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A vegetarian’s guide to Mongolia

July 23, 2013

MongoliaWhen my 15-year-old daughter was about to leave for a three-week trip (with World Challenge) to Mongolia, I was worried. Not whether she would fall off a horse, get severe blisters, have a drunk enter her camp, be soaked to the skin in a torrential downpour or be besieged by horse flies (all these things did actually happen), I was worried about what she was going to eat as a vegetarian in a place where not eating meat is viewed as a complete oddity. It was pretty much the first question I asked on her return. The whole trip was pretty amazing so I asked her to write a guest post. So here’s Bea’s account of the foods she encountered during her time in Mongolia and two days in China (Beijing):

Throughout my World Challenge trip to Mongolia the topic of conversation within my group invariably turned to food. Though we were by no means underfed, the allure of what we would eat when we arrived home helped us get through the seemingly endless 50 km foot trek we were subjected to. Everyone started to crave all the classic junk food; my personal weakness is for pizza but people were longing for everything from ‘Chocopies’ to their mum’s dhal. Despite wishing for the familiar, we had a variety of interesting meals in Mongolia and China over the three weeks we were there.

The Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar has a good choice of restaurants and even though we were eating on a tight budget, we nearly always found something to keep everyone happy. With me, a vegetarian, a Muslim and a very fussy eater on our team this wasn’t always an easy matter, but we were pleasantly surprised by the type of dishes we found. Amongst the cafés we visited for breakfast, we found European-style bakeries that clearly catered to foreigners like us. The French and German bakeries offered lots of sweet treats to fill us up in the morning – crepes, cakes, Berliners, éclairs, you name it. The first night, however, we decided to try a Mongolian restaurant close to the hostel we were staying in, so we could get a taste of the local cuisine early on. Although most people went for fried chicken which was possibly less than authentic, I tried the fried noodles, or ‘tsuivan’. These were mixed with mixed vegetables, like carrots, peppers and courgettes. I really enjoyed these, and we all returned to this restaurant, the ‘Venus Café’, the next time we were in the capital. After a disappointing night out the next day, as we couldn’t find the restaurant described in the lonely planet, we chose a vegetarian restaurant to visit (through no influence of mine!). ‘Luna Bianca’ served excellent tofu for me, amongst other super healthy dishes. This type of catering for vegetarians was very unusual in Mongolia, though, as most of the locals were bemused when I tried to ask for a dinner entirely without meat.

As we travelled out of the capital, we stopped in Tsetserleg where we found a café called Fairfields which was set up by some very enterprising Australians. It had everything backpacker could want: cakes, full English breakfast and (paid) wi-fi. Those of us who wanted to save our money, sat outside on the pavement, boiled some water on a camp stove and made pot noodle, much to the amusement of the locals.

Bird of prey

Bird of prey above wall at Kharkhorin

Our wranglers on trek (the local men who organised and owned the horses we rode) laughed when I used their camp fire the boil water for pasta, thus eschewing the meat stew they had just prepared. As part of their fee for taking us out into the wild Mongolian countryside we bought them a sheep, along with one for ourselves to stop the carnivores from going crazy. The wranglers prepared theirs first, and we were all invited to watch. For obvious reasons, I declined, but the brave who decided to watch the sheep being killed had to sample liver and small intestine as a symbol of politeness which might not have been up my street… They used up all the meat gradually, but mainly cooked it in a big mutton stew. They prepared this by boiling water, vegetables and lots of smooth rocks together in a big pot on the fire. When they had finished cooking the meat, they removed these rocks and gave us one each. As per tradition, we had to toss the scalding rocks from hand to hand until they cooled down-this apparently helped with digestion.

During trekking (which involved camping every night) we tried to be as creative as possible, creating dishes of risotto, vegetable chilli and pasta salad. For a couple of lunchtimes the food team had to wake up very early to a simple flat bread out of flour, water and oil. We smothered these with chocolate spread, jam and in some cases salami to keep us going during the long day of work.

We had a chance one morning to visit a ger, the traditional house in the countryside of Mongolia. Here we sampled some traditional food, which was all dairy based. We tried jaw breaking cheese curds, something very similar to clotted cream, milk tea and some strange concoction that looked like scrambled eggs but tasted more like cheese. Needless to say, this wasn’t quite to our ultra sweet, extra salty western tastes… Luckily, we weren’t offered ‘airag’, a fermented horse milk alcohol popular in Mongolia, though I think this was much to the disappointment of our teachers who bent the trip rules slightly to have a beer when we arrived in China.

