The towering dessert has significance similar to that of a Christmas tree.
Ul boov translates to "shoe sole cake". It’s made during Lunar New Year celebrations in Mongolia. Also known as Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year can be traced back to times that existed before the thirteenth century. Ul boov is made of layers of fried cakes—each resembling the bottom of a shoe—and decorated with sugar cubes, wrapped candy, and aarul, which is a sweet curd. The towering dessert has significance similar to that of a Christmas tree. It’s treated more like an ornamental spiritual offering than food, almost considered too good to eat.
The festivities begin with an evening known as Bituun, when different generations congregate in one home. Elderly hosts are assigned the duty of tidying the house and forgiving and forgetting grudges that family members may have held against each other. A lavish feast, where ul boov is the centrepiece, sets the mood for the night.
Each part of ul boov has significance. Families print each cake with a sole-like impression using a wooden stamp that has been passed down through generations. Each stamp is unique and so designs are used to identify different families. The number of layers in the cake are dictated by tradition, too. Elders of the family prepare seven layers, young couples make three layers, and everyone else is supposed to stack five layers: height corresponds to hierarchy and age, and odd numbers signify happiness. Stacking the cake is done carefully and treated like a ritual. The finished version is an edible representation of Mount Sumeru, a mythological Buddhist mountain surrounded by seven seas.
There is hardly any literature in the English language on ul boov today. Michelle Borok, a Korean-American woman married to a Mongolian man, wrote one of the few tributes that have been paid to ul boov in Roads & Kingdoms. Apart from that, it remains a mysterious tradition reserved for families in Mongolia.