Mongolian Food

May 8, 2009

I just had an experience that absolutely necessitated an immediate blog post on Mongolian food culture. The team leader of our university foreign languages department initiated a lunch-preparation group a few months ago in which each of the 11 faculty members takes turns making food and bringing it in to work at around 11:00 am on a rotating daily schedule. My coworkers assumed that I, being 1) male, 2) the teacher with the lowest salary, 3)single, and 4) American, would not even be able to cook food for myself, let alone for 10 other people. Sensing that exposing them to some international foods would be a good way to win them over in the workplace, I insisted that I wanted to participate. Before long, I was cooking fabulous dishes and wowing my colleagues–and thereby gaining credibility and access to their inner circle.

Then, just the other day, I noticed that my name was absent from the food-prep lineup on the the large makeshift whiteboard in our faculty lounge. I asked why, and my team leader said, “because you don’t cook, and so it’s very difficult for you to prepare all of this food for us, and you are just a man, so you can’t.” This confused me, considering I had witnessed all of them slip into delightfully international food comas after dishing out effusive praise for each of the meals I had slaved to make for them. Once again, I insisted that they put my name on the roster; I didn’t want to lose any of the cool-points I had earned in the past few weeks. So, with an “Ok, but don’t say I didn’t tell you so” sigh, she scribbled my name into the slot for May 8.

And that’s where the fun began. I woke up this morning at 10:00 and ran to the store  (by the way, it’s snowing again) to buy flour. I had decided on fusion veggie soft tacos, and I only had an hour to make them.

**interesting tidbit–one of the most prominent Mongolian soda and beer companies just released a new soda product– “Kickapoo Joy Juice”–the label of which boasts a stereotypical Native American jumping into a vat of homemade liquor. The soda is bright green, and very, very cheap, so I decided to by 2 litres and try some last weekend. I opened it, drank some, and closed it, and when opened it and went to drink it again, it exploded and fizzed into my sinuses. It went flat 20 seconds later. I have been waking up with blood in my nose and mouth every morning since then, and I now have an upper respiratory infection that makes me cough up brown and bloody mucus. So that’s why I woke up so late this morning. Victory.**

Anyway, I rushed home and made 10 curried tortillas, chopped five green and red bell peppers, stir fried the peppers with garlic and onions and chili powder, and dumped Old Bay seasoning into the mixture. I carted the tortillas and veggies, along with a bag of oranges, sourdough bread, tabasco, soy sauce, sea salt, unsweetened yogurt (as a sour cream substitute), and the requisite Mongolian condiments–mayonnaise and ketchup, just in case–across campus and up three flights of stairs to my faculty lounge. Only one German teacher was there.

I was just finishing arranging the table when people started to trickle in. I gave the first of what would amount to be 5 introductions on how to prepare a soft taco in a way that I thought would appeal to Mongolians–first squeeze a line of mayo on the tortilla, then apply the vegetables, followed by some hot sauce (for the adventurous ones) and a trail of yogurt and/or ketchup to top it off before wrapping it up and eating it. This doesn’t really sound Mexican at all, I realize, but this entry will illustrate later on that any combination of flavors subverts culinary trends here and had the potential to pique the Mongolian palate; any flavor, essentially, is “international.” Bottom line, these things were delicious.

I noticed immediately that my counterparts were only eating the vegetables and leaving the tortillas  to soak in their own juices on their plates. I suppose they forgot I speak Mongolian, as well, because I started hearing muttered grievances through mouthfuls of sauce : “this is hard to eat”,  one instance of “I’m going to far too much after this”,  a few sarcastic utterances of “this is delicious”, etc. No one was trying the hot sauce, as such a strong flavor actually hurts Mongolians.

One of my counterparts took the yogurt bowl and started drinking out of it. Another licked her finger and wiped it across the top of my sea salt container, licked her finger again, and repeated several times. The colleague seated next to me abandoned her taco for a piece of sourdough bread and covered it with mayonnaise, then with yogurt, and ate it. Then everyone decided to do the latter. I just sat back in amazement and laughed.

Eventually, my main counterpart, who has traveled abroad extensively and enjoys a more sophisticated palate, arrived and voraciously ate five tacos–with hot sauce–and loved them. That made me feel a bit better.

