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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Guanzes: Fast Food Here and There

Fast food, as we think of it, doesn’t really exist in Mongolia. I’m not just talking about American fast food, though that doesn’t really exist either; there is exactly one American food restaurant–not chain, but actual location–in the entire country. (And it’s not even McDonald’s!) Mongolia does have a fast food chain of its own, but while Khaan Buuz has a presence in many aimag centers, it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of chains here in the US. You can’t pull off the highway to grab a quick bite from a familiar  name while driving from one city to the next, because 1) There are no highways; 2) There are only twenty-three cities in the country with a population greater than 10,000; and 3) Khaan Buuz doesn’t have non-city roadside locations. But even if the restaurant’s name isn’t instantly recognizable, its menu surely will be.

Mongolia might not have much in the way of “fast food,” but aside from celebratory dishes like khorkhog, it doesn’t really have “slow food” either. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of times my roommate arrived home, hungry and hoping for a quick bite, while I was in the middle of cooking my own dinner. When this happened, I usually moved my food off the stove for the twenty minutes it would take her to finish cooking and resumed once she was done. It didn’t seem right to make her wait the hour it might take my split-pea soup to move from “crunchy” to “soupy” when all she was going to do was shave some mutton off of the chunk in the freezer and throw it in boiling water with noodles and salt. She and other Mongolians were often amazed by my cooking, even though the food I cooked wasn’t usually difficult to prepare. But by dint of using spices other than salt (and occasionally dill) and a more complex cooking process than heat-and-eat, my meals stood apart.

I would describe most Mongolian food as “utilitarian,” and гурилтай шөл (guriltai shöl, or soup with noodles) certainly exemplifies that characteristic. It’s one of several core Mongolian foods made from little more than meat, flour, salt, and water. Oh, and fat. Mongolians eat a lot of fat. Other typical Mongolian foods include:

  • Бууз/buuz – steamed dumplings, typically filled with chopped mutton. My own version has chicken, vegetables, ginger, and sesame oil, which Mongolians find either delicious or heretical. Traditionally served at Tsagaan Sar. The variation known as мантуун бууз/mantuun buuz have a leavened dough.
  • Хуушуур/khuushuur – fried dough pockets, more like empanadas than any American equivalent. Same dough and filling as buuz, flatter and fried instead of steamed.  Traditionally served at Naadam.
  • Цуйван/tsuivan – steam-fried noodles with meat and potatoes. City tsuivan often contains carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes beets, but countryside fare is usually more minimalist. Tsuivan is by far my favorite Mongolian food, but I have yet to produce a satisfactory batch in my own kitchen.
  • Банш/bansh or банштай шөл/banshtai shölbansh are basically smaller buuz, only smaller and boiled rather than steamed. Banshtai shöl is soup with more meat, bansh, and a few vegetables. In addition to a more familiar soup, bansh are often served in сүүтэй цай/suutei tsai, or milk tea.
  • Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurga – rice with fried meat and vegetables. Said vegetables may be limited to potatoes and onions, or they may include cabbage, peppers, and carrots.

These, in addition to Russian contributions like гуляш and mayonnaise-y салат (gulyash and salat, respectively, though gulyash bears a much closer resemblance to goulash than salat to salad), are the foods you’re most likely to encounter when eating in Mongolia, whether at home or on the road. Budaatai khuurgatsuivan, and shöl come together in minutes; buuzkhuushuur, and bansh require a little more preparation. As a result, while all the foods listed above will probably be present on the menu of your standard roadside eating establishment, the non-dumpling options are more likely to be available.

These eating establishments, though not part of nation-wide franchises, are often similarly named. The signs above their doors might not bear names at all, but rather, labels: цайны газар, хоолны газар, зоогийн газар (tea place, food place, meal place). Despite independent ownership and operation, they are as generic as they are ubiquitous. If there is a substantial difference between a tea place and a meal place, I have yet to see it. Instead, I referred to any small eatery serving food fast and on the cheap by a more general term, borrowed from the Chinese: гуанз, or guanz.

