Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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A Disappointing Dinner

So it’s nine o’clock and I’m exhausted, probably because I teach a class at 8 am on Thursdays now. I don’t know why that’s such a big deal; for the entirety of my high school career, I was usually at school by 7 am. But with the exception of one twice-weekly 8:30 am class my first semester of college, I haven’t had an eight o’clock class since, well, high school. For matter, I think I had maybe four classes in my entire college career that started before ten o’clock. At least my introduction to a Real Adult Job with Real Adult Hours is a slow one, as I only teach classes three days a week.

But that was not the point of this post. I did not log on to complain about having to walk to work in the dark in the snow, but rather about my failed attempts to make dinner last night.

Most of my friends would agree that I’m a pretty decent cook. I can follow a recipe, I know the approximate extent to which I can modify said recipe without risking disaster, and I’m good coming up with ingredients that will taste good together based on what’s available (an invaluable skill here, where ingredients common in the US—limes, say, or rosemary, or spinach—are not to be found). Nor am I one to confuse sugar with salt, or forget I have something on the stove, or drastically undercook things. In short: I am not particularly used to kitchen disasters.

Yesterday’s dinner, however, was definitely one of the more dismal I have prepared. I don’t know how it’s possible to screw up cooking rice in a rice cooker, but mine went straight from crunchy (when it first said it was done) to mushy (when I attempted to cook it longer) without ever reaching ‘fluffy and delicious.’ I suspect it had something to do with the power cord, which the тогоо recently fried—which is to say that it overheated to the point where part of the coating melted off to expose the wires, though said wires still conduct electricity. Тогооs are standard cooking equipment in gers, but these electric woks are ill-suited to apartment life. Beyond their complete inability to brown food without burning it black, I have every confidence in their ability to blow fuses and start fires.

Needless to say, they’re made in China; Mongolians are deeply suspicious of most Chinese-made goods, and rightly so. All Chinese exports of decent quality go to America, and Europe, while the stuff they send here is virtually guaranteed to fall apart or self-destruct in an unreasonably short period of time.

But mushy rice does not a ruined dinner make, though it does mean that your broccoli goes similarly mushy when you try to keep it warm while waiting for the rice to finish cooking. No, what ruins your dinner is when you fail to distinguish between two frozen, unlabeled chunks of meat and grab your roommate’s хонины мах instead of your адууны мах.

I don’t know if every Westerner who moves to Mongolia promptly acquires an abiding hatred of mutton, but I think I can safely say that most of them do. I had nothing against the stuff when I arrived here; for the first week or two, I had no problem with mutton huushuur and buuz (or at least, I had problems with the amount of fat they contained, rather than with the kind of meat).

But mutton has a distinctive taste, one that everyone I know quickly grew sick of. Unfortunately, you can’t really escape it; it’s by far the cheapest meat available, and it’s pretty much all Mongolians eat. Some restaurants offer beef, chicken, or pork, in that order of frequency, especially if they offer Western food. But if the kind of meat in a dish is not specified, it’s safe to bet it’s mutton.

That might not be so bad if were seasoned, but Mongolians season most of their foods with two things: fat and salt, and lots of them. Sometimes they add onions, and very occasionally, garlic. But the traditional Mongolian diet consists of mutton, sheep fat, flour, salt, milk products—and not much else. Vegetables are a recent addition; nomadic families don’t plant gardens, and Mongolian greenery is mostly grass.

All of which is a long way of saying that Mongolia has pretty much killed sheep meat for me. We’ll see if I can stomach lamb when I get back to the states, but with the exception of tsuivan, I would usually rather not eat than eat mutton. The taste is strong and unpleasant, and the smell it gives of when you cook it is even more so.  So realizing, when the meat hit the pan, that it was not what I thought it was, made my dining experience a distinctly dismal one.

Dismal, you’ll notice, not disastrous. Mutton with mushy broccoli and mushier rice is certainly edible, and as expensive as broccoli is here, it’s not something you can justifiably throw aside in despair as you make a beeline for the nearest restaurant. It’s just not enjoyable.

