Living in Mongolia – Food, (Inglorious) Food
When I found out four months ago that I would be spending a year living in Mongolia, five Michelin star dining was not the first image my brain went to.
Considering I knew virtually nothing about Mongolia, the first image was actually whole lot of brain static…
But I digress.
Unlike the Italians, the French or many of Mongolia’s close Asian neighbours, Mongolian cuisine doesn’t scream: “I’m delicious and known the world round, put copious amounts of me in your belly”.
If anything it quietly murmurs: “These are the ingredients we had to work with and this is the tastiest options we could come up with, enjoy!”
The traditional Mongolian diet is meat, flour and dairy; an extension of their nomadic way of life. You milk your livestock, kill and eat them and then you use the grain supplies you have to make different kinds of bread products. Add water and combine all three into a range of different dishes.
There is a low attendance of vegetable and a lack of seasonings enough to make the Indians shudder in their sleep. Although they are made these ingredients into different shapes and cooked in different methods, many remark that most Mongolian dishes all kinda. taste. the. same.
But before your tummy turns to mourning and you get too depressed for me, there are a couple of upsides.
The traditional Mongolian food I had while staying with a family in a ger in the countryside was actually really good. Sure it’s more combinations of meat and carbs than Jamie Oliver could come up with, but the hospitality you receive while out there is absolutely second to none. There is never a shortage of food and although we offered, no one had to lift a finger.
I felt privileged to be a part of their eating traditions and show my gratitude to a family sharing their sometimes meager offerings with foreign strangers they don’t even know.
If the countryside menu is half a page with nine different meat and flour combinations, the menu in Ulaanbaatar is a book filled with every cuisine you can imagine, and probably some you don’t want to.
(On that note, I had been warned about the chances of eating horse or brains or similar due to the impossible way to distinguish what is in some of the dishes we are served. At first wary, now I just close my eyes and put it down the hatch. Ignorance is bliss until the first bout of food poisoning hits. Touch wood!).
When we first arrived in UB, we were carted around by Boggie and our in country management team every day on a full itinerary of apartment viewings, meetings and city tours. In amongst this was lunch and dinner every day at the full range of UB’s finest establishments.
After the first week or so my parents asked me my thoughts on the Mongolian food. I had to honestly tell them I hadn’t had any….. but I could offer opinions on the Korean, Indian, Italian, Japanese and American we’d had….
After you get sick of the best hangout places (which won’t be likely for me: hello regular!) there is always the option to cook and prepare food at home. However, it can make for an interesting outing to the shops.
Here are the first few things I observed:
- None of the shops sell the same stuff. So once you find your favourite milk, yoghurt, muesli or tea and are happy; then you have to traipse around UB going to five separate places to get each of them. Never thought I would so grateful for the ubiquitous product range at home.
- Refrigeration is a developing concept. There are fridges in the supermarket. Food products, including fresh meat, are put in them. Whether they are actually on is another story. We’ve hedged our bets on some refrigerated products and have decided not to be brave on others. My stomach thanks me.
- It is definitely a motivator to learn more Mongolian. About half of the labels on products are in English; which means the other half is not. Sometimes you can tell by looking at it what it is, but after you’ve bought sour cream instead of normal cream three times, it can become a little frustrating.
So in summary, no Mum I’m not starving.
I’m eating my five veg (albeit five lots of the same veg as there isn’t a huge amount of variety) and although some kinds cost more than alcohol, have been eating my fruit.
Many have lamented on the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables and wondered how I’m surviving but when you are living in Mongolia it’s not like Mongolia has a choice. In a completely landlocked country, relying on importation for virtually everything, the battle is sometimes like pushing water up a hill.
But for now I’ll sit here with the best I can do and enjoy the other 26 reasons why Mongolia is a great place.
But for god sakes someone better be waiting at the airport with a pineapple when I arrive….