Posts Tagged With: Food

“Spring Sky,” Mongolia

7:00 am, May 9

7:00 am, May 9

“Spring Sky” is a Mongolian expression for changeable weather and also to describe a person whose moods change often. It’s May, and yes, we’ve seen a full range of weather in just the last few days. The picture above was taken early in the morning; by 9:00 am the snow had become rain, and it rained all day.

Then yesterday, it turned into another version of spring, the warm, sunny version:

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And look what I found at the market! Asparagus!

IMG_1108 There on the near left, gleaming spring-ly, is my first successful batch of homemade mayonnaise in many years. I made aioli eight or so years ago for a family gathering of the in-laws and used half the amount of garlic specified in the recipe. No matter — it was still too garlicky and sadly unpopular on the buffet table. And even though they’re among the nicest people I know, someone at that party cursed me, like the uninvited godmother in the fairy tale, because… from that day forward, my mayonnaise ALWAYS broke.

Until yesterday.

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Lost in the Mongolian Grocery Store

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Huh?

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. IMG_0631Even durian, once! Relatively few vegetables are grown in Mongolia, so what’s here is mostly from China and easily-transported. IMG_0796Leafy 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. IMG_0817(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:

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Ahruul is everywhere!

It’s been surprisingly hard to find fresh herbs, which I miss a lot. IMG_0814Cilantro 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 sellIMG_0800 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?

IMG_0818Finally, 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. IMG_0957We 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.

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Mongolian food

I haven’t gotten around to writing an overview of traditional and/or what’s-eaten-around-m Mongolian food, so imagine my delight when I saw this excellent post on To Mongolia with Love. Enjoy, and I will try to get my post on grocery shopping done soon as a follow up.

To Mongolia with Love

I read somewhere that “no one comes to Mongolia for the food.” That’s a really harsh and insensitive statement, but one I’m inclined to agree with. Meaning, unfortunately, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have a craving for the cultural cuisine. Much of the Mongolian food is very labor intensive. It is not uncommon for a meal to take 1-2 hours to prepare. (Which, actually, now that I think of it, might be standard but remember I didn’t really cook before I came here.) For anything involving dough, that is made from scratch.

The main courses:

Buuz – (pronounced “boats”) round, meat-filled dumpling. These can be eaten as is or made mini (“bansh”) and added to soup, which also contains meat.

Giddis – literally translates to “stomach” but refers to any of the animal innards. I did it. Once. A bite of intestines. The taste is tolerable, but the texture… slimy… It…

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Our Stuff Arrived (And It Was Frozen) — UPDATED

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It hadn’t occurred to us that, of course, one of the things that happens on a slow rail trip across China and into Mongolia this time of year is that stuff freezes en route. Which is pretty funny, when one of your things is a snow globe enclosing a photo of your dog, and inside, where the “snow” is, is full of real ice. Fortunately, our various chile sauces, maple syrup (duh) and sherry vinegar are fine, but poor Phil had a leg fall off. The movers were horrified that they’d broken him somehow, but we think the glue gave out in the cold.

IMG_0827We spent this weekend unpacking and trying to put everything away. The plan is to give the landlord’s kitchen stuff and linens back and phase in our own things, which sounds simple, but there’s just. so. much. I did find my bread baking equipment and baked for the first time since August. The sourdough starter — our other pet — travelled here in my suitcase, and I’ve been feeding it, just haven’t baked with it. Someday I’d love to take a class with a real baker and learn how to gauge temperature and hydration properly; being self-taught in the the tropics has not prepared me for the far colder and drier conditions here. To make the whole project riskier, I used an unknown flour that could be pretty much anything. If anyone can read the label and identify it, please let me know. My best guess is that it’s rye or something close: it was very dry and dense while kneading and made a dark loaf. (This is 1/3 mystery flour and 2/3 white.)

Anyway, it’s Sunday night, and all my clothes and personal things are put away. We shored up the bookcases, and Mr. Handy is switching our tv for the landlord’s. Overall? Just like Christmas.

UPDATE: The mystery flour is barley! I look forward to experimenting further…

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Going to Mars for Cat Food

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The pet store at Mars

We’ve been looking all over central Ulaanbaatar for premium cat food. Why? It’s complicated.

For one thing, retail shopping is not so straightforward here. There are stores and malls like you’d find anywhere, but a lot more stuff is hidden. Stores have small signs (mostly in Mongolian, of course), little or no window displays and are often inside bigger buildings that could enclose pretty much anything. I’m not sure whether this interiority is about the extreme cold or a leftover socialist-era lack of advertising. And there are a lot of small stores that display signs of various brand names they sell, meaning they aren’t actual, say, Uniqlo stores but stores that have some Uniqlo stuff available. Much of what is sold here is brought by hand from China and sold in these small places. People, mostly women, travel abroad and return with boxes or those big red and blue woven rice bags filled with things to resell here. This is known as “dragging pigs,” as it’s reminiscent of, well, you get the picture. The small stores sell whatever mix of brands brought from China — i.e. much of it is counterfeit — by the sister-in-law on her last trip over.

This is also how non-supermarket pet food comes into Mongolia. People bring in big bags of kibble and sell it portioned into small plastic bags. You don’t always know what you’re getting, and pet supply stores are just as randomly sited as anything else. I found one when we first arrived tucked into the entry area of some shops above a parking garage. We needed a scratching pad, and the proprietor was so excited to sell to me that she then brought out a hideous pink fuzz bed and a kitten. (“Oh, god, pleasepleaseplease don’t show me a kitten…I’ll be divorced if I bring it home, and I don’t want to worry about its fate if I DON’T bring it home…”) We found another entry-area place that sells a premium brand and actually found ourselves bargaining with the guy for the whole 15kg bag. Because who would pay $110 for 33lbs of cat food?!
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The husband somehow found another place that sells the fancy stuff, way at the back of the fourth floor of a dingy, bustling building called Mars filled with individual vendors selling women’s clothes. And I bought 2kg/4.4lbs of kibble for $14.72. Which — I did the math for you — means I paid exactly the same price as the other place charged.

So, why? I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with this. Of course we love our cat, and there are good reasons to worry about Chinese-produced pet foods, but is there really a difference between these brands? (There’s another kind here called KiteKat that’s probably meant to be pronounced “Kitty Kat” but that we obnoxiously say as that thing you fly.) Almost all the food we’re eating comes from China — definitely all the fresh vegetables and fruits this time of year. And if I really care so much about pure, uncontaminated food, then WHY AREN’T I EATING THE DAMN MUTTON?

Once again, expat life shines an unflattering mirror. All my sneering at people who think they can control every aspect of their health, those juice-fasters and colonic cleansers — am I not engaging in the same magic-thinking, that fancier cat food is somehow going to make a difference? Maybe not, but leave me alone with my fantasy.

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