dining table watching television. She was placid and unmoving, as if a mute watchdog or security guard. I escaped the room for a bathroom break and came upon her sitting next to what resembled a great stack of tough-looking Twinkies, their middles depressed rather than elevated, topped with Domino sugar cubes. I did not try any of this, but its image persists in my memory, and only recently have I—maybe—found a name for it. I think it was ul boov.

Ul boov, which translates quite plainly as "shoe sole cake," remains quite obscure outside of Mongolia and its diaspora. Not even the English-language Wikipedia page for the holiday it’s attached to—Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian New Year also celebrated by indigenous peoples in pockets of the Arctic, east of the Urals and near Lake Baikal—deigns to list it by name. It is simply referred to "as a pyramid of traditional cookies erected on a large dish in a special fashion symbolising Mount Sumeru or Shambhala realm." The dessert is meant to be an edible representation of Mount Meru, the peak of Buddhist lore surrounded by seven seas and seven walls, or the Shambhala, the mythical village of Tibetan Buddhism. It is topped with sugar cubes, aarul (sweet, dried curds prepared months in advance from the milk from a sheep, goat, camel, or yak), and candies wrapped in plastic.

Tsagaan Sar ("White Moon") itself isn't terribly well-known beyond the Mongolian and indigenous Siberian diaspora. It's a three-day festival, a hybrid of Buddhist and Shamanist traditions, that falls on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Tsagaan Sar tends to correspond on the yearly calendar with either January or February. The holiday derives its name, in part, from the color of the food that is served—most of it is pearl-white, mimicking its meteorological surroundings (temperatures can dip as low as -22°F during this time of year).

Two artistic renderings of Mount Meru. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons

The festivities begin with an evening known as Bituun ("to close down”), when disparate generations convene under the same roof. Elderly hosts must tidy the house, metaphorically and literally—it is a time to dislodge from the grudges everyone has held against family members all year and make amends. It is the night of a lush feast, and ul boov is the centerpiece of this meal that offers buuz, steamed mutton dumplings; a large, hulking sheep served in a large platter at the table's center; airag, fermented mare's milk; seabuckthorn juice; and warm vodka.

Ul boov is a cake of deep-fried, oblong cookies stacked in layers of odd numbers that signify good fortune. The youngest generation stacks three layers, the middle five, the eldest seven. The act of stacking in itself is an elaborate, balletic enterprise, like a game of Jenga. Celebrants must place two cookies directly next to one another and then lay another, crosswise, atop this pair; repeat this step countless times. Each layer requires a minimum of six cookies.

The sole English-language recipe for ul boov I've been able to find is straightforward enough, calling for a mix of wheat flour, water, and clarified Mongolian butter (known as shar tos, made from milk, sugar, and salt) to make a dough that you must knead it tirelessly until it's virtually solid. Then, you mold the dough into separate small logs.

Mom's crafty work. Thank you! @yajargal #ulboov #handcrafted

A photo posted by Buyannemekh Batsaikhan (@nukster89) on

What follows is a gesture that is unique to each household: Every family has woodblock instrument with intricate patterns embedded in it, passed down from one generation to the next. Press into each one using these wooden blocks, depressing the centers and creating protruding bulges around the edge of each cookie, in the vein of mini, ovular deep-dish pizzas. Each cookie must then be doused them in cooking oil—typically beef tallow, though any cooking oil suffices as a substitute—and fried until they tan.

Scholars of Mongolian history have been unable to pinpoint the exact birthdate of Tsagaan Sar, though they agree upon one fact: it predates the thirteenth century, when warlord Genghis Khan assumed power. Before that, Tsagaan Sar was observed as an end-of-summer festival, corresponding, usually, to September on the Gregorian calendar.

A Mongolian banknote with Genghis Khan. Photo by jackmac34

This changed when Khan entered the fray. With Khan's ascension in 1206 came his power-drunk desire to commemorate the beginning of his regency with a flamboyant holiday. And so he moved Tsagaan Sar to the winter.

