Friday, June 1, 2012

Food Revolution - Part 1- Mongolian Food

I love food, always have, always will.  At times in my life I've been thinner, more health conscious, more physically active, but my love and enjoyment of food never wavers.  What food revolution you may be asking?  Well, mine I guess.... My collision with the Mongolian foods, the ever increasing amounts and types of Westernized foods available here and what is a typical diet here versus what I generally eat.

This started out as one post, then I quickly realized that one post is not enough for me to dish up this topic.  This first installment will start at the beginning with my introduction to Mongolian food and all about the food consumed here.  Disclaimer:  if this post lacks my usual positive attitude, never fear, it's still there and will return shortly.  Food is a very serious topic!

When I initially discovered I was coming to Mongolia with the PC, one of my worries was, what's the food like?  Will I like it?  Will I gain weight?  Will I go hungry frequently?  I read the typical diet consists of meat, dairy and tea.  Having been raised on a dairy farm, I adore dairy, am a big time carnivore and tea, well ok.

My sister Sue looked up a recipe online for a dish called buuz.  (pronounced like "boats")Buuz are a little steamed dumpling made with flour and meat.  This particular version was tasty, filled with ground beef, cabbage, onion and garlic.  After tasting these, I thought...hmmm not bad!  She also made tasty little fried dough cookies and milk tea for my going away party.  What a thoughtful sister I have!  Little did I know the strong smell of mutton wafting through the air was not far ahead.

Fast forward to PC training....after the first three days I just could not stand the taste of, let alone the smell of mutton.  I quickly asked the training manager if it was too late to change to Vegetarian.  Thankfully, it was not and all summer my host family honored me by 1) not slaughtering a sheep or other animal in the yard for me and 2) fixing me vegetarian food!  Not much variety in this option, however no fatty meat!

Back to the Mongolian diet and the Mongolian National Food dishes.  There are a few, and all involve mutton and flour.  In a nomadic society, meat is the main staple.  In Mongolia herders use their animals (sheep, goat, cow, camel and horse) for many purposes including food.  With the harsh weather, especially in the winter, they believe the fat to be good for you and will help you keep warm.(I personally dispute this belief, especially seeing all the skinny Mongolians and even the not so skinny ones who constantly complain of the cold...) Thinking of the nomadic lifestyle, harsh climate and poor rocky soil, it makes sense that the most common veggies grown and used here are potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage and some garlic thrown in.

Mutton is the most common meat available in most areas.  In the far West horse is eaten more frequently than other parts of the country (though I have eaten and liked it!), camel available more in the Gobi areas and goat and beef is around as well.  The method of slaughtering and butchering are different here as well.  For a sheep, the animal is held down, chest cut open and the heart pulled out.  Blood is not drained (so as not to spoil the ground) and the method of cutting the meat appears to be rather haphazard.  (not the steaks, roasts, chops, etc)    Huge chunks of meat, fresh in the markets and pulled out of peoples freezers to be hacked off in bits for use.  Recently at my friend Uugnaa's house, she pulled a huge hunk of meat from her freezer.  I asked her if it was mutton or what?  She didn't know, and said it was fresh when she bought it, so it didn't really matter to her.

Buuz are one of the Mongolian National Foods.  A small steamed dumpling filled with lightly seasoned meat, it can be made from mutton, goat, horse, camel or beef.  I have had all but camel while here, and in spite of my aversion to mutton (it's smell, taste and greasiness) in buuz it's not too bad.  This popular food can be found in most restaurants, as well as all the small guanzes (cafes) in towns and at little stops along the paved road.  These dumplings are especially popular at Tsagaan Sar, festival of the White Moon.  As part of the ceremony of this holiday (New Year) families make hundreds or even thousands of buuz to serve their guests.  I must add that I have concocted my own version of veggie buuz, filled with shredded veg and soy meat.

A second version of the mutton/ flour combo and another Mongolian National Food is the khuusher.(sounds like hoe-sure)  Khuusher is a  deep fried foldover stuffed with (you guessed it) mutton.  These are an integral part of the other huge national celebration, Nadaam.  Nadaam is the summer celebration featuring the three manly sports, wrestiling (my fave), archery and horse racing.  The Nadaam khusher are exceptionally large and stuffed full.  These are on every menu and vegetarian options are available in some places, most of them rather tasty.  I haven't tried making these, preferring french fries if I'm going to bother deep frying at home!

Tsuivain is a third popular dish.  (sounds like soy vin)I don't think it's called a national food, but it's available most everywhere.  The tsuivain is a noodle which my host family frequently made.  The dough is rolled out extremely thin.  It can be used fresh or dried, and is sold in almost every little delgur around.  The meat version includes lots of fatty meat mixed in with the noodles and a little veg, mostly carrot, onion, potato and seasoning.  Vegetarian versions usually include soy meat and my favorite local restaurant makes an amazing dish with a variety of veggies for around $2.50.  Ive tried making this at home and don't have the seasoning right.... hhmmm. The noodles are great in soup however!

The most famous drink here (aside from vodka which I am sooooo over!) is Tsutee Tsea, (sue tay say) or milk tea.  Traditionally this is made on a ger stove with fresh milk which doesn't boil, due to the constant dramatic ladling action.  Salt and loose tea are added.  Some folks put animal fat in for an extra added dimension, which is something I can do without.  To me, it tastes like salty warm milk with a very slight tea flavor.

So I don't care for the national foods, except in vegetarian versions and I don't care for milk tea or vodka, so what do I eat and drink here? Tune in for Food Revolution Part 2 for the answers to this and other burning questions.... 

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