The point of this story is to illustrate how concretized the traditional Mongolian culinary scene remains in modern culture. Before the consequences of prolonged Chinese and Russian control took effect, I’m told, Mongolians ate a diet consisting entirely of vegetables and dairy products during the summer, and saved all of their meat for the winter. There is little trace of this now; the modern Mongolian diet is now extremely meat and lipid-heavy year-round, with high carbohydrate intake and little appreciation for vegetables. Most dishes, even when advertised as “vegetarian,” have prominent pieces of goat or mutton in them, with separately and deliberately added chunks of fat. In fact, I have seen people go into the meat markets and buy two kilograms of pure goat or sheep fat right off the animal to later put in their dinners.

There is some seasonal observation of food trends here, but it still revolves around the meat axis. In summer, Mongolians prefer “lighter” meats like goat, and wait until winter to eat the meats that are considered good for insulation, like horse flesh or beef.

**interesting tidbit–I thought I had giardia, a protozoan parasite that is commonly found in water contaminated with fecal matter (and 96% of Mongolian water is)–for several months. The symptoms include diarrhea or constipation, sulfuric gas emissions, weakness, weight loss, and fatigue. I sought medical consultation, did research, took medicines, and nothing helped. Finally, after sending a stool sample to the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, I discovered that my system had absolutely no trace of any parasite whatsoever. It turns out I just have a digestive allergy to horsemeat–previously my winter nutritional recourse, per the suggestions of my Mongolian counterparts. **

Returning to the homogeneity and limited diversity of the Mongolian diet, it should be stated that there are only five main dishes eaten by a majority of Mongolians:

  • Tsuivan–a dry flour noodle dish with fat and meat and sometimes potatoes and carrots
  • buuz–steamed dumplings with mutton and fat in them (see the Tsagaan Sar entry)
  • Hoshuur–analogous to empanadas, also with fat and mutton in them
  • Shul–broth soup, with meat and fat and sometimes potatoes and pasta
  • hurag–rice, meat and fat, and sometimes potatoes

**There is also a much-loved sixth option, and it’s gedes–innards. Mongolians love eating nearly the entire inside of an animal. I remember once over the summer, in my homestay, I had just finished saving an email draft to my family that centered on how well I had been adjusting to the culture here. In it, I described how I had heard that Mongolian food was horrible, but was pleasantly surprised to have found nothing so far that had disagreed with me. I saved the email in a folder designated for future internet access and walked into the kitchen for lunch. There, on the floor, was a bloody goat head. My host mother was kneeling over a bathing bucket filled with entrails, and she was funneling blood into a long string of intestines and tying the ends off for boiling. My host father entered the kitchen with a still-bloody slaughtering knife, pulled a bloody intestine out of a pot of boiling water, and instructed me to use the knife to eat it. I was shocked. I ate liver–the least heinous of the mixture–for the next three weeks, until I lied and told my host mother that the Peace Corps doctor had instructed me to stop.**

Of the above bulleted dishes, buuz  and hurag are probably of Chinese origin, and the soups might have been a Russian introduction. There are other side dishes that are widely enjoyed here, but their origins and regard hint further at the lack of options in the Mongolian diet:

  • Neeslil Salat–“Capital Salad”–chopped potatoes and mayonnaise mixed together.  A Russian dish first introduced to Ulaanbaatar,  it was considered to be so exotic that people decided to name it “Capital Salad” and the name stuck.
  • baitsaini Salat–oil and cabbage mixed together, from China.
  • Lovangiin Salat–shredded carrots and mayonnaise mixed together.
  • Kimbab–a Korean dish of rice and spam sausages rolled into seaweed and cut into sections.
  • perojkie– a Russian snack of ground mutton and rice packed into a yeasty dough pocket and deep fried.
  • mantou–a Chinese steamed, fluffy biscuit

Further emphasizing the sparse nature of the Mongolian culinary scene is the notion that a large percentage of the produce and dishes available in Mongolia are known by Russian or Chinese names:

  • chinjou– from the Chinese ‘qingjiao’, 青椒,–bell peppers
  • baitsai–from the Chinese ‘baicai’, 白菜–cabbage
  • jyotsai–from the Chinese ‘jiucai’, 韭菜–green onions/ leeks
  • songon–from the Chinese ‘cong’, 葱–onions
  • lovan–from the Chinese ‘luobo’, 萝卜–carrot
  • manjing–from the Chinese ‘manjing’, 蔓菁–turnip/wild cabbage/ beet
  • ongortsii–from the Russian ‘ongurets’, огурец–cucumber
  • perets–from the Russian ‘perets’,перец–pepper

And the list goes on and on. Even the one of the standards of weight for measuring vegetables is from Chinese–“Jin.”

