A Taste of Tradition - Mongolia
When we think of traditional culture what do we imagine? Playwrights, paintings and poems… but not cooks and kitchens. But what if it turns out that we listen and learn best through our stomachs? That’s exactly what ArtGer discovered.
ArtGer is a Mongolian culture channel on YouTube. Their most popular topic – food. For example, how to cook boodog, a meat BBQ where the lamb is cooked inside of the carcass using hot stones – with four million views! The series ‘Nargie’s Mongolian Cuisine’ was also picked up by international press. Their cocktail of travel, clever filming, witty commentary and great food plays like an audio-visual Stradivarius, so I asked the founder, Javkha, how the project came about.
Most of our readers will be new to the scene, please introduce yourself.
My name is Javkha Ara. I founded ArtGer in 2015. The channel name is straightforward: Ger – is the Mongolian nomadic tent, art, well it’s art. Our channel covers music, travel, etiquette, and generally introduces contemporary Mongolia to the world.
Before ArtGer I worked at the local television station in Darhan, my home city, following my father’s footsteps, who is also a journalist. This background and surrounding was conducive to me picking up odd jobs in filmmaking, music videos and tv shows etc even while studying journalism. For a while I retained my primary, journalistic, profession. As in many such stories, ArtGer started as a hobby, only to later grow into something bigger.
And what’s the story of ArtGer?
Having opened YouTube, I was despondent. I could not believe how few videos about Mongolian and steppe culture there were and the quality of the opens that were there, well, left more to be desired. So, I decided to get a crew together to change this sordid state of affairs. I called up a few friends, among them, the presenter Nargie, who teaches English at the Mongolian Humanity University in Darkhan and also has a journalistic background, and we got to filming.
Why the focus on food?
This choice was not random. Cooking encapsulates what we wanted to show – travel, tradition, deep history, generational continuity and national unity. When we cook, we go through the motions of all these mentioned spheres. Food brings with in values and etiquette. Eating well is a rich experience. We go through the motions our ancestors did and feel closer to them, see what they saw, feel what they felt. It is this deep feeling we wanted to communicate.
We were pleasantly surprised by the steady climb in popularity. It feels good to give people what they want and to know that they want what you can make. So far, we’ve had a great experience as a team and look forward to climbing new heights.
Taste Buds for Tradition
So, who makes up your audience?
I think we struck at the right moment, because it is in the past few years that everyone comes to YouTube. Mongolia remains a terra incognita which I am sure contributes to viewing interest.
YouTube analytics to the rescue to answer your question. 15% from the USA. 15% from the Middle East. The rest split evenly across South Asia and Europe. Mostly teenagers – which is indicative as it is important. Look, I think for many this is a question of exoticism. These teenagers live in big cities, spend a lot of time in their comfort zone. When they see our show, it gives them views and showcases livelihoods that they’ve never seen before, but often have a strong inclination towards. It must be that our show for them is something exciting and new, otherwise why would they choose to watch us? Isn’t it funny how recipes from hundreds of years ago can be considered new? It’s our job to popularise this deep tradition of cuisine and record it for future generations.
Good point, is documenting nomadic culinary tradition part of your mission?
Certainly. It’s important to have a mission in mind, and so do we. Every family in Mongolia has relatives who still remember how it was to be a nomad or even those who remain nomadic. Even Ulaanbaatar has a ger district. But one generation from now most families will be settled in a new metropolitan environment. It’s just the way things are. So for our Mongolian audience, our mission is to become a video-history of true nomadic traditional culinary know-how. We are preserving traditions of our ancestors in an accessible, and dare I say it, fun format. We want to become the historical catalogue for generations to come, when our grandchildren grow nostalgic of being intertwined with nature as their ancestors were. The same goes for the audience at large and historians of Mongolia.
Our nomadic tradition is unique and as old as time itself. We go out of our way to find local experts in this minimalistic, condensed and conscientious art. True sages of traditional food from across Mongolia present their know-how in our videos. Thus, you see how we combine different strands of culture? Travel, etiquette, and cuisine? And lest we forget – what we see not only looks great but tastes amazing too! Otherwise, how would these dishes be around for so long?
Another aspect of our mission is to bring this plethora of flavours to the world. To entice audiences from across the globe in Mongolian tradition, travel and culture. We want people to come over and experience Mongolia for themselves. As I said, Mongolia is poorly documented worldwide and we are changing that video-by-video.
Have you been to Russia? Do you speak Russian?
I speak Russian. My father graduated from university in Moscow, wrote poems and even books in Russian. I look forward going to Russia again.
And is your channel going to do work with Russia?
Absolutely. We plan to visit the regions of Buryatia, Tuva, Kalmykia and others. We want to continue our work to showcase nomadic cultures across borders. This is something very important to us. Later we want to work in Central Asia too, documenting, discussing, comparing and contrasting. We Mongols share a lot of culture with neighbouring Russian regions and Russia more broadly. ArtGer will document this for the attention of Mongols, Russians and the world.
What are your future plans?
ArtGer is going international. What started as a private hobby has become a production company making all sorts of videos apart from our usual, we’ve attracted a lot of attention and even supporting nods from the national government. It’s time to go further. We want to go abroad to bring new know-how to chefs of Asian and Mongolian food across the world. Keeping tradition is one thing, growing it is another great task. We are planning on bringing shows to Beijing and Tokyo, and then further afield.
Do you have other shows planned?
There will also be a great show called FunkyGer where Americans come to experience the Mongolian underground and nightlife scenes. Mongolia is becoming famous for great music, well perhaps its time to introduce where our young people hang out, our great rappers and metalheads?
Also, we are developing ArtGer Style – a programme about fashion and design. Mongolian visual art is just as deep as our cuisine, so it’s a fertile field to expand into.
And other projects?
As I said, part of our project is to introduce Mongolia to the world. We are developing a travel bureau, which can help wannabe explorers dive into our Great Steppe. So please ‘watch this space’ as they say, if you plan to come to Mongolia.
I hope that Javkha, Nargie and the team keep growing the ArtGer project. It is encouraging that there is growing demand for tradition, a transcendent nostalgia, one could say. And their mission of conversation is important.
For me, ArtGer is inspiring because it shows how a grassroots start-up with a grand mission can become a success. Food is an exciting and innovative medium to discuss culture, often forgotten or reduced to the basic ‘pizza or sushi’ argument. Culinary practice, as Javkha says, brings with it values, etiquette, ‘the way things are done’. It’s our people’s history, emotions and memory, but that we can taste. Seemingly an obvious idea, right? But today, these are innovative words.