And I didn’t even have any wine to wash away the taste of disappointment.

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I Couldn’t Possibly Eat Another Buuz: Tsagaan Sar

So you know those thousands of buuz I said all the families in Mongolia were busy making last week? Well, they make that many for a reason. I didn’t bother to keep track of how many buuz I ate during the three days of festivities, but Peace Corps Volunteers say it’s not uncommon to put away 30-50, and this year’s record-setter downed over a hundred within 24 hours. My number was nowhere near so impressive, but we did visit eight or nine households during my two days in the countryside with my director and her family, and you have to eat at least a few at each visit or your hostess will be offended.

Buuz, I must concede, are perfectly suited to the way this holiday is celebrated. When new guests arrive, you offer them candy (or aaruul, which Mongolians eat like candy) and milk tea, and you throw another found of buuz in the steamer. Twenty minutes later, you serve them to your guests, who, despite having eaten the same thing for the past two or three days straight, greet it with seemingly undiminished enthusiasm. To quote Peace Corps Volunteer Andrew, who has already been quoted by my friend Adam in his own post on the subject, “Tsagaan Sar is like Halloween and Thanksgiving – except when you go trick-or-treating, instead of candy, you get Thanksgiving dinner at each house.”

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A bucket of frozen buuz just waiting to be steamed.

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Into the steamer they go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least there is plenty of variation between each household’s buuz. Some include more fat than others; some add garlic or dill; most use mutton, but others make them with beef or horse meat. And almost everyone will have soy sauce and ketchup with which to douse them.

But you don’t just sit and drink tea while ou wait for the buuz to cook; quite the contrary. There are complicated greeting rituals to perform, with exacting traditional specifications. You greet the occupants in order of status, which is a combination of age and gender: Grandma comes before Mom and Dad but after Grandpa. Who starts the greetings is also important; head of the visiting household goes first, then wife, and then children in descending order of age. I usually followed the children, since I’m not actually part of the family. It’s a lot of information to absorb at first, but even I got the joke when the director’s husband, who had been outside attending to the car, ended up being last to greet our host.

To greet someone older, you place your hands under they elbows; they may put both hands on either side of your face or just rest their arms on yours. Often, they will kiss you on both cheeks. “Amar baina yy?” they say, or “Saihan shin jilsen yy?” and you return the greeting, asking how they are doing and if their new year has been good.

Alas, I have no good photos of this; Adam's are better. But you do get to see an adorable child in her deel!

Alas, I have no good photos of this; Adam’s are better. But you do get to see an adorable child in her deel!

There’s no kissing when you greet someone of equal age; you both place your right arm above the other’s left and say the words, and that’s it. Respected or closely related family members are often presented with money (not much; usually it was a crisp 1000 Tg bill, worth about $.70). And sometimes you use the ubiquitous blue scarf whose meaning I don’t quite understand, in which case you turn it around before returning to the other person. And you’re supposed to wear your hat, if you have one with you.

And, of course, there’s drinking. As at all special occasions, one of the hosts is in charge of distributing drinks, and everyone usually drinks rom one communal cup, shotglass, or bowl, depending on the drink in question. There is a polite way to refuse to drink that involves flicking the vodka in the air, but this trick, alas, is not one that was included in our orientation. It’s hard to pass up drinks without it; Mongolians aren’t particularly inclined to take ‘no’ for an answer, and often they will not let you return the glass until they judge that you have drunk enough. This means you end up drinking a lot of vodka, and if you like it enough to do more than sip at it, airag. I unfortunately don’t care for Mongolia’s traditional alcohol of fermented mare’s milk, though I admit I would like to see the process by which it’s made.

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Airag in all its sour, greasy glory.

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bau, aaruul, urum, shar ukh, sugar cubes, and candy. Appetizing, right?

Bau, aaruul, urum, shar ukh, sugar cubes, and candy. Appetizing, right?

