Beyond the mutton: eating in Mongolia

I am sitting in a cosy lounge chair at Code, a French style patisserie on Urt Tsagaan Road. Piled up behind me are the many layers that need to be shed when entering almost any building in UB: down jacket, jumper, scarf, mittens. Although it’s below zero outside, it’s always tropically warm indoors.

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Pinenuts are sold by the cupful on most street corners. Arguably they’re more effort than they are worth…

The waitress brings me an espresso and one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’. After pondering the wonders of the madeleine a while, and spending a little time looking at what is trending on my Facebook newsfeed, it occurs to me that I ought to write something about the everyday in Mongolia. Food is an obvious place to start, it being what’s in front of me at the time of writing. I’ve lost count of the number of people back in Australia who asked:  ‘Mongolia? But you’re vegetarian. Won’t you starve?’ Other doubting Thomas’s commented: ‘I give you six months. You’ll love eating mutton by then.’

Granted, Mongolia’s most famous dishes are on the meaty side. There are khooshuur—pockets of pastry filled with minced meat and potato and deep fried. They are available almost everywhere, from fast food places catering to students at the university, to the more upmarket restaurants, to road side shacks beside major roads. More touristy places will occasionally make a vegetarian version with cabbage, carrot and potato. There are buuz—steamed dumplings filled with mince meat. We’ve found frozen vegan versions filled with black beans, tofu and spinach. Tsuivan are fat noodles fried with mutton, onion, cabbage and carrot, easily made sans mutton. There is horhog. Standing alone, hor and hog translate to ‘poison’ and ‘rubbish’. Together they are a dish made from a whole sheep cut into chunks and boiled in a container with hot stones, and perhaps some potato or carrot. We have yet to find a vegetarian version of this one. Our meat eating friends assure us that it does taste good, albeit with a strong mutton flavour. They never seem able to eat much of it though.buuz_khuushuur_1

Despite the meatiness of traditional Mongolian cuisine, we have not wasted away. Many restaurants in UB at least make a vegetarian pizza or pasta. Good Indian food abounds. There is also a good handful of dedicated vegan and vegetarian restaurants. One does a haloumi burger. Another does mock meat versions of Asian classics. One near my office serves up something that needs to be chased by a visit to the health clinic and a full course of norfloxacin.

Outside UB, things are a little trickier. We tell people we are tsagaan khoolton—‘white food eaters’. In ger camps, this usually means being given cabbage, carrot and potato soup. Among the most useful tips and tricks for new players we’ve received: carry a bottle of chilli sauce everywhere.  In rural restaurants we have awkward conversations about whether pork is meat, sausage is meat, or chicken is meat, which eventually lead to a not overly disappointed acceptance on our part that we will be calling a bowl of hot chips dinner.

Self-catering is the other option. There is no one market or supermarket that has everything, and things aren’t restocked with any regularity. There is much comparing of notes among the Australian community about specialty items. ‘Have you been to Khan Deli yet? They have proper bagels’. ‘Quick, eMart has turmeric and paneer’. ‘Where on earth did you find kale?’  It has taken four months to discover that parmesan cheese is available. (I’d say where, but then it might all sell out. Okay, try the fancy Italian place tucked away behind Choijin Lama Temple Museum. Please leave me a wedge.) Fresh fruit and vegetables are available, although as it gets colder the range is more limited, more expensive and looking a little sadder. Much of the fruit is imported from South America or China. We mostly get apples, pears and bananas, although for a period we had plums and nectarines, and on one occasion a mangosteen, which would have made Queen Victoria proud.

So we are by no means starving, nor have we become carnivorous. Although having come from Melbourne, there are things we miss. Antipasto. Felafel after midnight. And 40,000₮ serves of smashed avo on sourdough. Now that would really be something.

Like what you’ve read? We also have a blog about cycletouring in Europe. Check it out here: https://journals.worldnomads.com/katescarlett

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4 thoughts on “Beyond the mutton: eating in Mongolia

  1. This is great, I can relate to the struggle to eat vegetarian (and healthy) in a place where the cuisine revolves around meat. You seem to be doing an awesome job of it… though I agree, some smashed avocados on toast would be phenomenal right now!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Keep these blogs coming…they are so entertaining! ps why, just this week I had…you guessed it….smashed avocadoes , with feta and lime juice…delectable! xx

    Liked by 1 person

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