If asked, the Mongolians I knew would translate guanz as “fast food,” but the term doesn’t carry the same distinction there as here. The phrase makes me think of burger joints and national franchises, of establishments I visit only when on the road and in a hurry. American fast food is industrialized, shipped cross-country and cooked using griddles, deep-fat fryers, and other equipment not usually found in home kitchens. It’s saturated in fat and, at least in affluent communities, often seen as an indulgence; most of us don’t eat burgers and fries every day. It’s “fast” because it’s typically frozen and requires no preparation beyond adding heat or hot water.

Mongolian guanz food, by contrast, is exactly what you’d find in a Mongolian home. The only thing that’s “fast” about it is that you didn’t have to cook it.

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And I thought Wisconsin was obsessed with dairy!

If I had only ten words with which to describe Mongolia and its people, the second word to make it onto that list (after hospitable) would be resourceful. Whether they are fixing things, staying warm, finding entertainment, or just feeding themselves off of the little their land gives them, Mongolians excel at making do with very little.

Take milk, for instance. Mongolians, historically, are herders, and their animals offer them sustenance in two forms: meat and milk. Traditionally, these two food groups were divided between the seasons; meat was eaten primarily in the winter, when it keeps better and when its nutritional value (and fat) is most needed. The summer diet centered around milk products – and not just the ones you’d expect, either.

Mongolians make hundreds of different kinds of dairy products. I’ve asked colleagues, friends and students for an approximate number but have yet to receive one; ubiquitously, they tilt their heads in consideration, then shrug their shoulders and offer one word in response: many. Here is a long, but far from exhaustive, list of what are collectively known as цагаан идээ, or white foods [1].

  • Сүү (suu) – Milk. It holds immense symbolic importance in addition to its many practical uses and is used in a number of ceremonies. That I don’t like milk seemed to strike most of the Mongolians I talked to as blasphemy, or at least baffling. It’s not just cow’s milk, either; Mongolians milk a wide variety of animals. People in the northern parts of the country milk yaks; in the south, camels. The Tsaatan, a minority group living in the taiga near Khuvsgul lake, milk their reindeer. Herders everywhere milk their horses, too, though horse milk is only used to make very specific products. I’ve never heard of Mongolians milking their sheep or goats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Gobi-dwelling people too poor to afford camels milked their goats.
  • Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai) – Literally tea with milk, it’s probably the most ubiquitous of the milk-based foods, even more so than milk itself. Most Mongolian households seem to have a thermos full of hot milk tea on hand at all times, and the host will pour you a bowl of it the moment you’ve stepped inside. It’s more milk than tea – just enough green tea to darken it a shade or two. Most Mongolians will also add salt – a lot in the colder aimags, and none at all in some others. They may also add butter or some other fatty milk product in the winter, since whole milk obviously isn’t fatty enough.
    • Variations: In my visit to Bayan-Ulgii, which is primarily populated by Kazakh people, I learned that I much prefer Kazakh milk tea to Mongolian. It’s unsalted and more tea-y.
  • Уураг (uurag) – Colostrum, or the first milk of the year, which I’m told is so heavy with protein that it’s more gel-like than liquid in consistency.
  • Тараг (tarag) – Yogurt, though of a thinner consistency than most of what we’re accustomed to in the States. Kefir might be a more fitting equivalent. It is typically unflavored and unsweetened, and it can be purchased from food stores or made at home. As with milk and airag, most city-dwelling Mongolians seem to prefer the homemade kind, which they purchase from countryside people selling it on the street.

