Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (2023)

(Image credit:

Samuel Bergstrom


Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (1)

By Erin CraigJanuary 15, 2018

The Mongolian equivalent of popcorn or crisps, pine nuts are happily eaten in bags simply because they are delicious.

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Halfway up the mountain, Enkhbaatar disappeared.

"Enchbaatar, where are you?" We turned and tried to see his white hat through the tangle of branches. This was not a place to lose your guide. We were just a few miles below the Siberian border in a dense subarctic pine forest known asTaiga. It was notoriously remote, even by Mongolian standards.


Something landed on the ground in front of my feet and rolled down the slope. Looking up, I saw Enkhbaatar nearly thirty feet in the air, clinging to the top of a pine tree. He grabbed an object from the swaying branches and threw it at us.

"Take her!"

Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (2)

The Tsaatan are an ethnic minority who herd reindeer on the northern fringes of Mongolia (Credit: GREG BAKER/Getty Images)

I slipped downhill, but Enkhbaatar's six-year-old son got there first. He grabbed the fruit-like object and started gnawing on it. Spitting out a mouthful of purple skin, he showed me the prize below: rows of yellow pine cones. As the local equivalent of popcorn or chips, pine nuts are eaten in bulk because they taste so good.

Enkhbaatar threw a plastic bag for us to carry his loot. I knew pine nuts as dry pods scavenged by squirrels. These were thick and ripe and had a quilted skin like a pineapple. Her sticky juice stuck to our hands as we reached for more.

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For me it was a novelty, but for Enkhbaatar it is everyday fare. He belongs to the Tsaatan, an ethnic minority that herds reindeer on the northern fringes of Mongolia. They live in tents alongside their animals and are largely self-sufficient. Hunting for pine cones in the taiga is the Tsaatan version of the grocery store for snacks.

Caught between tundra and desert, agricultural opportunities in northern Mongolia are limited. A harsh climate makes much of the land barren and limits grazing. That is why Chaatan families move their herds every season to find pasture. They eat the meat, milk and cheese provided by the reindeer, but their diet, rich in protein and fat, lacks the vitamins and minerals that normally come from fruits and vegetables. This nomadic lifestyle—and its culinary restrictions—is common throughout Mongolia and has remained largely unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan.

Pine cone hunting in the taiga is Tsaatan's twist on the supermarket snack supply

Pine nuts help balance a meat-rich diet. It is rich in iron and vitamin A - which corresponds to the common malnutrition of children throughout the countryThe World Bank– as well as potassium, magnesium and zinc.

For Chaatan, the taiga ecosystem is an advantage of living along the country's isolated northern border. Pine cones are not found in the grasslands of southern Mongolia. Enkhbaatar's family gathers pine cones every fall to roast over the fire. It's a refreshing change from meat and milk. After a few days of a diet of salt mutton and reindeer cheese, the nuts tasted great clean and fresh.

Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (3)

Pine nuts help balance the Tsaatan's meat-based diet, according to Samuel Bergstrom

A few months later, the deep winter cold in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, made me crave this unforgettable taste. Surprisingly I didn't have to go far to find it. Despite the availability of imported fruits and vegetables—not to mention fast food chains and coffee shops—even city dwellers have developed a taste for the pine nut.

“They are addictive,” my friend Byambaa told me as we walked the frozen streets. He wanted to gain a few pounds, but there were no trees to climb in this city of glass and cement. We needed a salesperson. While some upscale restaurants offered western pine nuts—sprinkled liberally over the noodles—street vendors sold them by the bag.

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As a child, Byambaa had helped her father harvest, cook and sell pine nuts in the forests of Khentii province northeast of Ulaanbaatar on the Siberian border to earn extra income. Today, permits and paperwork are required to sell the nuts, and most of the harvest is exported to China. Mongolians can harvest up to 25 kilograms each year for their own use, but most depend on a supplier like Samjmiatav Azjargal.

Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (4)

The taiga pine ecosystem is a privilege of life on Mongolia's isolated northern border (Source: Anu Haden)

We found Azjargal's stall at a busy intersection near the landmark in downtown Ulaanbaatar, the State Department Store. It was a great place for foot traffic, but terrible for the elements. In winter, Ulaanbaatar is thethe coldestand one of themore pollutedcapitals of the world, and Azjargal was mummified in thermal clothing and had a green scarf wrapped around her mask of pollution. He poured a steaming cup of coffeeThe book, a traditional sour milk, from a thermos while we were discussing their products.

