Mongolia: food and culture

by - March 11, 2019


This is part three of my Mongolian series, where I will share the cultural and culinary experiences of our short trip. First, the capital city.

Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar (UB) would likely be your entry and exit point of the country, from which your tour would start.

On our first night we stayed at Sunpath Hostel, a simple hostel owned by the tour operator themselves, located at a convenient walking distance to the centre of the city, Sukhbatar Square. Our private room was comfortable and spacious, the shared bathroom was passable, but the girl who worked there was so sweet and well-meaning, it was super affordable, and I like the lady boss.


According to Google, UB is nothing to write home about; but we did enjoy exploring the magnificent square on foot, sensed their esteem for Genghis Khan, and enjoyed the bold colours they use for their important buildings.


To my surprise, I found out from this article that during winter UB is the most polluted capital city in the world, due to the widespread use of coal stoves, the only heating source in the thousands of gers and self-built homes as the city struggles under over-migration, resulting in high rates of pneumonia and fetal mortality. The air feels ok in summer though.


One quessential cultural experience that shouldn't be missed when you're in town is Tumen Ekh, a high-spirited folk song and dance performance. Such an enjoyable experience: their exquisite bright and elaborate costumes, their nature-inspired galloping and energetic dances (one of their traditional guitars even could perfectly mimic a neighing horse!) and the strange yet captivating throat-singing.  

Photo taken from the Tumen Ekh website
Their folk costumes and music appears rather close to those of the neighbouring China. It's interesting to note that Korean pop culture is extremely popular here, and their contemporary music videos resemble K-pop too. Appearance-wise, their facial features are definitely East Asians, but on average they have bigger built than Chinese / Koreans. And of course their language sounds completely different from anything else I've heard. 

If time allowed, we would have gone to check out one of the museums in UB too!


Festivities to celebrate the upcoming Naadam festival, which we missed :( Excuse to visit Mongolia the second time!

Ongiin Khiid / Ongi Monastery

As part of the tour, we visited Онгийн хийд / Ongiin Khiid in Central Mongolia. It was one of the largest and most respected monasteries of Mongolia before its destruction in 1939 by communist authorities. Now, only the main gate has been restored with bits of ruins and remnants around it. There's a museum housing a collection of traditional religious objects and some architectural elements of the original monastery.


The monastery housed up to 1000 monks at its peak, I imagined it bustling with life, activities and prayers, in their richly vibrant red, yellow and green sanctuary.


Now the area is dominated by desert yellow and brown and felt quite desolate, save for a few local children playing, and a few adults managing the area. Efforts are being made by two former monks to restore the area. 



A small village in the desert

Once every 2 days or so, we'd stop by small villages in the desert for lunch and to buy supplies.  


Even in this village, the tap didn't have running water, it's just a sealed container.


An unexpected gift of shower on day 4! We felt giddy and unbelieving of our luck. The water was lukewarm and trickling, the public shower offered no towels nor soaps, nor it was especially clean, but the shower still was the highlight of the day. Cleanliness and hygiene did lift up the spirits.


Nomad lifestyle

A nomad family usually has a few gers; one for kitchen, one for living, one for bedroom. 


Dish-washing in basins, because there's no running water.


Electricity is scarce but available, with the power generator turned off at night. Some of our hosts  have solar panels too.


The nomad families are usually herders; they move 3-4 times a year so their livestock could graze. The families we visited also earned extra from camel / horse riding and hosting tourists like us.


Interacting with the animals and the gorgeous people.


I ponder about their simple life; their next door neighbour's probably at least 30 km away. So their overwhelmingly primary human interaction would be their family (they better get along!). 


This below is my favourite host. Thanks to him and his very hospitable family, it was the best ger stay out of our whole tour.


I asked our tour guide how they would meet other people. How would they date and marry? Her answer, "When they go to the market. When they go to school in the city, they meet people."


Nomad lifestyle is slowly dying in Mongolia as more and more people move to UB, attracted by the opportunities and city lifestyle.