    A typical Mongolian breakfast. Image courtesy of Dr. Jimmy Tan via mycitycuisine.org

  • Зөөхий (zuukhii) – Cream.
  • Өрөм (urum) – Clotted cream, essentially. When fresh milk is boiled for a while and then left to cool overnight, it separates. The fat rises to the top and hardens as it cools, creating a layer solid enough to be peeled off the surface of the remaining milk but soft enough to be spread with a spoon. It’s often spread on bread in lieu of butter and then sprinkled with sugar for a typical Mongolian breakfast.
  • Хусам (khusam) – The denser, more highly-cooked parts of the pot used to make өрөм, which settle to the bottom. Mongolians will eat this straight out of the pot. According to one of my former coworkers, it’s delicious but makes you gain weight like crazy.
  • Хайлмаг. Image source: “United Nations of Food”

    Хайлмаг (khailmag) – A dish made by frying urum with flour and sugar until the oil separates. It’s often served with raisins. Mongolians regard it as a real treat, and a lot of Americans like it as well, but I didn’t find the cheesy sweetness particularly palatable. Then again, I don’t like cheesecake either.

  • Ааруул (aaruul) – Dried milk curds, which many Mongolians treat both as candy and as their snack food of choice. After draining the whey, nomadic families squeeze out as much liquid as they can and work the remaining curd into a wide variety of shapes, which they set on pans atop their gers to dry in the sun. Some varieties are sweetened, others not. I have yet to find a kind of aaruul that I truly enjoy, but there are an awful lot to choose from: brittle, semi-soft spirals, sweetened disks pressed into the shape of a flower, long and short tubes, dark, jaw-cracking slabs called ээзгий (eezgii). Those too hard to gnaw on are often dipped in milk or soaked in hot water, which is then drunk.
  • Шар тос, цагаан тос (shar tos, tsagaan tos) – Yellow and white oil, respectively. Despite being called ‘oil,’ these fats solidify after they are rendered from other milk products. Tsagaan tos is white because milk curds have been added to the fat. These fats can be eaten, cooked with, or used in ceremonial candles.
  • Нэрмэл архи/монгол архи (nermel arkhi, or Mongol arkhi) – Often called Mongolian vodka in English. This liquor is made by distilling yogurt, something I hadn’t realized was possible. I’ve never seen it sold in stores – just in the repurposed plastic two-liter bottles used by herder families. It’s much gentler than vodka, only about 10-15% alcohol, but the soured milk flavor is intense.
  • Аарц (aarts) – The boiled yogurt used to make nermel arkhi, which is then itself eaten hot as a special treat. I’ve never tried it, since I find the mere odor nauseating, but Mongolians love it. We always had to be careful when purchasing white cake or ice cream to make sure they weren’t aarts-flavored!
  • Айраг (airag) – Fermented mare’s milk. This one’s worthy of its own blog post, so I’ll get cracking on that. No Mongolian celebration is complete without it, and it’s drunk in large quantities at Naadam and Tsagaan Sar, the two major holidays. When I first arrived in Mongolia, I found it distasteful, but not nearly so much as I’d expected; by the time I left, I was actually starting to like it. It’s sour, but not in a milk-gone-bad sort of way. Just… sour. With the color and texture of milk.
  • Хоормог (khoormog) – Similar to airag, but made from camel milk. The khoormog I tried in the Gobi was thicker than airag and cheesier in both taste and texture – like a very thin, sour ricotta. I was not a particular fan.

The glaring omission from this list is cheese. Mongolians do make a sort of cheese, which they call бяслаг (byaslag), but it has little in common with Western-style cheese. It’s curdled with milk acid rather than cultured, which means it’s basically just pressed milk curd. That’s what it tastes like, too – congealed milk. Mongolians don’t have a tradition of hard or aged cheeses the way Europe does. You can buy cheese in the larger grocery stores, but most of it’s imported from Russia, and it’s expensive: a kilo of gouda was between 15 and 20 thousand tugriks when I left – 2.5 to 3 times the price of beef!

