Mongolian food

January 3, 2014

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 took everything I had to swallow it, and then everything I had left to keep it down. Once was enough. Thankfully, I have seldom been offered it at site.

Goat head – (I guess the Mongolian is close to yamaanii tolgoi) now that’s exactly what you think it is. During PST we had a culture day where many traditional foods were awaiting us so that we could be prepared when we entered our communities. The goat head is boiled and there isn’t much flavor. And, yes, I did it. I ate a bite of goat face. It tasted like boiled meat and the texture was meat texture.

Horhokh – this is very popular on outings in the hudoo. The meat is cooked with big chunks of root vegetables (never enough for my liking) and because it is cooked in a sealed container, it is very juicy and tasty. Everyone eats with their hands (and maybe a knife) from a large communal bowl. And there’s a jar of pickles with it!

Horokh – not to be confused with horhokh above (I can’t spell with these non-Cyrillic letters!!) Horokh is a stir-fry. Another presentation of the same root vegetables…


Huushuur – flat, meat-filled pancake. Deep fried. Now, this I actually like because, rule number one, everything tastes better fried. If you can add soy sauce, or ketchup, it’s that much better. During PST, my Mongol mom asked what I wanted for dinner and I asked for “makh-gui huushuur” (literally “meat-without huushuur”). Turns out that is called “tomis-tai huushuur” (literally “potatoes-with huushuur), but they also added carrots and turnips. That was really yummy comfort food with surely no nutritional value. I didn’t care.

The potato-huushuur my mom made. YUM.

The potato-huushuur my mom made. YUM.

Ohkh – fat. I’ve said it before, Mongolians eat the fat. It could be mixed in with the meat (like in sausage), but I’ve also seen it served, fried, as a side item on a plate. All of these dishes here include fat. Recently, I’ve started to see it as not so crazy. We eat bacon, which has a lot of fat. Don’t get me started on the pork rinds… so, still crazy, but not so crazy.

Shol – soup. With meat, vegetables, noodles, rice… It’s soup. Don’t be fooled though, even nogoo-tai shol (literally vegetables-with soup) has meat in it. And, fat, of course.

Can you see the fat?

Can you see the fat?

Tsuivan – home-made noodles, mixed into a stir-fry. This can be great with lots of root veggies mixed in and a packet of “tsuivan seasoning” or it can be noodles and meat and fat… It’s generally a large portion, either way.

This is a vegetarian version, so those are cubes of tofu.

This is a vegetarian version, so those are cubes of tofu.

The various dairy products:

Ahruul– yogurt that’s been put through a cheese cloth so all the liquid runs out, and it becomes hard as a rock and is kind of fermented. The shelf-life of ahruul is infinite, which makes it ideal for nomadic people since the dairy product needs no refrigeration. Ahruul, the centerpiece of every holiday, takes many shapes and forms. I can, and sometimes do, eat the “chikher-tai ahruul” because it is a bit sweet, and usually bite-sized. The regular ahruul is too hard for my teeth.

Ahrtz – sour, kind of crumbly. There’s an ahrtz popsicle which I mistakenly bought one day. I ate it, but now that I know, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Tarag – yogurt. My Mongol mom and I once sat at the kitchen table and had a refreshing snack of yogurt; I added honey to mine. That evening, she turned the precious tarag into ahruul!!!

Uurim – the cream off the top off milk (maybe); this is thick. You can spread it on bread and add a bit ’o sugar.

The drinks: even in the heat of summer, we would have hot drinks. During PST, on a sweltering day, as a site-mate neighbor and I were heading inside to have lunch, we talked about the reason for this. I had chalked it up to being a custom; he thought it was the way to make the water safe. So, maybe that is how the custom got started.

Suutai-tsai – milk-tea (more milk than tea), sometimes with butter and/or salt. The tea used for this comes in a large block (like a 5 pound chocolate bar I was once given).

Tsai – tea. This is usually regular old tea bags. At my host family’s, it wasn’t uncommon for several people to reuse the same tea bag. You can get Lipton, which costs more, or Akbar is another popular brand and that one comes in a variety of flavors (lemon, berry). Then there’s green tea from Korea. I’ve really developed a taste for green tea since coming here.