As far as drinks are concerned, I think I’ve made the importance of vodka apparent in previous posts. In the summer and early autumn months, however, a welcomed semi-departure from trends in alcohol consumption occurs, and fermented horse milk–airag–is drunk. It has a very mild alcohol content, and one can drink quite a lot of it before achieving a buzz. I’ve heard other volunteers say that it’s an instantaneous hangover, but I’ve never had that experience. I will say, though, that it’s an acquired taste–sour and difficult to handle at first. The truth of it is that on a warm autumn day, there’s nothing better than sitting in a stall in the market under the sun and having a refreshing bowl of airag.

I should say that, though the aforementioned food options do seem quite basic, I was surprised to discover even the slightest amount of diet diversity after my summer homestay. My host family was contractually obligated to provide three meals a day to me, and was paid 7,000 tugrug a day to do so (even though Mongolians don’t usually eat breakfast themselves). And provide they did. When I wasn’t eating liver, I ate goemontau shul–noodle soup, with fat and a few inadvertant stray goat hairs–three times a day for three months. I had no idea that the other options were actually widely eaten until I left my training site, and my world opened up to the other options.

I later found out that my host family was saving the money Peace Corps gave them for food to buy a washing machine after I left. haha. ❤

As you may have noticed, the dishes I’ve discussed thus far have mostly the same ingredients in all of them. This, to a foodie like me, should seem like a serious hardship. I won’t lie–I’ve had periods during which I’ve felt disillusioned with the Mongolian diet in my 11 months here. But now I arrive at the portion of this explanation where I tell you how much being here has made me crave Mongolian food intensely, at the weirdest times.  After my summer study, I actually started feeling goemontae shul withdrawal, and I went through a phase where I had to eat flour products to satisfy that. Now, I have the same feeling for tsuivan–the dry noodle dish–and I have to satiate it or I feel off balance.

To sum it all up, last week I went to the gym where I teach yoga and lift weights and had the best workout of my whole service, then went straight to a seedy police bar and ate 10 enormous buuz. Without condiments. I’ve assimilated.

To bring some variety to our diets, most Peace Corps volunteers cook for themselves. There truly are ingredients that we can use to diversify our food intake, as shown by the taco failure mentioned previously, and distate for deviations from normal food trends here is purely cultural. A perfect example of this was when several volunteers cooked pizza and spaghetti for their host faimlies, who fanned their mouths with their hands and hyperventilated at the “spiciness” of the tomato sauce (which, incidentally, had nothing but parsley in it.) Nevertheless, the ingredients are out there–if a little expensive–and we have been known to splurge on  $9/kilo cheese for pizza from time to time. We cook roti with lentils, enchiladas, chili, tostadas, tofu stir fries, peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches, omelettes, steak fajita burritos, spaghetti, pesto baked vegetables, cakes and breads, beer battered onion and pepper rings, kimbab, and vegetarian variations of a lot of the previously mentioned Mongolian dishes. In this way, we’ve all managed to stay healthy under some form of western culinary variegation.

Wow…what a disparaging tone this entry has. Unintentional. I would just like to reiterate that, depite the relative dearth of options and flavors here, and despite the elitist tone I took in this post, I am wholly addicted to and dependent on the traditional food of Mongolia. I know that a year from now, I’ll probably be sitting in some posh sushi restaurant in DC and wishing I had a perojkie and some milk tea to tide me over.

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Apologies, once again, for the insane amount of time between my last post and this one. Part of the intensity of springtime here in Mongolia, as you’ll see in this entry, is the unreliability of electricity and technology like the Internet in the face of a tempestuous climate. But things seem to have calmed down for the time being, so I’m going to try to squeeze an entry in before another biblical storm comes through.

“Spring” in American culture is synonymous with fun and sun–a respite from the perceived hardships of what is, in reality, an incredibly mild winter. In a country where the winter is 9 months long and boasts -40- degree temperatures, imminent spring is something many first-year volunteers look forward to…mistakenly. No matter how many Mongolians warned me that “Spring is terrible,” I still had it in the back of my mind that it would be the end of a pretty uncomfortable period in my service here. Spring is here now, and though it certainly does have its beauty and warm days, it can be far from pleasant.

uh ohhhh

uh ohhhh

We mid-Atlantic folk are used to the back-and-forth nature of the transition from winter to spring, but living my entire life in that clime did not prepare me for what I was to experience in Mongolia. During the winter here, my senior students came over to to help me winterize my apartment. To do this, they tore up some of my less desirable bedsheets into thin strips  and soaked them in a pot of hot, soapy water. Then they stuck the sudsy strips to the cracks where my windows met the sills and stuffed rolled-up newspapers in the spaces between my double panes. This, they said, would keep out the cold. It did exactly that–but it also prevented me from opening my windows whenever there was a musty feeling about the place (or whenever my kitchen inexplicably caught on fire and smoked me out.)

