Weeks before I left, I scoured online resources, trying to find out what vegetarians eat in Mongolia. I contacted other bloggers who had visited, only to find out that on two different occasions a goat (a GOAT!!) was slaughtered in front of them and that was sustenance for the week. For anyone who knows my supreme adoration and often anthropomorphist tendencies towards goats, you can begin to understand the panic levels that began rising in me.
This is not my country, I am an outsider, an observer; I visit other cultures to learn and understand, not to judge or change them. But I still don’t eat meat, and I wasn’t going to start here. There were also rumors that there were no vegetables in the Gobi Desert, which makes total sense being that it’s a desert, so I armed myself with protein bars, peanut butter packets, a few freeze-dried packs of food, and prepared to lose some weight on this trip.
So what did I eat while traveling in Mongolia? What was available? Were any goats harmed?
Below is my breakdown of what to expect from the food in Mongolia, especially if you don’t eat meat:
What to Eat in Ulaanbaatar
1) Mongolian BBQ (aka: You have GOT to be kidding me)
“Hey, make sure you eat at the Mongolian barbeque restaurant. LOL” typed 14 different sarcastic friends of mine on my Facebook before I left. Yeah, no way. I’m not a big believer in chain restaurants in my own country, but in a foreign country? Nope.
For our first full night in Ulaanbaatar, we met with our lovely translator and a group of other visitors for a night of “Mongolian dining.” Great! Then we pull up to a freakin’ Mongolian BBQ. For REAL. I immediately freeze, unable to go through the door like one of those anti-theft grocery carts with the automatic locking wheels. Is this real life? I’m on the opposite side of the planet being ushered into a restaurant that was started in Royal Oak, Michigan.
I had hoped we were going to soak up something found only in UB, maybe a young chef’s take on traditional Mongolian dishes or a popular haunt that has become a citywide favorite. But to travel half way around the globe only to wind up back in the US was cuckoo to me. I was now somewhere in a deep suburban corner of America, at a restaurant where the only thing authentically Mongolian were the servers. I reluctantly took a plate and grazed the salad bar, selecting my frozen veggies (some that were still frozen) to be grilled up Benihana-style. What in the Genghis Khan is going on?
I would’ve taken more photos but I was so surprised that this was chosen as the introduction to Mongolian dinners that I spent a majority of time looking around to see if I was being punk’d. That and there was a “no pictures” sign on the sneeze guard.
2) Other restaurants in Ulaanbaatar
My time in UB was limited, but I did walk around my first day and try to experience as much as I could on foot. I managed to make it from one end of the city to the other, and ate at three restaurants along the way.
By far my favorite was a lovely restaurant called Rosewood Kitchen + Enoteca. There are two locations, and I tried them both. I preferred the Seoul St. location since it also had a wine bar. It’s an international mix of dishes done well with a casual atmosphere.
There was very interesting buffet at our hotel at the Ramada, which had a great mix of Asian dishes that were all interesting if not fairly tasty. Lastly, there was the restaurant Khara Khorum at the Kempinski hotel. Big ups to the chef for creating a sea buckthorn crème brulee. One of the few indigenous crops to Mongolia, the chef twisted the sour sea buckthorn berries it into something different and it was creative, silky and tart. The restaurant also serves several other national dishes which I didn’t get to try, but if the dessert was any indication, it’s worth a stop.
3) Grocery stores
There are several good-sized grocery stores in Ulaanbaatar with a really large selection of foods to stock up on. If you’re near the city center, you can stop by the market inside the State Department Store. They have deli cases full of pastries, and lots of individually shrink-wrapped produce straight from Russia and China that you can take along before you head out on the open road. They’ve also got plenty of snacks and flasks of “Mongolian Hero” horse-inspired vodka for when you need to kick that picnic up a notch.
On the way out east to Terelj National Park there is an even larger grocery chain where I stocked up on several days’ worth of food. If you’re in the market for large blocks of cheese, powdered mare’s milk or the world’s largest selection of Goober-striped chocolate spread, this is your place.
