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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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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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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So, what do you do all day?

I get this question a lot here. Not from the locals, naturally, but from friends and family back home – especially friends in the throes of grad school, for whom “free time” a sort of long-lost fantasy, one coveted almost as highly as sleep. (Almost.)

And they certainly have a point. My workload, compared to theirs, is comically pitiful. I teach five 80-minute classes a week – meaning I teach the same material to five different groups of students. Real teachers, I know, are forever working on lesson plans, but you don’t have to do a whole lot of that when you teach the same lesson all week. I meet with my co-teacher on Monday or Tuesday to plan the lesson, tweak it slightly over the course of the week according to its success or failure, and simplify it for my Friday morning hellions. And that’s about it for time with my actual students.

Of course, that’s not all the teaching I do. I also do one lesson a week for the teachers at my school (at least, the 5-10 who deign to attend), and I work with the director for two hours a week; we spend one on her English, and one on my Mongolian. I teach the Children’s Palace director for three hours a week in exchange for two hours of morin huur lessons. And I attend the Peace Corps community events – conversation night on Tuesdays, movie night on Thursdays.

Even so, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot of time – about 18 hours of scheduled time commitments. I had more than that in college, when you factored in my extracurriculars and the two executive boards in which I took part.

My schedule for the week.

My schedule for the week.

So, what do I do with all that free time?

Well, I blog (obviously). I’ve tried hard to get posts up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past few months, though I’ve certainly missed a few Fridays. This takes a surprisingly long time, though it becomes much less surprising when you consider my tendency to handwrite entries in my journal before transcribing and editing them for online posting. Also, uploading photos takes forever when your internet is so painfully slow.

I hang out with the Peace Corps volunteers and the other Fulbrighter in Erdenet. We hang out at each other’s apartments; we go out to eat; we go to bars or karaoke bars. In a given weekend, I usually spend two of the three evenings in their company. One of the PCVs is getting married this weekend, and five of us are performing a Mongolian dance at his wedding, so we’ve been meeting three or four days a week to practice said dance.

I study Mongolian. On paper, mostly, as my listening skills are still pitiful and many of the sounds continue to escape my command. My book doesn’t have exercises, so I spend a lot of time recopying and sounding out sentences like these:

We came from the city by bus last Sunday. Бид өнгөрсөн Нямд хотод автобусаар ирсэн.

I will go to America during summer vacation. Би зуны амралтаар Америк руу явна.

Which of these children broke this window? Эдгээр хүүхдүүдийн хэн нь энэ цонхыг хагалсан бэ?

(Having recently learned the dative-locative, accusative, genitive, instrumental, ablative, and comitative cases, I spend a lot of my practice time trying to jam as many of them as possible into one sentence, despite my complete inability to construct something so complicated in conversation.)

I wander the city in search of internet connections strong enough to support a Skype conversation. I have weekly Skype dates with my parents and my ‘sister,’ though my brother’s pretty much off the radar.

I spend ridiculous amounts of time on the internet, when I can get access to it. I follow four web comics and several blogs – a few written by friends, most written by people I’ve never met. A few in particular tend to broach complex issues and copious links to other discussions about those issue, which I follow, read, contemplate, and then usually discuss with Sarah during our weekly Skype date. I continue my slow but steady progress through the vlogbrothers YouTube Channel (they’ve been posting regularly since 2007; I’m midway through 2008). This one’s particularly time-consuming, since the speed of my home internet means a four-minute video can take upwards of twenty minutes to buffer fully, at least in the evening.

But most of that extra time is spent just… living. Keeping up with daily life takes twice as long when you have half as many convenient time-saving devices.

Take cooking, for instance. My appliance options are as follows: a hot plate, a toaster oven, a тогоо, a rice cooker, and a tea kettle. Only one of these appliances may be operated in the kitchen at one time, lest we blow a fuse. I can fry an egg, boil water, and make rice all at the same time – but only if I move the tea kettle and rice cooker to different rooms. When you have only one burner to work with, you eat a lot of one-pot meals (which in my case translates to a lot of soup). A meal like, say, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a vegetable is out of the question; it would take hours, and I’d never manage to get it all hot at the same time. Even soups can be tricky, requiring careful attention to the order in which ingredients are added and cooked,  since I can’t have two pots going simultaneously.