So, one mild day in February when the outside world seemed to be creeping out of its -40 – degree hibernation (and when I say “mild” I mean still way below freezing), I was overheating in my apartment. I decided, like the rookie I was, that if it were to stay like that, I would have to dewinterize my apartment and open some windows. The next day it rose into the 50s, and I went for a t-shirted hike down the dry riverbed behind our mountains. I was convinced that I had conquered winter. I strutted home and ripped those sheet-strips down out of the window sills and opened my kitchen and bedrooms to the desert air.

Stupid.

The next day it was -35, and there was nothing I could do to restore my apartment to the heat it had before. I convinced myself that it was worth it, and that I would be happy to be able to open my windows if temperatures rose again.

This turned out to be true. I caused several more kitchen fires, the temperatures increased periodically to where I was relieved to be able to open windows, and I was still warm in my 4-radiator apartment. And then spring came. First a few days of 70-degree beauty, and then an epic sand/ dust storm that thrashed itself through the open cracks in my windowsills and filled my house with brown Inner Asian sand and organic matter. Schools were canceled, businesses shut down, and people stayed inside unless it was absolutely necessary to go out. I kicked myself for having removed those soapy strips.

It’s been like that for about a month now–60s and 70s with intermittent dust storms. Sometimes the wind dies down, but the dust just floats in the air like a huge brown blanket and stays hot and backlit by a blazing  high-altitude sun.

uh ohhhhhhhhhhh

uh ohhhhhhhhhhh

Sometimes it’s warm and beautiful in the morning, and I leave my house on the southside of town and walk to the market or to friends’ houses in summer clothes. I conduct my business in town, and when it’s time for me to return home, the skies have darkened, it’s dropped 30 degrees, and it’s snowing. This makes it all the more frustrating when I go into town for scheduled commitments–like police department English classes, trainings, or meetings–and I arrive to find out they have been canceled for whatever reason. I’m left, then, to walk home in my t-shirt through the newly miserable weather when I could have just stayed home.

Last wednesday shattered the last glimmer of trust I had in my ability to guage Uvurkhangai weather patterns. It was about 60 degrees and sunny when a traveler and I headed up to town–I had my cop class, and she was going to hang out with my sitemates. In the middle of my lesson–just like a school kid distracting his classmates at first sight of flurries through the window of his 4th grade classroom–I froze and stood staring out the window of the courthouse at what I  had previously thought was just a strange glass tint. In fact, it was a deep brown cloud rushing around the city and bending trees and bushes to the ground at 60 mph.  After my lesson finished, I threw on a hoodie and rushed outside to my sitemate’s work, where I was owed some money. It looked like this outside:

people fleeing at my friend's work

people fleeing at my friend's work

my school

my school

Afterwards, I let the horrifying winds push me home to rest a while and wash up. Fine sand filled my mouth and ears and hair; in any other context it would not be too big of a deal for me, but people in Mongolia are susceptible to pink eye and other infections from sandstorms due to the fact that a large portion of the dust blown around in storms actually contains fecal matter.

I napped for a while after braving the storm, and when the winds died down the traveler and I decided to meet up with my sitemates at his house. While we were enjoying coffee and a movie, the sand/dust storm picked up again and it snowed almost a foot outside in some places. Then the lightning started. As I may have written in other entries, the  strength of the prevailing north-to-south winds makes walking into town from my apartment a 20-minute ordeal, but walking back to my apartment from virtually anywhere else in town takes around 10 minutes for the same reason. Walking home from my sitemate’s house that night took three and a half minutes.

sand/dust/snow/lightning storm

sand/dust/snow/lightning storm

The next day, the snow melted and flooded the town, like so:

my school apartment complex

my school apartment complex

and then, after a beautiful sunset, the flooding froze and coated the town in thick ice.

sunset over the mountains

sunset over the mountains

The pleasant transition into American Spring tests the work ethic of students and working adults alike. One might wonder, then, what the consequences of a Mongolian Spring would be on the population here–particularly in a desert province. In my experience, spotty attendance and an exponential loss of interest in all things scholastic result from the weather here at my university. Even teacher punctuality and attendance drops off completely in springtime in some places in Arvaikheer. This can be extremely frustrating, considering the fact that Spring comes shortly after Tsagaan Sar (the White Month–see last entry), which is marked by over a month of no work in some instances. Many of my best students have been exhibiting signs of apathy and fatigue lately, and it certainly has an effect on their performance.