Culinary

I am open-minded and always excited for authentic traditional cuisine, but what I can conclude from this trip is, Mongolia isn't exactly a culinary destination.

Our first meal in town was delicious barbecued lamb and giant-sized fried lamb dumplings called хуушуур - khuushuur.


A meal we had on the road. The lamb soup with potatoes, onions and carrots was hearty and tasty, and I wish I had a full meal of those. I usually love my dumplings but struggled as these dumplings (they are called бууз - buuz) are so... lamb-y. The sides were potato salad, carrots and cabbage.


During nomad ger visits, we're always served this goat milk tea. The milk tea was... salty. There were also little biscuits / crackers. 


Handmade stir-fried noodles with potatoes and lamb chunks. I think it's called цуйван- tsuivan.



Goat stew on rice. This was actually pretty good, the stew was soft and the goat-y smell was not overpowering at all. Do you notice a pattern here?


More бууз - buuz dumplings with goat / lamb fillings. The red stuff is not chili sauce, it's a kind of non-spicy tomato / salsa sauce, a typical condiment.  


The menu of a small restaurant. Since sometimes I use my spare time for unnecessary random stuff, with the help of google I did the translation of the menu below. Notice that they sell kimbap / Korean sushi!

  • хуушуур - khuushuur / meat dumplings
  • бууз - buuz / steamed meat dumplings
  • нийслэл салат - nijslel salat / potato salad
  • шинэ ногооны салат - shine nogoony salat / fresh vegetable salad
  • өндөгтэй цуйван - öndögtei tsuivan / egg noodles
  • гуляш - goulash
  • хиаман зууш - khiaman zuush / sausages
  • нарийн махан хуурга - narijn makhan khuurga / fine meat (small cuts / mince meat?!)
  • соустай бөөрөнхий мах - soustai böörönkhii makh / meatballs with sauce
  • кимбаб - kimbab / Korean sushi!
  • шарсан тахиа - sharsan takhia / fried chicken 
Waittttt.. fried chicken? Why the guide never told me there's fried chicken? I would've ordered that in a second!


Stir fried lamb / goat on rice, with potato salad, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber, and white bread. This was not bad too.


Some more хуушуур - khuushuur fried dumplings, filled with lamb or vegetables.


A traditional meal for special occasions, cooked by our lovely nomad hosts: goat stew with potatoes, onions and carrots, cooked on hot stones. According to google, this is called Xopxoг - khorkhog.


Eaten with rice and heaps of salsa sauce. The stew was hearty and delicious.


As we headed closer to Ulaanbaatar, chicken appeared on the menu! Chicken! Hoorah for chicken! 


Honorable mention to our amazing tour guides (we went in tandem with another small group) who whipped up these tasty nutritious and balanced meals to alleviate our longing for non-Mongolian food: sandwiches, sausages, Korean chicken soup, French toasts, and spagbol (with goat meat).


Our last dinner at Ulaanbaatar after the tour ended. We badly craved some strong spices so we went for Indian. It was glorious.


Normal Western breakfast, so on our last day in Ulaanbaatar we treated ourselves in a starred hotel, just because. 


Tips / facts

  • Bring your own spicy condiments (Sambal Bawang Little Dragon comes to mind). Usually I frown upon tourists who can't break away from home food, but in times like this, they become critical
  • As you can tell, the staple ingredients for their cooking are lamb / goat, onions, potatoes, and carrots, so your traditional meals will revolve around those too. The extensive use of meat and fats were influenced by the need to keep warm in the extreme climate, while the use of vegetables and spices are limited. Even so, if you're vegetarian, I believe your tour could cater for that too. 
  • In the desert, let alone pork, beef and chicken are hard to get. 

In conclusion...

Such was our short and sweet trip to Mongolia. The sights peppered along the barren desert was beautiful. The ger stay, the non-shower experience, the animals, and the people we met; all meshed up into one unforgettable unique experience. I would go to Mongolia again next time to explore the other, greener parts of Mongolia; hopefully with other Central Asian countries too.

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