And I’ve always been a “from scratch” kind of girl, but there’s “from scratch” and then there’s from scratch. I have no problem throwing together pancakes or a cake without a mix, but how much time does it take to whip up a bowl of batter? A craving for Mexican food, by contrast, requires a saga of cooking to satisfy. I have access to meat, rice, beans, vegetables, and even hot pepper and cumin (thank you, Mom – apparently I cannot live without cumin). But none of it’s prepared. If I want tortillas, I have to make them myself. The same is true for refried beans, and usually for salsa as well. The quest for fajitas becomes an odyssey in which I prepare individual elements over the course of several days so that I can finally, gloriously, assemble them into that sought-after ideal of deliciousness.

Even tracking down the ingredients can be a time-consuming process. One-stop grocery shopping does not exist here; even the chain grocery stores in this town are limited in size, and a great deal of their space is devoted to candy and alcohol. Delguurs are ubiquitous, and most of them sell almost the same things – but not quite. This one carries alcohol; that one doesn’t have noodles. You learn where to go for what items.

Accordingly, I go to one delguur for vegetables and another for fruit (the Americans refer to their respective owners as “the veggie man” and “the fruit lady”). The fruit lady also sells chicken and brown eggs; in fact, I go to her more often for these two items than for overpriced, often overripe, fruit. I cruise the Russian-oriented mini mart near them for honey, jam, spices, and brown eggs (when the fruit lady doesn’t have them, which recently has been often). For cheese and pork, I go to Food Shop (which also caters largely to Russians); for bacon, smoked fish, Russian beer, tea, and other spices, I go to another Russian delguur. Coffee, peanut butter, and beans I get from Good Price, a store on the other side of town that specializes in American goods (its name, alas, is a misnomer). I get red meat from the market on the south side of town. Bread, flour, milk, sugar and other things I didn’t realize I was out of I usually grab from the delguur closest to my apartment – when it’s open. To visit all of these places in one day would take hours and require a full circuit of town – and half of what I bought that day would, in all likelihood, go moldy before I managed to eat it. So I do the Russian circuit (which is blessedly close) several days a week; I go to Good Price only in search of specific items, and only on my way home from work. I haven’t been to the meat market in over two months, and won’t until I finish my current kilo of horse.

4-19 Shopping Map

And then there’s cleaning. My school’s provision of a vacuum cleaner has, thank heavens, drastically reduced the amount of time needed to keep my room in a passable state of cleanliness. No more spending hours scrubbing at the carpet with a wet rag or swiping fruitlessly at it with a broom – hallelujah! But even so, cleaning the floor often takes a lot longer than I’ve bargained for. Namuuna uses the vacuum as well – and while she’s good about emptying the container after she uses it, she doesn’t usually clean the filter. And after a thorough sweeping, the filter is often so clogged as to drastically reduce the efficacy of the vacuum cleaner. Thus, the time I meant to spend sweeping is often spent washing out the filter instead – and then waiting for it to dry, since I fear the potential repercussions of using it wet.

You get the gist. Even the simplest task often takes forever here. I haven’t even started on laundry. To do that herculean task justice would require me to write another whole post devoted to the subject. And so I shall – at a later date, when I have pictures to illustrate and your patience hasn’t already been tried by 1500 words of my rambling.

And that, in short, is your answer: In my copious spare time, I ramble. Around town, around the Internet, on the Internet. I ramble, and I learn, and I live.


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Cookies, Continued!

Sometimes your day just doesn’t go how you think it will.

Last night, for instance, I just wanted to curl up in bed (or at least, next to the radiator) with some mulled wine and watch the rest of Titanic. And then, just before I finished cooking dinner, Namuunaa came home with relatives in tow – the same set as in the previous post, plus two-year-old Inguun. They had brought baking supplies with them and wanted to continue the baking lesson. The next way was Khaliun’s birthday, they said, and they wanted to make cookies.

Well, it’s not like I could say no.

So Namuunaa and her sister and I made cookies. They turned out differently than mine – no vanilla, some pretty insipid lemon zest, and what I think was an extra cup of flour – but overall, I think the lesson went pretty well. I learned, and promptly forgot, how to say things like “fast” and “my hands are covered in chocolate; I failed pretty spectacularly at separating one egg (but really, have you ever cracked an egg and had the shell flake off, leaving the membrane intact? what are you supposed to do with that?!); we took turns at the incredibly labor-intensive process of creaming butter and sugar by hand. That one is, I think, a good thing; it means that in making the cookies, you burn off some of the calories you’ll gain by eating them. Maybe I’ll continue making them that way when I get back to the states.

