Hot Sauce Counts as a Vegetable, Right?

Hello, my name is Paquita and it has been two days, eight hours and twenty-four minutes since I last had a vegetable. I fantasized about salads again today. This one was a kale salad with goat cheese and roasted pine nuts.

Peace Corps told our host-families that our delicate American bodies would need time to adjust to the diet, and to make sure they were feeding their American breakfast and plenty of vegetables. My first day here, I got a bowl of apples and vegetable soup (with meat, of course). Yesterday I got beef and flour soup (just what it sounds like), and that is because my host-family is still being delicate with me. Normally there would be a lot more mutton in the mix. There are only a handful of vegetarians here, and I’m not entirely sure what they are eating. Not eating meat to a Mongolian means being sick in some way.

A healthy plate of deep-fried dough and meat, also called khushuur.
A healthy plate of deep-fried dough and meat, also called khushuur. Also pictured: suutei tsai, slightly salty milk tea.

We volunteers fall under two umbrellas: those like James, whose meat and carbohydrate needs are finally being met and could happily eat like this forever, and those like me, who are grateful for the food on our plates, but recognize that once I am living on my own, there are going to be some changes around here. Step one, let’s stop deep frying the eggs, and let’s learn to use the salt shaker.

Don’t get me wrong, Mongolian food is quite tasty. With the addition of a little hot sauce, it can even be delicious. Before coming here, I was told Mongolians don’t like spicy food, but that is a falsehood, demonstrated empirically by the fact that the medium-sized bottle of Sriracha I gave to my host-family was finished in four days. FOUR DAYS. They like spicy food alright, but the spice (and foodstuffs) selection does not lend itself to adventurous cooking. They have the foods they know they like, and they make those foods really well.

A pan of bansch, meat dumplings to eat with soup.
A pan of bansch, meat dumplings to eat with soup.

If you need a whole goat roasted, call up your closest Mongolian friend and get the party started, because they are superb at cooking meat in the great outdoors. I have never been to a “Mongolian barbeque” in America, but I am told it is nothing even remotely close to an actual Mongolian barbecue. A horhog is a Mongolian institution in which cut up meat is cooked with hot rocks on a pot over an open fire. Another variation of this is bodog, putting the hot rocks inside the carcass of the animal, sewing the carcass back up and searing the outside.

Here is a marmot being cooked with a blow torch. It was very good.
Here is a marmot being cooked with a blow torch. It was very good.

Because Mongolians are some of the least wasteful people on the planet, they cook everything and make the most out of the limited ingredients available. They even have a special technique to kill the animal so as to spill as little blood as possible (think of all the sausage you could make with that blood!). There are many dishes I have tried that I doubt can be found anywhere else. Fermented mare’s milk for example, airag, which tastes somewhere between sour cream and that watery substance on the top of yogurt, if it were alcoholic and ever so slightly carbonated.

Somehow, the Mongolian body does not need anything other than meat, bread, and potatoes, with the occasional cabbage, to survive. Yet another reason Mongolians are amazing. Taking the harsh Mongolian climate into consideration the food is everything it needs to be: nourishing and high in calories. Take for example arul: patties of curdled milk cheese that are perfect if you are a horseback rider on the way to your next conquest and don’t have time to stop for a meal; in other words, the original protein bar. I personally think arul rather bland and dry, but I recognize what a brilliant solution for transporting food it is.

The necessary tower of arul that can be found at any important gathering. Notice how it remains untouched.
The necessary tower of arul that can be found at any important gathering. Notice how it remains untouched.

Transporting and storing food can be a bit of a prickly subject because refrigeration has not altogether caught on here, which makes shopping for meat at the market, where almost all the meat is sold, a fraught minefield. You can find both the freshest, most organic, free-range meat you have ever had in your life, but that same meat can turn rancid and give you days of diarrhea if you don’t buy it soon enough. My host-parents know the difference and put all the meat they expertly buy into their freezer, but like a young grasshopper, I still have a lot to learn about choosing meat. Scratch that, I still have a lot to learn about everything here.

The goat I named George being taken on his last car ride.
The goat I named George being taken on his last car ride.
George a couple of hours later, part of an amazing horhog. Can't get fresher than than!
George a couple of hours later, part of an amazing horhog. Can’t get fresher than than!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get back to my salad fantasy. Oh yeah, lightly drizzle that vinaigrette…

Note: This post was actually written in July, but posting was delayed due to limited internet connectivity.

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Nadaam

Nadaam is a two-to-three day summer festival here in Mongolia and probably the second thing that will come up on your google search about Mongolia (the first being It Is Cold There) and the first thing to come up in your travel guide book. The national Nadaam (meaning Ulaanbaatar’s Nadaam) is timed for their Independence Celebration from China, but in the countryside, Nadaam is more of a celebration of Mongolia and of the three manly games that existed long, long before their Independence and even predate Chinggis Khan. Towns all over Mongolia choose the dates of their own Nadaam, usually only a couple of weeks before it actually happens (if even that long).

The procession begins.
The procession begins.

So if Nadaam was in July, why am I only posting this now? Well, dear reader, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the internet has been a scarce commodity in these parts, so it goes up when it goes up.

Some fancy-looking ladies.
Some smart-looking ladies, also known as my site-mates.

My town had a stadium on the outskirts of town that they only ever used for Nadaam, to give you an idea of how important this festival is. It was tremendous fun; it involved a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen followed by a rush to see what was happening, then going back to waiting. During the waiting periods, you could play any number of carnival games (ring toss, etc.), or admire all the spectacular deels (pronounced dell, it is the traditional Mongolian dress worn by men and women), or eat lots and lots of khuushuur (a deep fried mutton or goat empanada). My site mates and I were quite lucky in that our host-families generously gave us our own deels. I was extremely impressed when I received my deel because my family had never asked me about colors, styles, or sizes, but somehow gave me something I absolutely adored and fit perfectly. My best guess is they started stealing my clothes in the first week.

The Nadaam Stadium , used only once a year.
The Nadaam Stadium , used only once a year.
Being goofy with my little sister.
Being goofy with my little sister.
An eagle contemplates his life.
An eagle contemplates his life.

The highlight of Nadaam are the three manly games: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. It is a bit of a misnomer though, because anyone can compete in the archery, and instead of using adult jockeys, they use small children of both genders. Although not an official manly game, shagai is also very popular and is played by aiming sheep bones and trying to hit a target.

Men playing shagai.
Men playing shagai.
The wrestlers part 1
The wrestlers part 1
The wrestlers 1.
The wrestlers part 2
Working on my skillz. (ok, but guys, archery is actually really hard).
Working on my skillz. (ok, but guys, archery is actually really hard).

My favorite game to watch was the horse racing because unlike in the USA, Mongolians do not use jockeys to race the horses around a track, oh no! Mongolians race their horses across vast distances of steppe using small children as jockeys, sometimes riding bareback. It is quite a sight to see them arriving at the finish line, horse and child exhausted and dirty.

The end is in site.
The end is in sight.

I loved Nadaam and I completely understand why it is ranked so high on the “must-see” list of Mongolia, but while I watched some of the National Nadaam on TV and was impressed by the splendor of it all, I have to say, I loved the small town Nadaam. It felt close to what Nadaam was originally about: being proud to be Mongolian and having a heck of a good time.

Portrait of a majestic girl.
Portrait of a majestic girl.