Mongolian milk tea, also known as Suutei tsai, is one of the more commonly used beverages among Mongolian people. In fact, it is tradition for Mongolians to make and drink a daily dose of this salty milk tea, not only for reasons of dietary habit, but also because it reminds them of home.
"Mongolian families have Mongolian milk tea every morning and also serve it to their guests," said Lai Xiao, a Mongolian woman who is a past master at making the drink. Born in Chifeng City of Northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Lai Xiao and her four little brothers were raised by her grandmother, largely owing to the fact that, since the age of two, their parents had been busy grazing in the desert.
"At that time, we would wake up with the fragrance of milk tea and my grandma's beautiful singing every morning," Lai Xiao recalled. And, by learning from her grandmother, she gradually grasped the skills of making Mongolian milk tea, all the while taking on the responsibility of bringing up her brothers later on in life.
Traditionally, Mongolian milk tea is made by the following procedure: steeping, boiling, scooping, skimming, frying, mixing and stewing. As Lai Xiao begins, she stresses the importance of the ratio of tea to milk. "Just by checking the color of the tea in the boiling water, I can see when it's time to add salt and milk," she said, and only the milk tea that is derived from brick tea is considered traditional Mongolian milk tea.
Living in the grasslands, the Mongolian people's diet mainly consists of beef, mutton and dairy products, along with a small amount of cereals and vegetables. Brick tea helps to degrease oil and supplies one with essential nutrients such as Vitamin C, tannin and proteins.
The culture of milk tea is strongly rooted in the life of Mongolians, hence the reason why so much value is placed on the process and materials for making milk tea.
Greatly influenced by her grandmother, Lai Xiao started to engage more with her artistic and cultural sides in her 20s, when she first took up dancing for the Ulan Muqir Art Troupe, an organization which tours remote villages in and around the vast region of Inner Mongolia, performing traditional Mongolian music for nomadic families, with each member of the Ulan Muqir being able to sing, dance and play musical instruments. Last year, Lai Xiao was named as a national first-class dancer.
Lai Xiao described her days in the troupe as tough and memorable. Each time the group went on a tour, the nomadic families would always be excited about their visits, and even competed to invite the performers to their homes to eat with them and taste the homemade milk tea brews.
However, Lai Xiao still missed the milk tea made by her grandmother, so she always carried some brick tea along while traveling and mostly made her own tea. Now, her milk tea making is well known among her colleagues and locals.
She believes that Mongolian milk tea is a necessity for the life of Mongolian people because of its strong association with their homes. "My son always says his favorite milk tea is the one made by myself," Lai Xiao said with a smile.