With this seasonal shift came the move to eat primarily white foods, like ul boov, to coincide with the holiday. “The Tartars begin their year in February, when the khan and his people celebrate a feast, where all, both men and women, are clothed in white robes,” Marco Polo would write in his famous 1300 tome detailing his travels around the world. “They consider these as signifying joy and good fortune, and that hence all prosperity will happen to them or any dominion under him, make the most magnificent resents in their power.”

In 1644, the Qing Dynasty of China took over Mongolia, under which the holiday and its customs flourished. Tsagaan Sar survived well into 1911, when the country gained independence upon dynastic collapse. Quietly stewing in the country in the following decade were strains of socialist resistance that would assume power through a 1921 revolution, a takeover that would work to scrub the country clean of Tsagaan Sar.

Two 1932 stamps dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Mongolian Revolution of 1921. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

In this period, it became gauche to celebrate such an ostentatious holiday in the open, particularly under a new government that sought to ape the austerity of its Soviet neighbors. The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party banned it for fear that it was too extravagant and lavish a celebration, signifying bounty. In 1957, the government replaced it with a holiday known as the "Spring Festival of the Herdsmen," or "Collective Herder's Day," meant to celebrate the toil of collectivist workers.

The holiday continued to be celebrated covertly in pockets of Mongolia, in the privacy and enclosure of homes, keeping some of its core traditions alive. People still carved intricate stamps for ul boov; this was an art its observants never lost. The bloodless Mongolian Revolution of 1990 ushered democracy into the state, and with it came a rebirth of dormant traditions that the socialist government had tried, unsuccessfully, to will into oblivion.

There is an unsurprising paucity of existing English-language literature on ul boov, and Tsagaan Sar more generally. It is for this reason that I wanted to thaw the moratorium on my correspondence with Elena, whom I haven't spoken to in years. Elena and I had fallen out of touch after ninth grade. We did not really end our friendship on bad terms; I’m not sure we left on any terms at all, so much as we drifted apart rather naturally, running in social circles that never intersected.

I wonder if the cake I saw on her dining room table really was ul boov. The dates certainly line up—it was winter, which is when the holiday is observed. But the memory is too suspiciously tidy for me to trust myself. I still had her 908 area code number in my phone, and I texted her to gut check my memory. She did not respond.

One of the few English-language encomiums to ul boov was written three years ago by Michelle Borok in Roads & Kingdoms. Like me, she was ul boov-adjacent, though the artery that connects her to it is more potent than my thinning middle school memory: Borok is a Korean-American woman married to a Mongolian man, and she currently lives in Darkhan, Mongolia's second-largest city. “[I]n order to truly understand the holiday, you need to be kin to some Mongolian,” she posited in her piece. Even she admitted, in her writing, that there is only so much of this dessert's spiritual charge, history, and significance she can grasp as a non-Mongolian in spite of her proximity.

When I wrote to her last month, Borok was insistent on one fact: sometimes, ul boov isn't even eaten. "It's linked a little more closely to food as spiritual offering," she suggested, as if the creation of this food is tradition of steeped in antiquity and respect, that the result is too good to eat. She maintained, rather, that ul boov is more decorative, its purpose primarily ornamental and symbolic of intergenerational reverence.

boowoo hiij baina #tsagaansar

A photo posted by 👻 solongo.1225 ◻️ be kind (@solongoenk) on

Most photographs I see of ul boov are objectively atrocious, depicting lumpen stacks of dough decaying alongside meat on a serving tray. Try scouring Creative Commons—it’s near impossible to find a flattering image of a cake that is meant to be aesthetically pristine. It may be one of those foods that is too beautiful to photograph, almost as if the medium cheapens it.

Even if this image is a product of my fictive and fanciful memory, I can picture it on Elena’s dining room table, magnificent and stately, as big as her house. And though I didn't taste it, only now do I realize that perhaps it was meant to be that way.

* This wasn’t really her name.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

1 Comment

Megan W. January 10, 2020
This is a beautifully written and fascinating story, but i expected to find a recipe at the end... do you have one?