… maybe.

As always, Inguun popped in and out throughout the entire process, greeting us with “shan oh!” or sometimes even “shan an oh!” each time. She correctly identified the lemon on the table, even after it had been stripped of zest, and she held out a cup, uttering the first complete sentence I’ve ever heard/understood from her: “цай байхгаа.” Laughing, her mother filled the cup for her, and she promptly spilled the water before toddling back into Namuunaa’s room. She can almost say my name now too, though it sounds more like “Kata” than “Katya.”

While we waited for the cookies to bake, we all went into Namuunaa’s room. Khaliun, her father, and Inguun were dancing, which is to say that Khaliun and her father were doing simple dance steps and Inguun was quite literally falling all over herself trying to imitate them. My god, that child is adorable. Naturally, I joined the fun with some shim-sham steps (boogie forwards and boogie backs). Inguun could sort of, almost, do the boogie forwards, but even Khaliun couldn’t manage boogie backs. I couldn’t blame here; a kick-ball-change is a confusing movement that had trouble with when I first tried it.

I also showed them my splits, which Khaliun tried and failed to emulate. I tried to explain that I had done gymnastics for 17 years, but that’s a tricky explanation to make; “Би гимнастик хийдэг” means “I work out” as much as “I do gymnastics,” and the former interpretation is far more common. So I grabbed my computer and showed them videos. Magically, I stuck my beam and bars routines at Nationals this year, so they’re handy ones for showing off. Then they wanted to see more pictures, so I showed some from camp and family gatherings.

How does one explain to a two-year-old that an alpaca is not a horse when one does not know the Mongolian word for “alpaca,” if there even is one? Inguun started shouting, “Адуу! Адуу!” when the alpaca pictures came up, and I couldn’t even say that they were llamas – a lama is a monk!

Finally, they packed up the cookies to take with them, insisting that I come to their house for Khaliun’s birthday tonight. I had planned on joining the other Americans tonight for drinks and a movie, but who am I to refuse a nine-year-old on her birthday?

I just wish my camera battery wasn’t dead. Those kids are pretty darn adorable.


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Cookies and Cards

December 13

Someday, I’m sure, someone will be able to convincingly explain to me how three women, who’ve spent several hours in the same apartment without incident, inevitably – and simultaneously – develop the sudden and urgent need to pee. In the meantime, Namuunaa and I will be doing the potty dance in the hallway while we wait for her sister (in-law?) to get out of the bathroom. (The dance, in case you were wondering, looks exactly the same on this side of the world.)

Insufficient toilet accommodations aside, we really did have a lovely evening Namuunaa came home from work around 6:30 with the relatives n tow: brother and sister (they’re married, so obviously one is an in-law, but I’m not sure which is which) and their eight-year-old daughter, Khaliun. I was in the midst of attempting Sarah’s lentil soup at the time, so they snagged the тогоо (electric wok) to make цуйван in Namuunaa’s room.

After we’d all eaten our respective meals, I offered them some of the shortbread cookies I made earlier this week. That went over quite well – they were greeted with “Ямар гоё юм бе!” which more or less translates to “how wonderful!” The sister wanted to make them, so between my Mongolian and Namuunaa’s English, I think we got the gist of the recipe across. It’s a very yellow recipe, apparently – I had to try to explain, “not the white, just the yellow” twice, once each for the egg yolks and the lemon zest.

“Cream the butter and sugar together” required a lot of frantic gesturing, but that seemed appropriate, as creaming butter by hand, while doable, is a long and tiring process. “Chill the dough so it doesn’t stick to your hands” was also a tricky concept, but based on the gestures she was making, I think Namuunaa understood. So I guess we’ll see how well the cookies turn out, if her sister makes them. Baking is such an exact science, and ‘cup’ and ‘spoonful’ are pretty arbitrary amounts here. Luckily, this is a wonderfully forgiving recipe.

After the cookie explanations, we played a few rounds of rummy. I taught Namuunaa to play it the first week I got here, and it’s her favorite game. The woman is a born card shark. We’ve played with the brother, but she had to teach it to the sister. Better her than me, though – I managed with Namuunaa because she had some English, but it still took a lot of demonstration. At least it gives me a chance to practice my numbers. Monetary transactions rarely deal with numbers smaller than one hundred, which is why I managed to go so long without learning the word for 90. Rummy drills the tens nicely, though I really do need to learn the word for ‘negative.’