After trekking, we went to a charity summer centre on the outskirts of UB, where we ate the same meals as the children (though I suspect the kitchen staff tried to alter it to more suit our tastes). With the others eating filled dumplings and meat noodles, they mostly fed me a diet of cabbage, carrots and onions though I did fill up on some fried bread they kept serving us, which we eventually nicknamed ‘doughnut bread’. This went down a storm, until someone pointed out the they would probably go straight to our waistline…from that point on the girls especially seemed to avoid what was before the most popular thing on the table.

After project, we returned to UB, and had our last meal in ‘Marco Polo’, an Italian that served some very welcome milkshakes. We all enjoyed our pizza, pasta and calzone but my favourite part of that restaurant was their piano. The pianists in the group spent the meal alternating between eating and tinkering on the instrument, probably to the annoyance of the other diners. Needless to say, I didn’t join the group who found KFC.

After a three o’clock start to catch our flight, we were desperate for our lunch when we arrived in China, and it was a good thing because the serving sizes were huge! In the classic little Chinese street we stayed in there were a surplus of authentic restaurants, but we could only try a small few. Most of us struggled with the high amounts of MSG in the food, with several people getting cramps but I was safe with my tofu broth and my egg dumplings over the two days. We also visited Wangfujing street, where there were tons of little stalls crammed in selling the most bizarre food. As a vegetarian I was exempt from trying any of the scorpions, starfish or cockroaches we saw there but even so I would advise caution when eating there. The noodles I ordered at a small sit down café were supposed to contain only vegetables but after finding small bits of stray meat in them, I decided against eating any. What I did have were some sugar-coated grapes on a kebab, which were a great sweet treat. I also tried some small pastries, which were stuffed full with cream and exploded in your mouth the moment you bit into them!

Of course, my final meals of the trip were on the plane – and despite the usual stigma around plane food – the meal I had on Qatar Airways was reasonably edible. One perk of being veggie is you always get your meal before everyone else (though this is balanced out by the fact they never give you pudding – apparently all vegetarians should be healthy and eat fruit salad…).

Words and images by Bea (and a few by friends on the trip).

  1. July 23, 2013 12:59 am

    GREAT post, Bea! You write beautifully, I felt like I was there on camp with you! And what a wonderful adventure you had! Hope Sally lets you write another guest post for us in the future! 🙂

    • July 24, 2013 10:32 am

      Bea was extremely touched by your comment Celia – thank you.

  2. July 23, 2013 1:08 am

    What a wonderful post, Bea. I thought the title of this post was going to be your Mum’s way of having a joke, but no. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this post and let us know about a place that few of us will have the opportunity to visit. I bet you are happy to be back to your Mum’s home cooking!

    • July 24, 2013 10:33 am

      Hmmm – I might have meat-free days but can’t ever see my going vegetarian Kellie! Having said that, did you listen to latest R4 Food Programme about vegans? Compelling

  3. July 23, 2013 4:23 am

    what a fabulous insight into Mongolia, a country I really don’t know a lot about. It was certainly a very interesting read 🙂

  4. July 23, 2013 9:29 am

    Thats a very good written and interesting post. Thank you for sharing your impressions and the beautiful pictures.

  5. July 23, 2013 10:56 am

    well done to My Custard Pie Junior, maybe you should start you own blog, Little Custard Pie 🙂

    • July 24, 2013 10:42 am

      Older teen considering starting a blog (trying not to show any enthusiasm at all as don’t want to put her off!)

  6. July 23, 2013 11:00 am

    Mongolia is a fantastic place. I’d love to visit this fabulous country one day… Thanks for the interesting post and beautiful pictures.



    • July 24, 2013 10:43 am

      Me too Rosa. Will pass on your kind comment to Bea.

