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.

A Disappointing Dinner

2 Comments

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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Author: everywherebuthome

Linguist. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Expat in Mongolia. Writer. Scout, dancer, gymnast, equestrienne.

2 thoughts on “A Disappointing Dinner

  1. Do you know any vegetarians? Surely they have to compromise — or lose lots of weight. Even ovo-lacto ones would have to be even MORE inventive — or give up veggiedom. I remember being told by a Muscovite friend (back in USSR days) that chicken was not meat. Oh, how quickly I learned all the Russian meat words — as a class, not even bothering with the specifics. And I eat fish, which you probably can’t get easily, either… Good luck next time with the faulty rice-cooker. For the record, I *hate* the smell of cooking lamb (not even sheep) more than any meat smell other than organs/innards, so I’m with you in spirit. Yikes.

  2. Yes, actually. One of the Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders here is vegetarian, though she has eaten meat during her stay. (Peace Corps Volunteers spend their first three months living with a Mongolian family, so I’ll bet she had to eat meat then. This is also her third year here, so I’m sure she’s been faced with ‘meat or don’t eat’ a few times since if she’s visiting people in the countryside.)

    As far as Mongolian vegetarians, there is a movement here. In fact, most Mongolian vegetarians are vegans (though the name for vegetarian food is misleading on that front – it’s цагаан хоол, or ‘white food’). There are thee vegetarian restaurants in Erdenet, and two of them are vegan. I’ll probably devote a whole post to the cult of veganism here, but here are a few highly reputable sources to give you a basic idea:
    A Christian Science Monitor article on the budding vegetarian movement
    Loving Hut, the largest chain of vegan restaurants
    The Supreme Master who started Loving Hut
    (I meant it when I called it a cult. The owner of Loving Meal is a disciple of the Supreme Master, and he and his wife and daughter all have jackets that say ‘Eat Veg, Go Green, Save the Planet.’)

    Re: chicken isn’t meat – chicken is considered meat here, but цагаан хоол often contains хиам (sausage).

    If you hate that smell, imagine being in a ger where they’re boiling sheep innards. When you can’t even escape by going outside because it’s -20 out there. Fahrenheit, not Celcius.

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