At first, I couldn’t seem to figure out what it was that was making my students and colleagues behave this way. There’s no cabin fever if there’s no reason to go outside, and the winter-spring transition was one in which the weather had just changed from one kind of horrible to another. But then I started feeling an intense fatigue, too. I would wake up on the weekends at 11 am and be completely exhausted by 8 pm, after having done nothing. This has stuck with me for a few weeks now, and I can honestly say that I’m beginning to understand why Spring is so counterproductive. In America, I would sometimes get sick during seasonal transitions if the temperatures fluctuated too quickly. Though I haven’t gotten sick here yet as a result of temperature changes, I can feel the stress it puts on my system; to put it in perspective, microbiologists at pharmaceutical companies use controlled rapid temperature swings to make bacteria weak enough to open up and take on new DNA to protect themselves (and the tailored DNA usually codes for the production of chemicals used in the creation of medicines, but whatever.) My point is that temperature swings like the ones we have here are TERRIBLE for your body.

On a more concrete level, thousands upon thousands of livestock die every time we have storms like this. This has historically been a huge problem for rural Mongolia, and the issue of desertification in provinces like Uvurkhangai only compounds the personal, communal, and economic impact of losing livelihoods to storms. In the aforementioned sand/dust/snow/lightning storm, for instance, Uvurkhangai lost 60,000 sheep, goats, and cows, and several people died. A program called The Ger Initiative (in cooperation with a company based in Germantown, MD, mom and dad), used to provide capacity building trainings and resources to herders and farmers who had lost their livestock to such storms, but the organization is being phased out in Mongolia.

Switching gears a bit, I’d like to point out a non weather-related challenge of springtime in Mongolia: graduation. Like all other social milestones, graduation is something that is heavily prepared for and celebrated here in Mongolia. This usually involves buying expensive clothes or having them made from flashy fabrics, traveling, and tons of money spent on parties. It has come to my attention lately, as graduation approaches, that people in Arvaikheer go to Ulaanbaatar to buy fancy graduation clothing, and people from the deep countryside come to Arvaikheer to buy theirs. So, in and around the last week of April and first week of May, there is a huge population turnover in my town.

I wish I could say that I noticed this when I stopped recognizing as many people, or that I caught on when I saw more traditional clothing being worn, but in truth the only reason I can tell this is happening is because there are more drunk men stumbling around in the markets and streets. To qualify, this is not to say that all countryside people are drunks–on the contrary, as stated in previous entries, herders are among the most successful and upstanding members of my provincial community.  The difference here is that the weather is getting nice, and when many countryside families come into town to buy clothes, other friends and family tag along for the ride. The women and young adults do the shopping while the men entertain themselves. In a country that has more vodka factories per capita than any other nation on earth, an increase in population in a given area, however temporary, is bound to bring a higher incidence of alcohol abuse with it.

One also has to take into account the fact that an influx of countryside friends and relatives is sure to stir up social activity, which is almost always marked by alcohol consumption. So, in other words, it’s gotten pretty rowdy over the last few weeks.

highlights:

  • I was chased through the market the other day at full speed by a fiercely drunk man, who was trying to choke me. He pursued me through the busy isles into a large white department store, bought an orange, and stumbled out. I called the police, but no one picked up.
  • two separate groups, in two separate cars, ran me off the road when I was walking the other day. One came up onto the sidewalk to hit me, and the other charged at me and forced me up against a building. I wasn’t hit by either of them, but it still scared me a bit. Both parties drove away laughing.
  • I saw one young man roundhouse kick someone else in the  face in the square yesterday in a screaming fit of rage, and then they walked away arm in arm.
  • a visiting volunteer was nearly knocked down when a fight broke out between two drunk men in the doorway to the meat market as we were leaving, and one of the men was pushed onto her.
  • several countryside male students at my technical institute who matriculated and then did not attend a single class returned to Arvaikheer to attempt to get their diplomas, saw me for the first time all year, and decided I was a tourist that they could harrass.  Light, but obnoxious.

Each of my sitemates has a slew of similar stories from the last few weeks, but fortunately we have all been here long enough to be secure in our longterm safety and membership in the community. As I said, with temporary population turnover comes new interpersonal challenges, and I think we are all more than capable of putting up with these setbacks until graduation comes. The real challenge is dealing with the remainder of a wildly tempermental phase in Mother Nature’s schedule.