We are in Mongolia. Tsagaan Sar, arguably Mongolia’s most important holiday, is the celebration of the Lunar New Year, held a month after the first new moon following the Winter Solstice. Tsagaan means “white” and Sar can be translated as “month” or “moon”. When locals celebrate the Lunar New Year with a days-long holiday, that like the best holidays, is all about family, the centerpiece is usually a fabulous ul boov. Ul boov in the lyrical, literal style of the Mongolian language means “shoe sole cake”, probably a humble name for a towering dessert that’s steeped in tradition and plays a role similar to a Christmas tree or family shrine.
It consists of layers of fried cakes, each of which resembles the cross-hatched bottom of a shoe, decorated with chunks of sugar, wrapped candies, and filled with offerings of aaruul, a sweet hard cheese. Aaruul, dried milk curds, is traditionally made in the summertime and meant to be kept and eaten throughout the year. It can be made from the milk of four of the five snouts, the domesticated animals of Mongolia: sheep, goat, camel, cow/yak, but never from the milk of a horse. All “white foods”, to illustrate and honor the purity of Shambhala, the mystical kingdom of Tibetan Buddhism. To outsiders, the sturdy cake tower can look a little bit strange, but there is more to the dessert than meets the eye.
Each aspect of ul boov has social significance: families make the sole-like impression in each cake with a wooden stamp that they pass down through generations, and since each stamp is unique, ul boov designs identify families like a fingerprint. Tradition dictates also the number of layers in the cake, with Elders prepare seven layers, young couples stack three layers, and everyone else makes five layers: height corresponds to age and status, and odd numbers symbolize happiness. Stacking the cakes involves the ritualistic precision and care involved in lighting a menorah, the seven-lamp ancient Hebrew lampstand used in the portable sanctuary set up by Moses in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, described in the Bible. A finished ul boov symbolizes Mount Sumeru, a sacred Buddhist mountain.
Ul boov can serve as a tasty treat at weddings and other celebrations, or as a meaningful decoration in the home. Either way, it’s a sweet way to ring in the new year or Christmas holidays.