Booze – So, I guess here is where I talk about the prevalence of vodka in Mongolia. It’s pretty much a guarantee at most functions. And, there aren’t really mixed drinks here, so it’s all shots all the time. You can sip it and pass it back, that’s what I do. Be careful, though, because that shot glass keeps coming round til the bottle’s empty. Or, if you really want to abstain, you can dip your right ring finger in and flick three times in three different directions. I’ve tried that because some people can be a bit aggressive in their offering, but sometimes they don’t like me flicking… not sure if it’s because I’m a foreigner or because they’re intolerant of teetotalers. There’s also beer, wine, and a bottled sangria that are often done in shots. Alcoholism is a concern in Mongolia (there is high unemployment and vodka is super cheap = bad combination); the last two years the president has toasted the New Year with traditional milk-tea.

I’ve saved the best for last…

Airag – the famous fermented mare’s milk: sour and thin like water, rather than thick like milk. I’ve seen them milking horses, but so far as I know, no one drinks the horse milk unless it’s been turned into airag.

Not sure how frequently the horses are milked, but she spent about 3 minutes with a few of them and got a few cups worth of milk.

Not sure how frequently the horses are milked, but she spent about 3 minutes with a few of them and got a few cups worth of milk.

This is popular during each of the two biggest holidays, Naadam and Tsagaan Sar. Now, you can also get camel airag, which I had at last year’s Tsagaan sar and actually enjoyed. It’s a bit creamier than the original. And my hosts added a bit of sugar to it, which made it more palatable for me.

Tsagaan Sar is just a few weeks away! Fingers crossed for timeenii (camel) airag!

ECON 101, Mongolia edition

September 18, 2013

Effective September 1, 2013, Mongolia has a new minimum wage, 192,000T per month. The previous minimum was 140,400T, which meant that Peace Corps Volunteers were earning just over twice the minimum wage when I arrived last year.

Since we’re paid in togrogs, I know immediately whether I can afford something. There is an automatic conversion to a percent of my income that happens. I don’t have to convert the cost of things to dollars to know whether it is a good deal; I merely compare prices between delguurs, since most of what I buy is food. This means I don’t have to pay attention to exchange rates on a regular basis.

This summer, a German man was having trouble at an ATM in Govi-Altai. (He was riding his motorcycle from Germany to UB, another Other!)  He had planned to exchange a $100 bill, but it was Sunday and the banks were closed. (The fact that he had US dollars didn’t hit me until later; the international currency.) Since it was just a few weeks before leaving for my Russia trip, and I would need dollars to pay for my Russian Visa, I offered to take togrogs out of my account for him. (I had a brief moment of wondering whether the $100 bill I held in my hand was legitimate—I hadn’t seen American money in over a year!—but it was absurd to imagine that anyone would travel to Mongolia to launder counterfeit dollars.) I quoted him the last exchange rate I knew ($100 = 140,000T) and he agreed.

Turns out I got the better end of that deal, but not by too much. Now, take a look at this frightening graph showing the dollar to Mongolian togrog over the past year (from here).


When I came to Mongolia last year, the exchange rate was about 1350T=$1. Now, it is 1700T=$1. Again, since I’m paid in tugs, I wasn’t aware of this. Of course, we were all aware of the notorious inflation in Mongolia. Initially, some of us thought that store proprietors were trying to take advantage of us foreigners by charging us higher prices than those posted, only to be told by locals that, no, the prices just keep going up. In fact, the economy had been expanding so rapidly that it was noteworthy when the inflation had slowed to below 10%. Still, with such high inflation, we can probably expect another adjustment to our living allowance, so, thanks, my fellow Americans.

Here is but a glimpse of the rising prices:
Shower was 1200T, briefly 1500T, now 2000T.
one egg was 350T, now 500T.
liter of milk was 1500T, now 2000T.
peanut butter was 5500T, now 9000T.
chocolate bar was 1400T, now 1500T.
3D movie in UB was 6000T, now 7000T.
large bottle of water was 600T, now 1000T.

Another interesting money tidbit is that the minimum ATM withdrawal is 1000T (which is now about 50 cents); you can get a decent ice cream cone for that price. Can you imagine taking so little from the ATM?!! Also, I used the ATM for many months before reading a message on the screen that there is a per transaction fee of 100T. So, for those who do take the minimum amount, the fee is 10%, which I know is only pennies, but still, 10%!!!! Since reading this message, I now take 100,000T at a time (unless I am lazy and press the 80,000T button, which is the highest pre-set amount).

One of my students showed me this: Sad Chinggis.


Happy Chinggis.


I know I’ve done this with George Washington. I love that there are such simple universal amusements.