 

The tables are piled high with a number of things – some of them familiar to the American eye, others completely foreign. The bowl of candy is a familiar addition to an American table, though not a requirement as it is here; the bowl of airag, its surface and rim dotted with yellowish fat, rather less so. Fruit trays (usually whole apples, oranges, grapes, and occasionally bananas, rather than the cut-up assortments seen on most American tables) are fairly ubiquitous, as are plates of potato salad, but so too are what I think are called eadees. These stacks of bau, or fried bread, vary in height between houses; my director’s had three tiers, while her parents’ had five. But they are always covered with aaruul, urum, sugar cubes, and sometimes shar ukh, or yellow fat. And then there’s the meat: sheep butt with the fat and tail still attached, from which the head of the family cuts slices and distributes them to his family members. My director’s family doesn’t really eat mutton, so they had beef ribs instead, but what I saw on every other table was most definitely sheep.

Lots of different salads on this table, thankfully; I like the beet and cabbage salads, which use vinegar, and carrot salad is usually palatable because it's light on mayo, but I just can't touch the potato salad.

Yep, that’s sheep butt alright.

So that’s what I did for two full days: travel from house to house, eating copious quantities of buuz and reluctantly sipping shots of vodka in between nervously greeting whatever elders happened to be present. It was cool, and I’m very grateful to my director for inviting me, but I was just as grateful when it was over. At that point, I just wanted to sit in my own room and eat something that wasn’t a dumpling.


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Dear Santa, Please Bring Me a Chair

There is more to come on Tsagaan Sar, I promise. It’s been painstakingly written out in my journal by hand; I just have yet to transcribe it here. Tonight, I am here to complain about my apartment.

In the almost-seven months I have been here, my school/director have presented me with a number of items that have vastly improved my quality of life. Two weeks ago, it was a much-appreciated vacuum cleaner; before that, it was a toaster oven, a mattress, and a hot plate. Small as those might sound, all have vastly improved my quality of life.

If living in Mongolia teaches you one thing, it’s to appreciate the little things. Thanks to the aforementioned items, I can bake bread and clean my floor in a reasonable amount of time; I can actually cook my food now without burning it to a crisp, and I can sleep on my side without acquiring bruises on my hips and the insides of my knees. For this, I am grateful, and I am reluctant to ask my director for anything that isn’t strictly necessary.

But dear God, I would kill to have just one comfortable piece of furniture in my apartment.

I mean it. I have a mattress, but it’s only slightly more comfortable than the lightly-padded-board that preceded it. There is exactly one real chair on my apartment, and that’s my desk chair; anyone not in that chair has to sit on the bed, the one little stool we have, on the step in the kitchen, or on the floor.  And while having ONE comfortable chair is pretty high on Maslow’s hierarchy, it still makes a difference. It would be one thing if  had a library or cafe where I could go and sit comfortably. But I don’t. And you can only sit on the floor for so long before your hips and/or sitbones start to hurt something awful.


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Bituun Buuz

Dear Readers (if you’re still out there),

I have long been in remiss of my blogging duties, and for that I apologize. My home internet accessibility was essentially nonexistent for most of December and January – by which I mean browser could sometimes load Facebook but always timed out before loading more complicated sites like WordPress (or Gmail, for that matter). Highly inconvenient, and not particularly conducive to blogging. I went home to Chicago or a week and a half, but I didn’t exactly want to spend my time in the states journaling either. And since returning, I’ve just been a lazy bum. Sorry ’bout that.

However, I’ve certainly done some things worth writing about in the past two months, and I’ll do my best to catch up on chronicling those in the next few weeks. But not in chronological order.

I had thought I’d be able to post this on Monday night, but I was kidnapped by Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar, or “White Month”) preparations. My director invited me to come with her family for the first day, saying we’d start at her in-laws’ and then drie to her parents’ house. But, as per usual in this country, we got a later start than we’d planned, and the first stop on our journey took a long time. At 3 o’clock, we showed no signs of heading out – and since Tsooj’s parents live pretty far away, and you’re not supposed to perform the traditional Tsagaan Sar greetings after sunset, that meant we’d be staying the night. Had I know that beforehand, there are are a few things I would have brought – a hairbrush, for instance. Oh well. You live and learn, right?

