We’ve spent A LOT of time as new expats exploring the grocery stores of Ulaanbaatar. For me, food shopping is one of the most interesting ways to learn about a new culture. What do people eat and how do they get it? More immediately, what will we eat besides Mongolian food? And where do we find it?
The good news is a lot more vegetables & fruits than I’d expected. Even durian, once! Relatively few vegetables are grown in Mongolia, so what’s here is mostly from China and easily-transported. Leafy greens, such as lettuce, aren’t so good, but there are plenty of root vegetables, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. Root vegetables are sold unwashed, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between, say, beets and turnips in bins. At left is what we brought home one day — see those nice chilies and the ginger?
Meat is sold both in the butcher sections of larger stores and pre-packaged frozen. There are lots of options: cut pieces, pre-ground meats, sausages, and dumplings. (As far as I can tell from the dumpling packages, they’re all stuffed with mutton. Whatever differences there are between red, blue and green labels, it’s not the filling.) Frozen fish also is available. Though I miss eating fish more often, it doesn’t look that good so we rarely buy it.
Dairy is the other staple of the Mongolian diet. The trick is to figure out what, exactly, is inside the package — early on I bought sweetened yogurt instead of cream. Milk comes in different versions: UHT (Ultra High Temperature, meaning no refrigeration is needed) packs, “regular” and reconstituted from powder, with fat levels of 4% or 3.2%. I don’t care about the fat content but I do NOT prefer powdered milk. Other packages…are they butter? Cheese? Flavored yogurt? Some other thing? And there’s ahruul, the dried yogurt described by To Mongolia with Love:
It’s been surprisingly hard to find fresh herbs, which I miss a lot. Cilantro is the only one that’s relatively common and cheap. I’ve substituted celery leaves for parsley and bought mint when we’ve found it, but mostly it’s dried herbs in envelopes. And again, it’s a matter of figuring out the labels in Mongolian. (Time to start growing our own.)
A few other interesting things:
- Every store, no matter how small, has a very large candy section, full of chocolates, wrapped hard candies, gift boxes, kids’ treats, you name it.
- Mongolian food traditionally is not very seasoned. The default seasonings and condiments seem to be Eastern European: pickles everywhere, jars and cans of beets, sauerkraut, and preserved meats. There is lots of oil and what I finally identified as mayonnaise, but very little vinegar — salad is far more likely dressed with mayonnaise than vinaigrette.
- Korean ingredients also seem very popular, including a wide range of sauces, seasoning mixes, misos, instant noodles, and kim chee.
- Besides the big supermarkets, there are lots of little neighborhood markets that sell the basics: milk, bread, toilet paper, candy, cigarettes, and, because this is Mongolia, there’s also often a freezer case with big chunks of meat in it.
One of my favorite places is the big indoor market where individual vendors sell meat, produce, dairy and pantry items. This is where we find the widest range of produce and the freshest, sawed-off-the-haunch meat, but what’s fascinating are the little stalls of random packaged things. I’m not sure what the import process is for, say, US cake mixes or jars of peppercorns, but these vendors have just different enough stock that I wonder if a lot of it is hand-carried in from other countries. I went looking for horseradish several times with no luck. Pretty much all the stands looked as if they *might* have it, because they had mustard and paprika and ketchup, but no one did. Then, one day, someone had it. It’s like that.
Another category is the American stores that sell US brands in big quantities, like a Costco, but in small spaces. Again, it’s hard to predict what you’ll find in one of these, but it’s stuff like paper towels, cereal, baby things, and huge institutional (hospitals, dormitories, prisons) food service-size jars of, say, peanut butter. Mongolian people shop there to be sure they’re getting authentic products. I was in a taxi with a colleague and the driver asked her where a nearby American store was, because his wife wanted to buy real US candy for a holiday party. Snickers are at every checkout counter, and it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d be counterfeit, but who knows?
Finally, what about that other household stuff? Some of it is easy to recognise, and the local labelling is kind of adorable, like this toilet paper at left. But some things are completely incomprehensible. We bought this bag of whatever back in October, hoping it was laundry detergent but not sure. Laundry detergent? Fabric softener? Dishwashing liquid? Bird shampoo? We tried looking online, then emailed a photo to a Korean-speaking friend in the US. The label turned out to be too euphemistic for her non-resident Korean language skills — the label and product name, “Gentle Pigeon” or some such, didn’t actually explain what it does, so our friend had to forward the photo to a cousin in Korea for further explanation. Turns out to be a very popular, heavily advertised … laundry detergent.