June 19, 2013

There was a shower-house in my training site last summer but, as far as I know, my host family never used it, so I never used it. I learned to bathe in my tumpun and my host-mom or host-sister would help me wash my hair by pouring the warm water over my head while I lathered and rinsed. The bathing and the hair-washing didn’t necessarily coincide. I would bathe every 7-10 days (using baby-wipes in the interim); I’d wash my hair every 5-7 days. Much like clothes washing in the tumpun, tumpun bathing was complicated by the need to carry the one bucket of water to my bedroom, combine in my tumpun with water from the kettle, bathe and then pour from the wide tumpun into the dirty-water bucket—hopefully, executing neither step with excessive spillage—finally, emptying the dirty water into the special pit outside.

With this as my frame of reference, the indoor plumbing at my permanent site made tumpun bathing so much easier, that I didn’t immediately seek out the Altai shower-houses. At site, I could fill (fill=2-3 inches) my tumpun right from the sink and, after washing, pour it right into the toilet. Even better was when the heat came on and my running water wasn’t ice-cold; then, I didn’t need to use the kettle at all. I’d gotten into a routine of upper-body bathing (right from the sink!), lower-body bathing, and hair-washing two days a week. The baby-wipes remain a living-in-Mongolia, must-have item.

I think at this point I should mention that when I lived in the States, my habit was to shower every other day. I’d adopted this schedule when growing up in California, because of “the drought,” and even though I’m sure I was in the minority to skip a day, it stuck with me and I saw no reason to change when I left. Like many routines, it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule and if I needed/wanted a shower off-schedule, I’d take one. No judgment! 😉

After the new year, I asked my site-mate to show me the shower house. I think it was because the weather was so cold that I wanted that all-over warmth. That first shower in Altai, on January 10th, was gloriously warm. And, I remember thinking, “it’s so pleasurable to wash my hair without bending over.”

There are several shower-houses in Altai, but I’ve only experienced the one. The cost is 1300 togrogs (just under a dollar) for 30 minutes. There are two attendants: one collects the money (from the usage fee and the sale of toiletries) and the other seems to be in charge of throwing a bucket of water on the shower floor in between guests, handing out communal shower slippers and locking you in. Yes, the attendant locks you in, and there is no secondary lock on the inside for the vulnerable person who is naked and preoccupied. There are about 12 rooms and none that I’ve used have been particularly nice, each showing the black of mildew and/or mold. There’s no doubt it wasn’t always a shower-house, though, as the rooms are different configurations and the water comes via PVC pipes literally strung up to the rafters. It turns out, the temps at the shower-house are unpredictable and, for the most part, unadjustable. Regardless, that weekly shower is a treat. When you’re done, you give a knock and the attendant comes and unlocks your door.


Oh, and by the way, it isn’t a lock with a key… just a simple slider. I want to think this is another example of trust built into things in Mongolia, but then I remembered, it’s like showering at a gym or a campground back home. Except for the whole gender-separation thing that is largely ignored here.


October 7, 2012

One of my professors at San Diego City College, the brilliant and animated Bill Stewart, encouraged his students to ask questions because, as he said, a third of the class was probably wondering the same thing. I have always loved how he framed our inquiries as though they were for the benefit of the quieter students. It trampled on the “there are no dumb questions” approach to getting students to participate, and instead made it our duty to ask. Like I said, he was brilliant.

In that spirit, here I introduce the first Q&A blog entry. These questions are courtesy of my sister-in-law, Tricia.

Do you have any containers that you can fill with water for those days it is not flowing? 

Here, she is referring to my plumbing that, as I wrote to her, has repeatedly been shut off. In 6 weeks, it’s probably happened about 6 times but not in any scheduled way that would allow me to plan for it. (Might be due to the construction on my street.) It’s lasted for as little as 10 minutes to as long as 8 or 10 hours.

To answer the question, I have a Peace Corps-provided water filter (which deserves its own blog entry) so that I am able to drink, and cook somewhat depending on what I am making. It holds about a gallon of water, and the lesson learned is to promptly fill it so that I am never without drinking water. If the drought were to continue for an extended time, I could purchase bottled water from almost any of the delguurs, however, there is no recycling here so I hesitate to do that unless it was urgent.

Do you have refrigeration?  Freezer?  Oven? What about containers for leftovers?

I do have a refrigerator with a freezer inside. It’s about 3-feet high, though they have smaller and larger in Mongolia. The freezer, however, has no door so either the entire thing was a freezer or I turned down the setting, which is what I did. In the winter, I could use my entry room as a freezer, like the people who live in Mongolian gers use their ping (boxed-in area covering the door, to keep out the cold weather). But I don’t expect to freeze much, food-wise, since I don’t buy anything frozen, and have been making meals with only 2-3 extra portions, which I finish off in the next 3-5 meals.