What to Eat in the Gobi Desert (and at your ger camps)
4) Dried bread and camel milk tea
A hospitality offering, the best way to eat the bone dry, rock hard bread that you may be offered when you step into a family’s ger (or yurt) is to politely dip it in your camel-milk tea. A dentist could be a half a day away, so bite down carefully.
And more beets
If you’re an enthusiast of this deep ruby, earthy root – you’re in luck! You will be peeing red everyday. If it’s something you just can’t stomach, well I hope you like…
6) Cabbage. Every Day.
This tightly wound version of lettuce accompanied almost every meal in some form as if it was afraid to miss a party. Pickled or fresh, swimming in dressing or mingling with fruit, it was a constant across the country and frankly, started to wear out its welcome. The cabbage union game is strong in Mongolia.
The best version was a butter and pepper concoction, the worst: pasta and freakin’ cabbage. One night there was the pasta with the cold carrot salsa, which was a curious experiment that might not’ve won any rounds of Chopped, but it was still better than the gristly mystery meat (yak?) that slowly converted the carnivores into vacation vegetarians.
8) Stir Fry
This dish reared it’s flash-cooked head every few days or so. Sort of a rural take on the Chinese dish, it was always an interesting mélange of available ingredients and condiments. It was still preferable to eating adorable baby goats, which I like to imagine wear silky robes here, with maybe a traditional Mongolian pointy hat, but with built-in braids. OMG. Somebody Photoshop this for me now.
9) Variations on the Cucumber – Tomato – Carrot Combo
Seeing the burst of color and each ger camp’s twist on the CTCC was always fun. It didn’t stop it from basically tasting the same each time, but still, we weren’t lacking in vegetable options, as I had feared. These are all from the kitchens at the ger camps I lodged in across the country. My meals were included with my ger stay, but there were no menus. Every meal was a surprise. Which brings me to another dish I like to call…
Deep fried balls of non-meat type items. I never figured out what these were. I suspect that perhaps cauliflower or maybe shredded broccoli was involved, but it was not entirely discernible. Of course deep-frying covers a multitude of mystery ingredients, but if I were pressed to guess I definitely would’ve lost that Hell’s Kitchen round. It wasn’t bad, whatever it was.
11) Bean curd, olive, Tabasco sauce mash up
I’ll admit by day 8, I was beginning to lose my appetite. My taste buds just laid down and gave up, refusing to reckon with one more cup of cabbage or bowl of beets. Then this bizarre plate of mesh-y sponge-like squares, soaked in hot sauce and covered in olives was placed in front of me. It shouldn’t have worked, but like Katy Perry’s dancing left shark, it was GREAT! In retrospect that’s probably a huge overstatement, but in that moment in time, it was like Mario Batali was in the kitchen vying for an extra Michelin star.
What to Eat if You’re Desperate, or Really Lucky
12) Airline Remnants
Nomadically camping for a few weeks in a country like Mongolia is a good argument for hoarding all of your (and your sleeping seat mate’s) uneaten airline snacks. I didn’t even KNOW what a Sasha cake was when they handed it out on Korean Air, but you can bet your ass I was cramming that into my backpack for emergencies. Ditto for the cookies, peanuts and chips.
This final magical moment was the culmination of some big dreams, bold determination and a breaking-point dose of taste-deprivation lunacy. This gorgeous pizza was found in the far west of Mongolia, in a small, private ger camp that I basically trespassed onto out of sheer desperation. Fortunately, my hunger-fueled escapade did NOT turn into a Hansel and Gretel-style disaster, even though in my pursuit my cooler head insisted this was a trap. You can read more about it here.
Now you know that you too can survive and maybe even enjoy your meals in the often barren Mongolian steppe, even if you’re a vegetarian. I did lose maybe two pounds during those 10 days, which I immediately gained back in Korea where I ate everything in sight; so perhaps it’s not the most effective diet plan.
Most importantly, no goats were harmed in the making of any of my meals and for that I am eternally relieved.