My (utterly speculative and un-researched) theory on this absence is that cheese has two main advantages: it stores longer, and it has less lactose, which makes it easier to digest for those who lack the gene for lactase persistence, or the ability to digest milk beyond childhood. (Contrary to common Western perception, lactase persistence, globally speaking, is the rule rather than the exception.) But since milk is historically such a staple in Mongolia, lactase persistence is necessary here, which renders one of those advantages obsolete. And with so many other ways to store milk, not to mention an entire country that turns itself into a freezer for five months of the year, the Mongols never needed to invent cheese.

Which is a shame, because cheese is delicious. And as much as I admired the Mongolians for their many inventive and resourceful uses of milk, I never learned to like most of the things they made with it.

Notes:

  1. While цагаан идээ are usually referred to as “white foods” in English, that phrase comes out as цагаан хоол when translated back into Mongolian – and it means “vegetarian food,” not “dairy products.” Цагаан идээ = dairy, цагаан хоол = meatless.
  2. Most of this is information is common knowledge in Mongolia and was explained to me by various Mongolians. Obviously not a very scientific method of research, with much room for error and competing methods/definitions. When memory failed, or when I’d never learned the specifics, I supplemented my hearsay research with Mongolia Today: Science, Environment, and Development
  3. As always, the Latin-alphabet names are a transliteration, not a pronunciation guide. Хайлмаг/khailmag, for instance, is pronounced more like “chalmag,” with a very clipped /g/ and the Hebrew /ch/ sound in chutzpah or challah. And a totally alien /l/. But Mongolian phonics are another subject altogether.


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What Do You Eat in Mongolia?: Beet and Cabbage Salad Edition

I’m not usually one to run to social media every time I sit down to eat. I mean, we all have those friends who bombard us with pictures of their every meal via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. ad nauseam, and really, who needs them? But there are some things that merit sharing, especially when they’re replicable.

I’m leaving my apartment in less than a week, which means I’m in the midst of trying to use whatever I have left in the apartment without buying anything new – a familiar scramble for many of us, I’m sure, but a tricky  one nonetheless. It’s a state of near-constant peckishness and deliberation about its extent, which of the dwindling supplies might satisfactorily alleviate it, and whether it merits the purchase of new foodstuffs. It doesn’t help that I tend not keep snack food around; neither barley nor dry beans are particularly quick to prepare.

But I managed to throw something together last week that fell into both of the previously described categories, and since that is a rare experience indeed, I figured I ought to share the recipe that left my mouth watering for more. It was sweet and tangy and earthy and crunchy and came out so much better than I had any right to expect given the haphazard preparation.

Must-Go Beet and Cabbage Salad

  • Dig half a baked beet out of your rapidly-emptying refrigerator. Halve it, then slice into strips thin enough to cook rapidly. Throw them into a hot skillet with enough oil to compensate for the degrading non-stick surface. The heat should be high enough to caramelize the surface of the beets nicely without burning them.
  • While the beets are browning, thinly slice a withered quarter of an onion. Reduce the heat slightly and add the onions. Throw in a spoonful of sugar as well, because who doesn’t like caramelization?
  • Mince a clove of garlic and add it, along with a little salt. Stir.
  • Shred or julienne a handful of cabbage and add it; despite my phytochemicals-are-tasty preference for red cabbage, I used green for color contrast. Stir a few times, then turn off the heat and throw on the lid – when mostly raw, they add some nice crunch.
  • Splash in some red wine vinegar if you live somewhere where it’s available; if you live in Mongolia, add just a tiny bit of the obscenely strong white vinegar they have here and be very careful not to splash it, because that stuff will give you honest-to-god chemical burns. Trust me on that one.
  • Enjoy with Mexican rice empanadas/khuushuur, or whatever else you happen to have. No, I have absolutely no problem throwing world cuisines together – why do you ask?
You know it's good when you gobble most of it down before realizing you probably want photographic evidence.

You know it’s good when you gobble most of it down before realizing you probably want photographic evidence.

