On the Menu (Fall Edition)

The award for the least helpful menu goes to...
The award for the least helpful menu goes to…

Since moving to Our Town, there has been a pretty extreme change of diet from PST. The other PCV in Our Town is even more of a foodie than I am (when he opens his restaurant at the end of his service, I will be one of the first people to lay down money to eat there) and he has been instrumental in creating our healthy and flavorful diet. To explain exactly why it is so helpful to have another foodie in town, I have to back up and explain what food shopping is like here.

Or you can just have all the delicious food sent to you in a care package and never go shopping again!
Or you can just have all the delicious food sent to you in a care package and never go shopping again!

Yes, there are grocery stores here (and it’s not offensive to ask), but apart from the larger, overpriced grocery store that most of the tourists shop at, the stores are small, hole-in-the-wall operations that carry a rotating stock of seemingly random foodstuffs and beauty supplies. Some things you can count on being in stock: laundry detergent, rice, flour, ramen. Other things are hit and miss, so you keep a healthy stock in your own cupboard when you can: oatmeal, good flavors of Pringles, hot red pepper flakes, raisins, olive oil (when you find one that is not too expensive). Then, there are the treasure items that you see once and possibly never again: cheese (of any variety), tuna with a recognizable label. When I see these things, I will buy out the store’s stock if I can afford it.

Sure you may have crab, but do you have crab-flavored Pringles?
Sure you may have crab, but do you have crab-flavored Pringles?
What Americans call "Canola oil" is called by its actual name here.
What Americans call “Canola oil” is called by its actual name here.

Next to the vegetable market is the meat market, where one can peruse tables covered in mountains of meat and can buy an entire carcasses of a variety of animals depending on the time of year. Very rarely, I will find goat (my favorite), but there is always plenty of mutton, usually plenty of beef, and more and more horse meat available. Right after rice and flour, meat is by far the cheapest foodstuff. Pork is rare and Mongolians will think you are a psycho killer if you talk about lamb (“you kill babies?!?!”). I do not eat that much meat in general (to the horror of most Mongolians), so I don’t visit the meat market that often for that reason, but I go even less because I am terrible at picking out cuts. I have to be firm about not wanting all fat, and trying to communicate that I don’t like the cut they are giving me is difficult. One positive thing to come out of the freezing weather is that I worry less about dying from a meat-borne disease.

That one time we found pork and made egg biscuit breakfast sandwiches.
That one time we found pork and made egg biscuit breakfast sandwiches.

The vegetable market is where I get most of our food. At most stands, there are potatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, and garlic. But in one corner of the market is one little old lady who has been trained by our fellow PCV and previous ex-pats that “Americans like vegetables.” She does a pretty fantastic job of having a much wider variety of produce than anyone else, because she knows that between us and our fellow PCV, someone will buy it. Thanks to her we can sometimes find green onions, daikon, red cabbage, and cherry tomatoes. Once in a while, she will even have a zucchini or two. Vegetable lady and I are such good friends now that she generally ushers me behind the stand to proudly show me her best wares.

Vegetables!
Vegetables!

I quickly mention fruit only to say that it is so outrageously expensive, that the only time I have fruit is when it is present at a party or other event.

Which brings us to why having another foodie around is such a great thing (other than the fact that he is a hoot to be around, and generally just a great friend): it doubles the eyes on the lookout for treasures, and we share ideas for creative uses of limited ingredients. We have gone to incredible lengths trying to recreate some foods we miss a lot, with mixed levels of success, and I have been learning to cook with the ingredients I do have, which means a lot more Asiatic flavors and techniques, an arrangement I am not dissatisfied with. Last month I learned to make kimchi! Bring on the probiotics.

That one time we found celery, we pooled all our resources to make a pretty damn good Bloody Mary.
That one time we found celery, we pooled all our resources to make pretty damn good Bloody Marys.
Kimchi is a messy affair.
Kimchi is a messy affair.

Mongolians are not adventurous eaters, but sometimes my enthusiasm for food inspires even the most hesitant eaters. A couple of days ago, upon finding baby bok choy at the market, I practically squealed with delight and was so excited that a Mongolian woman next to me asked what the vegetable was. I waxed poetical about the bok choy and told her how to cook it (as much as I could in broken Mongolian) and she ended up buying the rest of the stock.

