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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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.


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Cooking Chronicles, part the first

my adventures in cooking with limited equipment (a rice cooker and an electric wok and a tea kettle, to be precise) have been met with… limited success.

Attempt #1: Scrambled eggs and hash browns in the wok. Success: not really. The wok skips straight from browning to burning, even on its lowest setting. The second time I made these, I alternated between turning the wok on “low” (500 W) and turning it off. This worked somewhat better, but I still had black spots.

Attempt #2: Stew. Success: again, not really. The onions and the roux still burned, and even though I used quite a bit of flour, the stew refused to thicken very much.

Attempt #3: Бутаатай хураг – stir fry. Success: yes. Making something with a little water in the bottom of the wok makes a big difference in my ability not to burn things. Pity that makes browning more or less impossible. Also, duly noted: cabbage takes longer than I thought it would to cook.

Attempt #4: Potatoes Colcannon. Success: yes. The recipe instructed me to boil potatoes, cabbage, and onions separately (the onions in milk), but I skipped the onions and just threw the potatoes and cabbage together. Worked just fine.Next time I’ll use more cabbage and garlic and add onions. And I’ll do a better job of draining the cabbage. 

Attempt #5: Rice cooker bread. Success: not exactly. The bread didn’t rise very much when I put the cooker in the sun, so I put it on warm. This started cooking the bread, which was not what I was looking for, so I turned it off and let it sit some more. When I did put it on cook, it burned the bottom of the bread within five minutes. The dough was thick, chewy, and delicious, but the cooking method still leaves something to be desired.


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Rambling Reflections from Galway

European cities are oddly deserted in the early evening. Everything closes except the restaurants and the pubs, to which the people on the street are indubitably headed. I walked down the street this evening knowing that I was going to get to the restaurant early and looking to kill time on the way – only to have my designs thwarted as shopkeeper after shopkeeper closed the door in my face. 

The darkened shops and brighter streets created a strange illusion in the windows. I spend some time looking into the windows of shops I would like to visit another time: a bookstore, a soap and candle shop, etc. It was difficult to see all the way to the back of the stores, however, because the windows superimposed a reflection of the street onto what I could see of the interior. This meant that again and again, I watched people behind me emerge from the back wall of the store into which I was gazing, as though they were stepping out of some secret world. Apparently the people of Galway all know the secret way to Narnia. I wish some of the students would take their partying there, because Gort na Coiribe is awfully loud at night!

Loud drunks aside, I’m having a good time in Ireland so far. Catharine, Celina, Katie, and I spend most of our free time hanging out together, and dinner’s have been a group effort almost every night we’ve been here. I wonder how long that will last before the novelty wears off – or how long it will be until we’re whipped into faster, more efficient cooks by growing time constraints!

It’s raining now, as I have a feeling it will be almost every day we’re here. Seven of the next ten days predict light rain, showers, scattered showers, or some other name for water falling from the sky. We heard someone in Dublin joke that Galway will be under water for the next few months, which looks to be a fairly accurate description. We did have a few days of lovely weather over the weekend, however, which we used to start exploring the town and picnic down by the coast.

I haven’t really met any Irish students yet, but I’m looking forward to doing so once my classes actually start up. Assuming I get a chance to talk to people in any of my classes, that is – most of them are enormous lectures. Smaller seminars are few, far between, and hard to get into here, but I’m doing my best. And within the next week or two, I may even know what classes I’m in.