If, like me, you love beets, cabbage, and vinegar, and this sounds absolutely splendid, I offer you one caution: don’t try to make this in large quantities. The balance of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy that so enchanted me when I prepared this small serving depends on caramelizing the sugars in the beets, as well as the spoonful later added, and that won’t happen if there’s more than a thin layer of beets in the bottom of the pan.

What are your favorite everything-must-go recipes? I’ve got plenty of potatoes and carrots left, as well as barley, black beans, red kidney beans, and eggs. Creative preparation suggestions are appreciated!


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Horses are Delicious

Those who know me at all know I’ve always been a horse girl. As a child, I collected figurines and books, and not just The Saddle Club and Black Beauty, either; my bookshelves were cluttered with anthologies and lots of non-fiction. I attended a sleep-away horse camp from age 11 to 14 and took several years of horseback riding lessons in middle and high school, as well as two semesters in college. And then, of course, I spent three summers leading trail rides and teaching horsemanship and animal science merit badges at MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation.

My love of horses, in fact, was a large part of my decision to come to Mongolia. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the country when I applied to be a Fulbrighter here. It was cold, I knew that much. It was the home of Genghis Khan. And it was a country in which horses held great cultural significance. And that was enough for me.

So it comes as a surprise to most people when I tell them that I eat aduuny max/адууны мах – horse meat. “I thought you loved horses!” they say, or “how can you eat them when you’ve worked with them?”

Here’s the thing: Americans tend to think of horses the way we think of pets. We name our horses, build relationships with them. I wouldn’t be able to kill and eat one of the camp horses unless a) I had no other sources of food, or b) doing so was a mercy to that animal. I wouldn’t want to kill them because I love them, but if they had to die, I don’t see how eating them would dishonor their memories or make my love of them any less.

But Mongolian horses are a different story. To call them “a breed apart” from the domesticated horses we know is an understatement. They’re a different subspecies: Equus ferus przewalskii instead of Equus ferus caballus, commonly known as Przewalski’s horses. They’re shorter and stockier than most domesticated breeds, and exceptionally stubborn. Even the prized Naadam racers are still half-wild; they may be broken to bridle and saddle, but you’re not going to see them performing dressage.

More importantly, the Mongolians view them the same way they do yaks, sheep, and cows: as livestock. They are arguably the most highly-valued variety of livestock, and one of only two that are commonly ridden (camels being the other), but they are livestock nonetheless. They are not typically named, but referred to by color or other attribute: “the grey one,” “the brown one.” They are ridden, and they are milked (more on that later) – and they are eaten.

In America, cheap cuts of meat are full of fat and connective tissue, while leaner cuts are more expensive; in Mongolia, it’s the opposite. Americans might like fat that’s well-marbled into the meat, but we don’t typically eat chunks of straight-up fat; Mongolians do. “жаахон өөх!” we Americans plead at the meat market – only a little fat! – to bewildered and often uncooperative butchers. Every Mongolian knows that the fat is the best part, and good for you besides; why wouldn’t we want it?

Stockily built they may be, but Mongolian horses are skinny, and that skinniness shows up on the butcher’s block. Aside from a thin layer of disconcertingly orange subcutaneous fat, horse meat is the leanest that is widely available. We Westerners flock to it for that reason. We also love it for its price: 5000 tugruks per kilo during the winter, versus 7500 for beef. Most of the Americans in Erdenet are Peace Corps Volunteers barely getting by on only a few hundred dollars per month; those 2500 tugs make a difference.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, horse is only eaten in the winter. Some Mongolians have told me that they only eat horse in early winter; by spring, the horses are too skinny. Others have said that horse meat is considered particularly nutritious and thus is saved for consumption in the winter, when it’s most needed. Whatever the reason, it is definitely the meat most subject to seasonal availability. There’s none to be had at the market now, and I miss it.

So yes, I eat horse. It’s cheap and lean, and tasty besides. I’ve never been squeamish about eating other farm animals; why should I start with horses?