My attempt at kimbob with homemade kimchi.
My attempt at kimbob with homemade kimchi.

I have been making good use of our toaster over as well: after being inspired by an American friend, I have taken up bread making as something of a hobby. You can buy standard white bread here, but it tends to be dense and kind of flavorless, so I have been working on introducing crusty, artisanal bread to my coworkers. So far, they are mostly only fans of the soft, sweet challah bread. I used to be called “the world’s worst baker” stateside, but it seems that on this side of the planet, I am considered pretty damned talented (so there).

Challah rolls covered in caramel.
Challah rolls covered in caramel.

So while yes, there are still plenty of foods that I miss a lot (mustard! spices! beans! beer!), we are far from destitute as long as I stay away from food websites. We shall see what changes winter brings to the food availability.

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Settling-In

We are officially at site now and we have been for a couple of weeks, but we have been busy living our lives instead of writing the blog, #sorrynotsorry. That being said, I have been really excited to talk about our site placement, because it is awesome. I know I haven’t seen much of Mongolia, but holy cow, our town is gorgeous. Once again, I can’t give you the exact location so instead I’ll say a small city/large town in North central Mongolia.

All this and more did we carry.
All this and more did we carry.

Our home. First of all, by Peace Corps standards, our apartment is luxurious: the ceiling is nine-feet high, we have a separate bedroom, AND we have a water heater in our bathroom, which means that we not only get hot water in the bathroom (as long as the electricity is on in the town), but in the kitchen as well. I know, I know, this all sounds more like Posh Corps than Peace Corps.

Because our town is so beautiful (see James’ forthcoming entry on the subject), there are more tourists than I was used to seeing, so while non-Mongolian faces are sometimes seen in the downtown area, they do not usually venture into our neighborhood. That makes us very interesting to many people, particularly children who are often eager to practice the one word of English they know: “HI! HI! HI!”. Sometimes we get distrustful stares from adults, to which we smile and say hello in Mongolian, but mostly the only reaction we get is disinterested or positive.

We spent the first week in our new home settling-in: work hadn’t started, we didn’t have any responsibilities, and we had free time for the first time in three months. Our town is large enough to make it onto a map, but it has the advantage of being very walkable, so after we had criss-crossed the town every which way, we started hiking the mountains that surround the town.

We also bought some stuff. We were each given roughly $90 as a settling-in fund which we used on a very expensive but completely necessary toaster oven to supplement the hot plate that came with apartment, a very classy plastic chest of drawers with “sweet love” emblazoned on each drawer, and two stools to give us something to sit on around the table.

Making biscuits in our very fancy toaster over.
Making biscuits in our very fancy toaster over.
The new concept of 3-D drying!
The new concept of 3-D drying!

As fun as unsuccessfully haggling on the open air market was and as glorious as the views from the mountaintops were, by the week’s end we were getting a little antsy to start work. After the intensity of PST, we got to site ready to hit the ground running.

My first day of work, I came half an hour early, dressed to the nines, and with the classic optimism of American, smile spread wide across my face. Instead of diving into lesson planning and tailoring the curriculum though, my co-workers sent me home to change and we pulled up weeds from the school courtyard.

Picking weeds with my counter-parts.
Picking weeds with my counter-parts.

The day before classes began, we still didn’t have a class schedule, but as I have discovered, that was zuger, it was fine and why was I even concern about it? It would work itself out (it did). The first day of school was an event; there was a big opening ceremony with singers and dancers and speeches. I did a lot of standing around, pretending I remembered people’s names.

Camera's out: everyone stop smiling.
Camera’s out: everyone stop smiling.

Since that first day, the class schedule is still in flux and so is my schedule. The only things that haven’t changed are that I am working a lot and that I am still trying to remember people’s names. Mongolian names are long and poetic and hard for me to pronounce, but I’ll get into that more later.

There has been a lot to take in over the past couple of weeks, and that probably isn’t going to slow down for a while. We finally got internet set-up in the apartment this week though, so keep things up-to-date should be a heck of a lot easier.

Look on, ye mighty.
Look on, ye mighty.