This was after I’d already spent the previous night at my director’s apartment. In looking for a place to wash my sheets, I sort of unintentionally invited myself over for Bituun. It’s the night before Tsagaan Sar begins, and it seemed to be treated with the same excitement and importance as, say, Christmas Eve. It marks the end of at least a week of frenzied preparation and the beginning of the celebration.

Namuunaa’s sort of alternated between sleeping at her parents’ and bringing a sibling or two home for a sleepover for the past week. Getting ready for Tsagaan Sar is the mother of all spring cleanings, when you scrub the carpets, wash all (all!) the clothes, and move the furniture in order to sweep under couches and the refrigerator.

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My roommate (and every other Mongolian) for the past week.

Unfortunately, our apartment never looks clean, even when you’ve just cleaned it. The floors are stained, the wallpaper peeling, the linoleum (or whatever our plastic-y sheets of flooring are) so poorly seamed you can never get all the dust out of the cracks, especially not where it meets the walls. But at least my director recently presented us with a most welcome addition to our collection of a appliances: a vacuum cleaner.

Let me tell you, a vacuum cleaner is something you’ll never truly appreciate until you’ve been without one for a few months. Cleaning a constantly-shedding carpet with a broom is an endeavor, to put it lightly. The direction of the carpet bristles is not particularly conducive to effective sweeping (they run from the dirty side to the clean side), and the particulates you’re trying to remove fly in every direction but the one you’re sweeping in. You have to hit the same spot repeatedly, and hard, in order to make any progress at all. You know you’ve left the first world when cleaning the floor is a legitimate form of cardio.

The vacuum cleaner made that aspect of Tsagaan Sar preparation much easier. But I had yet to experience the other part of the holiday prep work: mass cooking.

Mongolia has three traditional foods (at least, three that are substantial enough to make a meal of): huushuur (“ho-sure”), buuz (“boats”), and tsuivan. Tsagaan Sar is a buuz holiday in the way that Christmas is a cookie holiday, only more so. People cook thousands of the little meat-filled steamed dumplings, and that’s not an exaggeration; Namuunaa’s family makes 1300.

Fortunately, they’re pretty quick and easy when you know what you’re doing. I got to (read: was invited in a non-declinable way to) help prepare the Bituun buuz at my director’s apartment. You begin by mixing flour and salt and adding enough water to make a dough, which you knead until smooth. Then you cover it and let it rest for a while – to let the gluten relax, I suppose, since there’s no yeast to make it rise. While it’s resting you mince meat and onion, and maybe a little garlic or cabbage. I talked my director into the garlic, but usually, it’s just meat and onions.

The dough get shaped into snakes and cut into pieces, which you roll by hand into flattened balls. The process of turning each disk into a thin, fillable round involves rolling with one hand (the one holding the rolling pin, obviously) and turning with the other. To fill and seal them, you place one round in your non-dominant hand and add a spoonful of meat, which you hold in place with your thumb. Then you pinch with your other hand, rotating your dumpling to form a little spiral of pleats. Then you dip them in oil, and into the steamer they go!

That evening’s buuz were a group effort: Tsooj made the the dough, her husband chopped the meat and rolled the rounds, her brother and I filled and pinched, and her oldest son did the dipping and placing. With the help of the whole family, even the full thousand a household usually prepares only takes about five hours. As they finish each batch, they set it outside to freeze and then throw the individually frozen buuz in a bag. Apartment-dwellers put the bags on their balconies if they have them, or just hang them out the window if they don’t.

Tsagaan Sar is a visiting holiday, and the first evening was no exception. After dinner, the director and I headed to the next building over to visit Orkhon-Chimeg, the school’s second director, and her husband. There we were given more of what we’d just eaten: slices of meat, freshly-steamed buuz, fruit, candy, vodka, airag, Mongolian vodka (made from distilled aarts, or boiled yogurt), and an assortment of dairy products. This is the kind of holiday where you eat until you’re full, then go to someone else’s house and repeat the process until you’re ready to explode.

But I’ll detail the actual celebrations in a later post; right now, I have buuz to sleep off.