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Dinner in the Second World: Cowboy Potatoes

Life in the second world presents as a series of paradoxes. In some ways, I live the same life I might in America, with only a façade of Mongolian-ness thrown in for effect; in others, the roles reverse, and my assumptions about an apparently familiar subject are thrown into constant revision. In this series, I will attempt to bring this funhouse to life.

“What do you eat in Mongolia?” people ask, and it’s not always an easy question to answer. What I eat in the burgeoning metropolis of Erdenet differs greatly from what Mongolian people in Erdenet eat, which is different again from what people out in the hudoo (an Anglicization of хөдөө, or ‘countryside’) eat. But let’s explore this question via what I had for dinner tonight, and how I made it, because it does a pretty thorough job of reflecting multiple facets of a complex question. Also, it was delicious.

Cowboy Potatoes (a recipe shamelessly yoinked from fellow Fulbrighter Teresa and then modified to reflect my own notions of deliciousness)

  • Set some water to boil in your demonic тогоо (electric wok). Make sure to turn it on a lower setting so that it does not melt its own cord, and also that you put it in a room on a different circuit than the kitchen so that you do not blow a fuse by attempting to boil water in two different rooms at the same time again. Check periodically that it has not set itself on fire.
  • Throw out the carrots that have gotten moldy, and ascertain which of the potatoes are salvageable if you cut off the many, many sprouts. Attempt to peel them.
  • Sigh in frustration at the fact that your roommate has clearly been using the knives to open cans again, even though you bought a can opener. Grab a ceramic bowl, turn it over, and sharpen the knives on the unglazed bottom edge. Before using them, be sure to rinse off any metal or ceramic shavings they may have accrued in the sharpening process. Also run your thumb along the edge to remind yourself of their newly-sharpened status, as one trip to the emergency room is plenty.
  • Peel the potatoes and carrots using the smaller of the knives. In America, I’d just cook the potatoes with the skins on, but these were probably grown in China, and who knows what chemicals they spray their crops with. (Aside from distrust of all things made in China Mongolia has instilled in me, potatoes really are one of those foods you want to buy organic when possible.) Wash the dirt from the peeled root vegetables. Mongolians do it in that order (peel first, wash second) while Americans would do the reverse; I suspect the Mongolian method is chosen because it uses and dirties a lot less water.
  • Cut the carrots and potatoes into chunks and throw them in the water. Hope the тогоо doesn’t melt anything while you go back to the kitchen.
  • Fry up some bacon on on your little hot plate. Keep the drippings.
  • While the bacon cooks, cut onions, garlic, and cabbage. Most Mongolians prefer green cabbage, but I buy red when possible, because it’s pretty and because phytochemicals are tasty. They’re even tastier fried in bacon grease, though obviously not quite as healthy. Start the cabbage first, with a little water so that it steams for a bit while you do the aromatics. Add a little butter before mixing in the onions and garlic if the cabbage appears to have absorbed all the fat.
  • If the potatoes and carrots are cooked through, strain them using your dish drainer (since you don’t have a colander). Toss them back into the тогоо, as it’s the largest bowl you’ve got. Mash them, and thank the Korean home supply stores for the fact that you are able to do so using a potato ricer rather than a fork.
  • Add milk and butter and mix. Don’t use much butter; there’s already plenty of fat in the cabbage mixture, and whole milk’s got plenty of its own.
  • Cut up some cheese and add it while the mixture is still hot enough to melt it. Don’t use a lot, because it’s prohibitively expensive. Be sure to thank the Russians for the fact that it’s available at all.
  • Chop the bacon and sprinkle it in, along with the cabbage, onions, and garlic. . Dig out the aforementioned can opener and dump in a can of corn (drained) for good measure.
  • Season liberally with salt and pepper and mix.
  • Dish out; put individual servings of leftovers in ceramic bowls, since they can be reheated in the toaster oven or in boiling water without shattering.
  • Enjoy!
Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty

Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty


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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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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.