The Taste of Gobi Rations in the 1930s

Travel rations in the Gobi were somewhat less varied in the 1930s than they are now.

We started by drinking a bowl of “brick tea.” This was tea made by hammering off a chunk from a brick measuring about 6″ x 10″ x 1″ that weighed about two and a half pounds and was formed by compressing tea leaves into the least possible space in order to reduce the cost of transportation. Such bricks were widely used as a medium of exchange in the barter trade between Chinese and Mongols.

The chunk broken off from the brick is pounded, usually in a mortar, to loosen the compacted elements. Most teas are steeped in hot water according to the taste of the drinker. Brick tea is made by boiling. Mongols and Tibetans drink tea au lait, with added milk, butter, and salt. Chinese prefer it straight.

We had ours Chinese style. At first sip the tea tasted a bit like water in which a strip of rubber has been boiled. It improved only slightly with more sips.

Next we had a bowl of roasted or parched millet. Although millet is generally considered to be poor people’s fare, especially in contrast to high-status rice and wheat, it seemed to me not a whit inferior in taste to many of our cereals that are well known to be the breakfasts of champions…. Camel drivers generally eat the millet dry, washing it down with copious bowls of brick tea. Others prefer the somewhat more efficient technique of pouring handfuls of the cereal into their tea and then slurping down the combination. This was my preference, too …

We also had a small taste of two other cereals. One was a kind of oatmeal, not the flaky sort such as graces American breakfasts, but rather a finely ground flour, also roasted or parched. We ate it in a bowl of hot tea, making a sort of porridge, with the optional addition of a bit of sugar. I found it quite tasty. The other cereal, also a parched flour, tasted like bran. We sampled a few spoonfuls in our tea, again with a bit of sugar. It too seemed to me quite palatable.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 94-95

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