I have a table-top electric burner for cooking. (There are two burners but I was told only one works so I never tried the other.) I also have a rice-cooker, which I always wanted in the States and never got. I do not have an oven. The PCVs with ovens are willing to share, though, and at our site-mate dinners I have benefited from their ovens in the form of pizza, garlic bread, home-made pretzels, and most recently a chocolate cupcake with coffee frosting and caramel drizzle. Thankfully for me, the ovens are not wasted on non-bakers or the stingy!

As for containers for leftovers, I’m all set there. Since there is no recycling, I have been reusing, mostly pickle jars. The longer I’m here, the more jars I will accumulate and use for all manner of storage—not just food. But, because I am so conscious of the absence of recycling, I hesitate over impulsive items (like single serve juices) since additional uses for the bottle is limited, relative to a jar.

Hey, how’d you like your toothpaste? I remembered that was included while I was brushing mine thinking I needed to replenish our stock.  And I smiled a little knowing Toms would be a nice treat.  Like you mention, it’s the basics we appreciate more when we go without them.

Ah, stream-of-consciousness writing… how it speaks to me. Here, she is referring to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste which she lovingly included in my care package. It was indeed a treat. In fact, I had stopped purchasing Tom’s at home because I was finding it a bit pricey and hard to find my favorite flavor: fennel. Trader Joe’s used to have it at $2.99 but then they introduced their own brand and the Tom’s went up, and I tried the TJs brand—I believe they even had fennel—and didn’t like it as much. Ho-hum. This is probably a luxury item that will remain off the care-package list, but would make me smile if it were to emerge from a box.

How far are you from where you work? Which bldg is it?  Is it one of the pics posted?  How far to post office (again)? Do you walk everywhere?

This reminds me that I never posted the link to the new Permanent Site photo album. It is here. Forgive me for redirecting you; I am still having trouble uploading to this site.

My apartment is about a 7-minute walk to work. The post office is about an 8-minute walk in the opposite direction, so that if I walk from work to the post office, it is about 15 minutes. Yes, I walk everywhere. Unless, as has happened 2 or 3 times now, a coworker driving by stops to take me the rest of the way. “Thank you for sparing me those 3 minutes of walking!” Really… maybe I will appreciate it when it is winter but now it seems silly, despite being a nice gesture.

I bet people think that Mongolians drive jalopies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the vehicles here are HUGE: Jeeps and Land Rovers and such (I had to write “and such” because I don’t speak car, but you get the idea that they are big SUVs). It makes sense because of the roads. Some of the paved roads have giant pits and some of the dirt roads washout in the rain so that people just blaze a new trail. However, and I find this particularly noteworthy, one of my coworkers has a hybrid 🙂

They also drive motorcycles, sometimes 4 deep: the dad driving with a kid in his lap and a kid sandwiched between him and the mom at the back. I saw the same thing in India and did my first triple-take. No worries for me though; Peace Corps Volunteers are prohibited from riding on or driving a motorcycle, not that I’d have been tempted.

Some of the kids here have bikes, but I have no intention of getting one. Why not? Bicycle maintenance, winter, and bad roads dissuade me.

There are also taxis, but having barely taken them across Boston, I can hardly rationalize taking one across Govi-Altai. Again, maybe when winter hits.

Beef stewing it tomorrow. Oooh…can you get yeast easily?  And flour?  Eggs?

Oh, yummy! (Even though I would pick around the beef, which is amazing given some of the things I have eaten here – food blog entry in the works.) I believe yeast is courtesy of care packages, or else found in the capital. But, since I do not have an oven, I’d be less likely to use it. Flour and eggs are readily available. In fact, I made my own tortillas from scratch! (Chris, are you reading this?! Who am I?!) Until then, I thought they were uniform circular disks that came in packs of 8-12. While mine were far from uniform, they tasted like bona-fide tortillas 🙂


September 25, 2012

A common question is “what do you miss most” from home. It’s a terrific question because the answer entirely depends on 1) where you are now (i.e., what is and is not available) and 2) what your biggest comforts were, so that asking my friend in Singapore (Hi, Crystal!) or my friend in Greece (Yassou, Anna!) would yield different answers. For Anna, I know it’s Mexican food.

