I walked into the ger making sure to duck my head for the low door frame and went around the ger clockwise as I was taught in my cultural training . I took a seat where the family pointed – at the 10 o’clock position; the esteemed position for visitors. They quickly poured a bowl of steaming fresh milk and gave it to me. The milk had a slightly different taste than what I was expecting; it was from a goat. This new taste would quickly become old to me as goat milk became my main source of liquid for the next two weeks.
The Food Pyramid:
The Mongolian food pyramid was a little different than a normal food pyramid and it left me baffled on how the Mongolians survived! The pyramid was dominated by dairy with no sign of vegetables or fruits. I ate more dairy in 2 weeks than I have in 6 months! Goat milk, Camel milk, various forms of yogurt (from runny to hard as a rock), goat milk cheese, the skin of boiled milk, and yes, even the booze was made of milk. Airag is fermented mare’s milk and quite a popular drink. (Yes, of course I tried it!) Milk is so revered that at sports festivals and religious festivals I often saw people putting milk on religious symbols or milk on horses heads for good luck. If milk was the king of the food pyramid, then what was the Queen? Mutton.
One of the restaurants I went to in Ulanbatar had nicely provided an English menu for its tourists. My eyes immediately went to the section titled “Mean Dishes”, and I instinctively scanned the menu for a “Nice Dishes” section. In Mongolia, you have to like meat; and you really have to like mutton. Problem; I’m not a real mutton fan, but as far as meat goes, that’s about all there is in the Gobi Desert. Often it’s dried and hung from the ceiling of the ger like jerkey. When it comes time to eat, they just take some down from the ceiling and cut it up and boil it. Of course like any good Asian country, every part of the animal is used. Goats stomach and various blood congealed innards were offered to me; but I decided that this was one cultural experience I could pass on.
I was passed a round pale white disk; my hosts motioned for me to break some off and eat it. I took it and realized it was a hard cheese of some sort; I become mildly excited. After living in Asia for a year, I have adapted to the fact that cheese is a privilege and it’s not something I buy very often, yet I miss it terribly. I gladly took this mini wheel of hard cheese, broke off a piece and bit into it. It’s funny how your mind looks at food and automatically sets a taste bud expectation; sour, salty, creamy, spicy. When you mind jumps to a wrong conclusion it can change your whole eating experience. My mind took one look at this cheese and though….mmmm – aged parmesan. Reality hit the taste buds of my tongue abruptly and made my whole face pucker noticeably; it was sour and bitter. Like most things, the cheese was an acquired taste and in light of the fact that we had very little to choose from, you got used to the bitter cheese.
Even the water tastes like mutton:
I always know that I’m doing some great cultural traveling when there is no bottled water for sale; it means that you are deep within the local culture! The Gobi families boiled water for us to put in our bottles for travel. Since the ‘ger kitchens’ were very simple, most gers only had one big round wok that they cook in; imagine if you had only one pot in your kitchen! I found that the deeper I went into the Gobi, the less the water seemed to taste like water and instead tasted like goat. Sure, I had goat on the brain, day after day of goat milk and boiled mutton soup. However, this wasn’t my imagination; the water did taste like goat! I saw the women use the same pot for cooking up our dinner and boiling our water. Since water is scarce anyway, scrubbing dishes clean isn’t always a possibility either; hence the mutton tasting water. Needless to say, when we finally got to a village again, we all stocked up on water!
Hot food for Hot Weather
It’s about 95 degrees F, there’s no shade, the sun feels like a drill penetrating deep into your skin, and you think that it’s so hot you can hear your sweat sizzle. Finally, when you arrive at a ger (the only shade for miles), you walk inside and they immediately serve you piping hot milk and soup. Refreshing? Not really. I found this very hard to get used to, but there is some weird theory about eating hot food in a hot climate being good for you; I’m not a believer. However, with the absence of electricity and therefore refrigeration, everything was hot. The sholte khool which literally means ‘soup with food’ includes broth, some noodles, boiled mutton, and some potatoes. We had this every day – for lunch and for dinner; the novelty of it wore off pretty quickly. This constant diet of sholte khool was very reminiscent of my 16 days of Dhal Bhat in Nepal – the same food for 2 weeks straight is never easy to tolerate; but you tell yourself that it’s only for 2 weeks and for 2 weeks you can tolerate anything…right?
A Sweet Medicine
My travel partners intestines weren’t tolerating the food as well as I mine and they had given up eating much more than simple bortzig (hard, unleavened bread) and milk tea. One of our rather perceptive Ger hosts noticed this and made us a lunch that would be ‘easy ‘ on the stomach – sweet rice. Rice! I never thought I’d be so excited to have rice again. My travel partners’ illness was my good luck. The rice was boiled and the mother added sugar and a home made thick buttery cream mixture that was so divine I had 3 bowls! It was so nice to have something sweet and without a mutton flavor for a change. The Mongolian diet doesn’t have much sugar infused in it at all, so my sweet tooth was suffering badly!
Lest you think that all of my food experiences in Mongolia were bad, I do have to say that we did have one day of respite from the mutton soup diet we found ourselves on. We stayed at a guest house in a little village one night. Ok – basically we slept on someone’s living room floor with sleeping bags. Our host ran the local restaurant and bar in the village. So not only did we have locals stopping in at all hours of the day buying vodka, but this also meant that we had some really good food! She served us a feast of yogurt with jam and apricots, carrot salad, fried potato-egg pancakes, and buuz (a mutton filled calzone or dumpling). Finally, some fruit and vegetables – my intestines screamed – THANKYOU! All of this fiber was such a welcome change to our steady diet of mutton soup, bortzig and sour cheese. However, ironically after that I had digestive issues for a few days; going to show you that you can never predict where and when you’ll get a bad strain of bacteria that wants to conquer your intestines.
I survived my two week diet of all things dairy and goat; however, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the taste and smell of goat again for the rest of my life! In an attempt to balance out my own food pyramid, the first thing I had when I got back to Vietnam was a big plate of veggies and fruit!
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