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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.