Pine nuts are pleasant to eat in bags because they taste so good

It sells three types of pine nuts: raw, cooked and shelled. He fried them like enchbaatar in a large pan over the fire – without oil, salt or spices. The dry nuts turned a shiny brown color, like coffee beans. They were displayed in stacks on makeshift tables and measured in glass jars. Transactions were brisk - nuts slipped into a plastic bag, brightly colored Tugrik notes changing hands - while passers-by scrambled for warmth.

Azjargal's husband and his brothers travel to the northern provinces of Khentii, Selenge, Khovsgol and Zarkhan in autumn collecting pine cones. Sometimes they bring the whole family and turn the expedition into a camping trip. She took out her phone to show us photos of this year's harvest. The green, sunny photos brought me out of the concrete cold of Ulaanbaatar and back to my memories of the taiga.

Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (5)

Mongolians can harvest up to 25 kilograms of pine nuts each year, but most depend on supplier Samuel Bergstrom

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According to Azjargal, the whole tree he climbed in Enkhbaatar was unnecessary. Pine cones were in season when I visited the taiga in August. By mid-October, the cones would be ripe enough to literally shake off the trees. But there's a lot more than hungry squirrels to deal with. Pine cones are big business these days and many people are starting early to stay ahead of the competition. Azjargal confided to me that she also started in August and let the nuts ripen on their cones for several weeks after harvest. They are kept in a dry place and should last all year.

Azjargal paid for our order and apologized for their prices. It was a poor harvest, he said, and the roasted nuts cost up to 13,000 tugrik (about $5) a kilo, compared with 8,000 tugrik (about $3) last year. Shelled ones cost three times as much, so most people preferred to bite into the nuts and spit out the shells, like Americans eat peanuts in a ball game. According to Azjargal, good harvests come on a three-year cycle and she expects prices to remain high this coming winter. I didn't complain. A kilo of shelled pine nuts costs $60 in the US, where I'm from.

Mongolia's obsession with pine nuts (6)

Erin Craig: "If the choice is between a bag of chips and a pine nut, Mongolians know there's no contest" (Source: Samuel Bergstrom)

Azjargal handed me my bag and suggested I soak the nuts in vodka. The fortified drink is good for women's health, he said. Instead, Byambaa and I decided to drink coffee to warm up. We opened the bag of pine nuts and a pile of empty shells sprouted on the coffee table between us. The cooked nuts were milder than the ones I had eaten raw with enkhbaatar. They had a soft texture and a slight almond flavor. And Byambaa was right: they were addictive.

Outside the window, Azjargal deftly stayed with the question. Clubs of school children, women in expensive furs, engineers in dirty trousers - everyone stopped for food on the way home. Faced with the choice between a bag of crisps from a warming store and frozen pine cones from a near-freezing street vendor, Mongolians know there is no competition.

CORRECTION:An earlier version of this story incorrectly claimed that pine nuts contain vitamin D. This has been corrected.

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What causes pine nut syndrome? ›

Latest research, response

The cause of pine mouth has not been determined, but several researchers have indicated that a particular species and source of pine nut, Pinus armandii exported from the Shaanxi and Shanxi regions of China, may be responsible for causing the symptoms.

Can you eat too many pine nuts? ›

Eating too many pine nuts can leave a bitter metallic taste in the mouth for a few days or even two weeks. Rarely do people also experience taste disturbance. It is known as pine nut syndrome. You may also experience nausea, headache, or vomiting.

What hormone is in pine nuts? ›

Research shows that pine nuts contain certain fatty acids that might help curb appetite (2). These fatty acids in pine nuts (especially Korean pine nuts) help release a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK), which is known to suppress appetite (3).

Are pine nuts inflammatory? ›

Pine nuts may aggravate medical conditions such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease because they contain omega-6 fatty acids in the form of linoleic acid which increases inflammation when eaten in large quantities.

Who Cannot eat pine nuts? ›

Those with a tree nut allergy or peanut allergy may also be allergic to pine nuts. As a result, it is best to speak with an allergist to ensure that eating products that may have come into contact with pine nuts is safe.

What does eating pine nuts do to your body? ›

Pine nuts can increase your energy levels due to their protein, iron, and magnesium. The antioxidant power of vitamin E contained in them may help keep your skin healthy and young in appearance. Additionally, regularly eating pine nuts or other seeds and nuts may help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Do pine nuts increase blood pressure? ›

Pine nut consumption is connected to lower levels of 'bad' LDL cholesterol in the blood and lower blood pressure, enhancing overall heart health2.

Are pine nuts good for kidneys? ›

Pine nuts are also traditionally regarded as having benefits for the kidneys in TCM; they're said to increase kidney qi and help regulate fluid balance.