It’s nights like this that make me glad I have a roommate. For one thing, it’s nice to have someone who keeps me from sitting at home by myself; for another, these kinds of evenings are probably the most beneficial for my language learning. Being surrounded by Mongolians is overwhelming, but a conversation between two or three people I can begin to digest. At the very least, I can pick out the words I know; it doesn’t wash over me in an incomprehensible mess.

More pointed posts to follow later this week, perhaps even including pictures or descriptions of aspects of Mongolian life. We’ll see how cooperative my internet is.


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Random Ramblings and Cold-Weather Acclimation

Duly noted: chicken tacos do not sit well when ingested immediately after working out. I knew they weren’t going to after the first few bites, but I finished my plate anyway; they were delicious, and I was hungry, and I was going to get my money’s worth. Besides, chicken tacos. An everyday thing stateside, but definitely a treat here.

And I can deal with some gastric grousing, so long as it’s not actual food poisoning. I leave UB in two days, and a train is not a good place to be when your stomach declares war. Not as bad as, say, a bus or an airplane (or worse yet, a meeker – see below), but still not good.

I've been packed into one of these with 22 of my closest friends; I think it legally seats about 14. Thank god it was only for an hour.

The cheapest form of transportation hereabouts, but you get what you pay for.

Besides, I’ve got stuff to do tomorrow: laundry, packing for my trip to UB, making cranberry sauce for Peace Corps Thanksgiving, baking cookies for the friends hosting me, acquiring the ingredients necessary to make said goodies, planning out my lessons for Thursday. Ironically, Thanksgiving is the only day I’m working this week; I don’t have classes Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday is election day (which is a national holiday, unlike in the US), and I’m taking Friday off to travel. Tough life, eh?

I used the first day of this non-work week to have the Americans over for dinner. The high school teachers among us midway through a two-week break, so we’ve been taking turns having everyone over for dinner. I made chili and cornbread, which were very well received by all but the Mongolians, who thought the chili too spicy. It’s the first time I had people over, and I think it went pretty well. I probably won’t play host to such a large group very often, though; there was barely enough space for us all to sit in my room, and nowhere near enough seating. And I think everyone now knows that I mean it when I ask them to bring their own cups/bowls/spoons if they don’t want to eat in shifts. I don’t even have enough bowls for us all to make one do double duty, as the Mongolians do (they don’t have separate words for “cup” and “bowl;” both are an аяга). Besides, that would have meant being unable to enjoy the chili and Nathan’s fantastic horchata simultaneously, and clearly, such things are meant to go together.

It could have been the body heat of so many people in such a small space, or it could have been a variety of other things: the extra layer of tape now gumming up the leaky seals in my windows, the fact that it’s actually stayed above 0*F for the past few nights, someone somewhere cranking up the radiators. But whatever the cause, it is now significantly warmer in my apartment. By “significantly warmer” I mean that my room now averages 75*F, otherwise known as “too dang hot!” It’s at least ten degrees warmer than I’d like it to be, seeing as a comfortable sleeping temperature for me is about 60.

And that’s before my body kicks into cold-weather mode, which it has apparently done. Today’s forecast high was only about 27, but it was a sunny 27, so I dressed appropriately when leaving the apartment: no gloves, hat, or coat, just a sweatshirt over a T-shirt. A short-sleeved T-shirt. I think my little brother would be proud. And no, as I repeatedly told Mongolians, I wasn’t cold.

This week’s teacher lesson is on weather, and for “snow,” I plan on showing them the picture of LSD (Lake Shore Drive, for the non-Chicagoans) during the Snowpocalypse. You know the one:

I really wish I'd been here to see this.

Never mind that this is not a typical Chicago winter, and that I was in a different state at the time. I just want some cold-weather street cred so people will stop telling me to put on a coat. I’ll put on coat when I’m cold, and I ain’t cold yet.

Nor, I’ll bet, are Mongolian babies. We have officially entered what Nathan likes to call “starfish baby season” – the time of year when Mongolian toddlers are so bundled up they can’t move. And I don’t mean they can barely move; they’re legitimately immobile, spread-eagled like a little starfish. Their parents sometimes carry them sideways under their arms, as you might a package. It’s an adorable and hilarious sight, and unfortunately it appears not to have made it onto Google Images. I’ll sneak some surreptitious pictures and post them when I get a chance.