The thing is, how many us know what are biggest comforts are? For example, is it worse if your car breaks down or if your electricity goes out? Probably depends on what you were about to do.  Do I miss guacamole more than I miss Hubway (my beloved Boston bike-share program)? Oh boy, it is hard to say. What about personal space vs. punctuality (any Mongolian PCV will understand these references); which of those two qualities do I miss more? I guess I have discovered that the more things we have, the more difficult it is to rank them in importance. Wants become needs. But take away all but the most basic needs, and clear preferences emerge.

I spent this summer with only a squat outhouse (jorlon). Even though it was the Taj Mahal of outhouses (I can say that, because I’ve been to the Taj Mahal), one might think that I must have missed a toilet most of all. This is not so, and I am not just saying it because I now have a toilet. In fact, I miss the byproduct of the squat outhouse so much—those firmer, stronger thighs and buttocks—that I’ve begun doing several squats a day. (overshare?)

People who’ve had a meal with me—who know that I delight in eating to the point where I involuntarily hum—probably think that some food item is my greatest longing. Indeed, many of my suggested care-package items are food or food-related. But no. Though I have always loved a good meal, I don’t think that I’ve spurned an average meal. This is important because I’ve cooked ALL of my meals the past month, save for a few site-mate dinners. No daily soup/salad from the cafeteria (Hi, DFCI lunch crew!), no take-out (as if!), no frozen dinners, not even ramen noodles (which we do have).

It comes to this: during the summer, the thing I missed most from home was running water. This had nothing to do with the jorlon since most everyone who had a jorlon had a gravity sink (a clever contraption wherein the water was poured into a reservoir (maybe 1-2 liters) above the basin and by pushing up on a valve underneath the tank, the water flowed down into the dirty water catch bucket under the basin) so washing hands was quite easy. But the bigger jobs (the hand-washing laundry and tumpun bathing) each became incredibly labor intensive: assuming you already had water (carried it or had it delivered), you have to carry buckets of water (one at a time) from where it’s stored, heat some of it in the electric kettle, then do the washing, dump the dirty water (into a special dirty-water pit outside), repeat all the steps to do the rinsing, then dump the dirty water again. And I like to rinse twice!

Since my permanent site has running water—the thing I had already identified as the one thing I was missing most—how could I not be happy? Well, I wasn’t unhappy but I wasn’t as happy as I would have thought in the “be careful what you wish for” sense. Have you ever washed your hands or did the dishes (even with rubber gloves) in ice-cold water? Try it. You’ll quickly agree that it is more than unpleasant. In fact, I exclusively used the red faucet in the hopes that someday hot water would magically appear. Wants becoming needs. Meanwhile, it was back to heating up the tea-kettle, but at least the time for the big chores was cut in half without all the carrying back and forth.

And now, the denouement of the running-water saga: the heat in my studio apartment was turned on over the weekend (it’s either on or off, no thermostat), just in time for the first snow in town. Wherever it originates from, it enters my apartment through 3 radiators and exposed pipes running the length of the same 3 walls. And wherever the water originates from must pass over those pipes to become tepid when the heat is on. Yes, I have tepid running water. At first I thought, “Are my hands so cold that this water feels warm?” until the heat went off and the water was ice-cold again. I’m still hoping it’s not a fluke and that when winter is in full effect I can still feel the difference. And assuming I will have tepid running water—the thing I’ve now identified as the one thing I was missing most—for as long as there is heat (maybe 6 months), you can rest assured, I’ll be pretty happy in Govi-Altai, Mongolia.


June 16, 2012

So, my Mongolian sister just brought in this internet connection flash drive and told me to get my computer… not sure how frequently I’ll be able to use it but I will revel in this moment of technological comfort. Just as I was feeling settled in here, and so busy that I’m not really thinking about home to think whether I miss it, I read a comment from my niece Rachel that made my eyes well up. But, it was in the best way. My life here is good just as my life there was good. But they couldn’t be more different in the most basic ways. And that’s just fine.

A subset of our group went for a swim in the river today, alongside the horses. Then we stopped by one of our group’s host family’s and watched part of Alladin. This afternoon, I will wash my laundry by hand in my tumpun (my Mongol mom has been after me about this the past few days) and this evening, as most evenings although I don’t usually go, there will be soccer and basketball and volleyball at the field.

I think my connection is not strong enough for uploading pictures and I can’t do the landscape justice with words alone. I can tell you that Mongolia is known as “The Land of the Blue Sky” for a reason. The past 3 days have been sweltering, but not humid at all, so it’s tolerable. We have also had an unusual amount of rain (so we are told) in the 10 days we have been at site, but those were short-lived and once the storms passed, the blue skies returned.

postscript: I was able to upload some photos to facebook. You can see them here even without a facebook account.