Are pine nuts good for your liver? ›

Like with all other nuts, fats from organic pine nuts lower the level of LDL cholesterol, thereby protecting your arteries and boosting your cardiovascular health in general. This happens because the chemicals from the nuts enhance your liver's LDL uptake.

Do pine nuts increase testosterone? ›

Pine nuts: Pine nuts are a great source of zinc. Zinc has been associated with increased testosterone production, which can improve erectile dysfunction and boost libido.

Are pine nuts good for thyroid? ›

Avoid overconsuming foods that can potentially interfere with thyroid function, including broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, spinach, turnips, soybeans, peanuts, linseed, pine nuts, millet, cassava, and mustard greens. These foods are healthful in general, so do not avoid them completely.

Are pine nuts histamine? ›

Pine Nuts. For most people pine nuts are a safe low histamine nut option, rich in iron and magnesium, and very high in heart-healthy fats.

How many pine nuts should I eat a day? ›

Pecans: 15. Pine nuts: Two tablespoons. Pistachios: 30. Walnuts: 10 (whole or 20 walnut halves)

Is pine nuts are good for lungs? ›

According to traditional Chinese medicine, pine nut have a thermal warming nature, positively influences the lungs, colon, and liver, lubricates the lungs and intestines, and increases body fluids.

Are pine nuts a laxative? ›

-The high dietary fiber in the nuts help in easing constipation and other bowel related problems.

What is the unhealthiest nut? ›

Brazil nuts, cashews and macadamia nuts are higher in saturated fat. Too much of this can contribute to raised cholesterol levels, so only eat them occasionally. Chestnuts are an exception – they're lower in all types of fats and higher in starchy carbohydrate than other nuts.

What is the healthiest nut to eat? ›

Most nuts appear to be generally healthy. But some may have more heart-healthy nutrients than others. For example, walnuts contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts and pecans also appear to be quite heart healthy.

What time of day should you eat pine nuts? ›

Evening – Pistachios, Cashew and Pine Nuts. They can help boost your immunity and stamina after a long day at work. These could also be a great snacking option. (Also Read: 7 Incredible Cashe Nut Benefits)Night – Walnuts, Prunes, and Dates.

How long does pine nut syndrome last? ›

Pine mouth, also known as Pine Nut Syndrome (PNS), is an uncommon dysgeusia that generally begins 12–48 hours after consuming pine nuts. It is characterized by a bitter metallic taste, usually amplified by the consumption of other foods, which lasts 2–4 weeks.

How do you get rid of pine nut allergy? ›

Pine Nut Allergy Treatment

Food allergies, including allergies to pine nuts, are best treated by completely avoiding the food. To accomplish this it may be necessary to learn how to read food labels, deal with the potential dangers of restaurants, and be aware of other potential exposure.

How many pine species have nuts that humans eat? ›

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, only 29 species provide edible nuts, while 20 are traded locally or internationally owing to their seed size being large enough to be worth harvesting; in other pines, the seeds are also edible but are too small to be of notable value as human food.

How common is pine nut allergy? ›

Although allergy to pine nuts is uncommon, there are numerous reports in the medical literature showing that reactions do occur and that these can be severe. It is common for people with pine nut allergy to have no other food allergies.

Can pine nuts make you feel sick? ›

The adverse reaction can develop suddenly and inexplicably within 12 to 48 hours after consuming the nuts, which are the edible seeds of the pine tree. It can happen out of the blue, even to people who have eaten pine nuts previously with no adverse reaction.

Is post nut syndrome a good thing? ›

Many people report feeling a sense of accomplishment after experiencing an orgasm. This may be due to the release of endorphins and dopamine. These two hormones are associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Post-nut clarity can bring about feelings of relaxation and relief.

Is it safe to eat raw pine nuts? ›

Pine nuts are a nutritious snack that can be eaten raw or roasted. They can be added to salads, sprinkled on top of hummus, and blended up as part of pesto and other sauces.

What foods to avoid with pine nut allergy? ›

Unexpected Sources of Tree Nuts: Breakfast cereals, Candy, Crackers, Cookies, Chocolates, energy bars, flavored coffee, frozen desserts, marinade, barbeque sauces, some cold cuts, ice cream, alcoholic beverages (flavorings), lotions, shampoos, and soaps.

What am I allergic to pine nuts and the full spectrum? ›

Margaret Tate : What am I allergic to? Andrew Paxton : Pine nuts, and the full spectrum of human emotion.


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