food and culture

Before coming to Mongolia, I was a vegetarian, though I did eat meat on the rare occaison.   A few months before leaving the US, I reincorporated meat back into my diet, which wasn’t the easiest thing to try.

But I’m glad I did, because meat is pervasive here.  It’s in just about everything, and particularly, in the countryside, forms the backbone of the diet.

Interestingly, though, it’s not the centerpiece of the Mongolian diet, except perhaps during certain times of the year.  But while meat is an essential part of the diet, one thing I have noticed is that it’s not necessarily the largest portion of a meal.

For example, people don’t just eat big chunks of meat.  They don’t eat steaks or hamburgers.  In the winter months, they might eat hunks of hot fat, but this is not a typical daily dish.  Instead, Mongolians eat dumplings, or noodles.  The noodles in particular, tend to contain carrot and potato and maybe even cabbage (or, when I’m lucky, peppers).

In a sense, meat is a fringe food in the urban diet, and at times, in the rural diet as well.  This is, of course, what we see in so much of the rest of the world – the heavy dependence on basic carbs (wheat and rice), and the addition of vegetables and meat as “flavoring”.

Sadly, there isn’t much more to the Mongolian diet than this – meat, flour, milk, and potatoes and carrots.  Of course, with the warmer weather, I can find all sorts of other things (garlic scape and bock choy for example).  But it’s an interesting experience introducing Mongolians to these other items and expanding the diet.  I’ve heard some funny stories from friends about trying to make spaghetti (would have been better without tomato sauce) and lentil soup (smelled bad).   I think if I end up doing a homestay in the countryside, it’ll be an interesting culinary exchange.

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2 Responses to “food and culture”


  1. 1 Dave April 24, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Interesting stuff!

    Last summer, I spent three days in a ger with real herders (relatives of a colleague). I didn’t see a vegetable at all. I ate hunks of boiled meat (and fat) that had been dried the previous winter, and various dairy products.

    Our cleaning girl, who lives in a ger, never eats vegetables offered to her. She loves meat, soup, bread and potatoes. That’s it! She is frightened of tomatoes. Could be a fun costume if Halloween ever catches on here.

    Luckily, in UB, more is available. I am delighted that most vegetables can be found if you know where to look for them.

  2. 2 deepali April 28, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I think the veggies are not necessarily a staple. But I think flour is more prevalent than meat, except in the early part of winter. And of course, the dairy. That might be the most prevalent of all.


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