Mongolia Week 5: Food

This week, I want to do something a little bit different with my journal and catalogue my gastronomic experience throughout my time in Mongolia, for I have been afforded the opportunity to not only experience of genre of cuisine that until this point has been unavailable to me, but also the quality and variety of food in Ulaanbaatar is worthy of discussion unto itself. The city boasts a wealth of eateries ranging from high-class bakeries to a Singaporean bistro, and also provides many different opportunities to try genuine Mongolian fare. With all this in mind, I am going to run through, gauntlet-style, several of the most notable meals I have had so far experienced in Mongolia.

 

  1. Modern Nomads: By most foreign accounts, the widespread Modern Nomads chain of restaurants in Mongolia is the flagship for traditional Mongolia fare, and has a presence in almost every major urban center in the country. I myself frequented one of its Ulaanbaatar locations twice, and was both times greeted with a menu that forced me to blindly guess at which food to pick. While there were large pictures to help guide non-Mongolians through their choices, the slabs of meat that are so commonplace in Mongolian dishes eventually all sort of start blending together. My first go-through, I ended up picking up some skewered meat that I originally assumed to be shashlik, but ultimately wound up being five or six sheep’s tongues on a stick. Luckily, I consider myself an adventurous eater, and ultimately found myself very much enjoying the meal. Tongue ends up being nothing more than a very tender cut of meat, although when they are served whole as was the case in my experience, the sensation of the papillae rubbing against your own is a bit off-putting to say the least. Overall though, the restaurant is nicely furnished, and it was an overall memorable experience. 
  2. Korean Restaurants: Outnumbering even Mongolian restaurants in the city, the sheer amount of Korean restaurants in Ulaanbaatar made it both impossible to address just a single one, but also to experience what they all offered. One oddity regarding Korean restaurants in Ulaanbaatar was that they almost universally advertised Kalbi, a beef short-rib dish, as their signature food, but also ended up not actually serving what most Koreans consider to be Kalbi, instead opting to serve a separate dish known as Kalbigim, which is a slow-braised short rib dish using different seasoning and a different cut. Regardless, the majority of dishes I sampled at these restaurants are very well-prepared, with the only issue often being the lack of good kimchi or vegetables, often due to the fact that such things often have to be imported into Mongolia at a relatively high cost. 
  3. Homemade dishes: At several points in my travels, it was often impossible to find a restaurant, or we were otherwise invited to dine with a family in their household. In these cases, we were most often treated either to a stew of carrots, cabbage, Mongolian jerky, and a side of dough that would then be torn up and placed into the thin broth just prior to consumption. The other option would be pieces of fried bread accompanied by clarified butter, yogurt, and an acidic whey. In both cases, these dishes provided a hearty although monotonous meal, with both options reminding me of dishes I’ve had in the past, being either in the form of a simple soup my grandfather was fond of, or a family of Indian dishes a friend of mine had treated me to. In either case, it was an interesting experience dining on such familiar cuisine in an unfamiliar land.

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