  7. July 23, 2013 2:18 pm

    What a beautiful account of your trip Bea, how lovely of you to write a guest post for your mom.
    🙂 Mandy

    • July 24, 2013 10:41 am

      I’m passing on all comments to Bea and she really appreciates them. Thanks Mandy

  8. July 23, 2013 2:55 pm

    Sounds an exciting trip. I’ve heard that in Argentina they offer vegetarians chicken, as no red blooded Argentinian can associate chicken with meat. Not my ideal place, either:)

    • July 24, 2013 10:40 am

      Now I realise why there is no chicken on the Gaucho menu! How bizarre

  9. July 23, 2013 10:15 pm

    I loved this post. Would also like future pieces from a teen detailing why she chose to be vegetarian. It always intrigues me about people from a primarily not vegetarian culture choosing this way. Keep it up Bea, looking forward to reading more 🙂

    • July 24, 2013 10:38 am

      I will ask her Mishti. I’m not sure that she even remembers her first motivation as she’s been vegetarian for over half her life now.

  10. July 24, 2013 2:09 am

    Wow! What an amazing adventure and insight into a country very unknown to me. I’m not sure I’d be brave to venture there

    • July 24, 2013 10:37 am

      I would have no problem about going to Mongolia, funnily enough it’s India I’m not brave enough to venture to.

  11. July 24, 2013 7:59 am

    What a great account of an amazing adventure. I order the diabetic meal and I get fruit for dessert 🙂

  12. July 24, 2013 8:04 am

    Just brilliant. She takes in the footsteps of her talented mum that is for sure. A fantastic post with so many interesting details. I will be coming back to re-read some of it again and again. WOuld love to meet her on my next rip to Dubai!

    • July 24, 2013 10:35 am

      Top of the list when you are here for the Food Styling and Photography Workshop – Meet the Family!! Shows how busy we’ve been on the last couple of visits.

  13. July 24, 2013 11:04 am

    Great post and what an amazing adventure! Sally you must be so proud with such a clever daughter!

  14. July 24, 2013 11:29 am

    What a great trip and experience for your daughter Bea. Loved it Sally and maybe it could become a more regular feature on what teenagers are going for. I have always wanted to go to Mongolia, so it was great visiting in this way. Thank you both for a great post 🙂

    • September 7, 2013 8:23 pm

      I was rather envious of this amazing experience but proud that she rose to the challenge. I also read Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s experience on riding through Mongolia in “The Long Way Round” -it sounds like an amazing place to visit.

  15. July 24, 2013 6:13 pm

    That sounds like a great trip! I’ve been wanting to go to Mongolia for a long time. There is something fascinating about that country… Great story!

    • September 7, 2013 8:25 pm

      I think there are huge environmental pressures on the traditional way of life with many nomads flooding into the cities and living in squalor. The time to visit Mongolia is probably now – before it changes forever.

  16. recipesfromapantry permalink
    July 25, 2013 2:50 pm

    Sound like this was a good trip. Reminds me of my friends and their food preferences. One does not eat anything with feathers and is allergic to nuts, one does not like fish or onions, one can’t stand lamb. It is interesting trying to come up with something for everyone at festivities.

  17. Isabel Beau de Lomenie permalink
    July 26, 2013 12:06 pm

    Loved it, very well written!!! I had very funny experience while living in China ( had to eat scorpios and worst…as i am not a vegetarian…couldn’t decline…)
    Sally come to India…we are moving there!!!

  18. July 28, 2013 2:31 pm

    Such a clear and conversational voice, congratulations Bea on your first (to hopefully many more) guest posts! I loved the bit about the ‘doughnut bread’ – sounds right up my alley, though I doubt I would have been with the waistline-watching girly contingent.

  19. ginger and scotch permalink
    July 29, 2013 3:13 am

    Very well written guest post and what a fab experience!

  20. July 29, 2013 4:03 pm

    loved reading this post 🙂 congratulations Bea! job well done.

  21. July 29, 2013 7:39 pm

    Well done, Bea! Great storytelling. I’ve never been, but have always wanted to go to Mongolia. Jealous!

  22. August 2, 2013 10:22 pm

    was not aware that Mongolia was a hub for veggies. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post

  23. September 2, 2013 6:10 pm

    Bea! you have no IDEA how much this post really going to help me out , you know I am Strictly 100% vegetarian guy and I have been assigned 3 months business operation at Mongolia , previously I was worried regarding vegetarian foods availability in Mongolia but seems I have few good option to survive. This post really helps me to throw out my tension / worry about VEG food availability at Mongolia…

    I will also share my VEGETARIAN food experience with you when I will come back from Mongolia.

    GOD blesses you 🙂

  24. tessahill permalink
    April 28, 2014 10:49 pm

    What a helpful and beautifully written post! My 15-year-old daughter and I are headed to Russia, Mongolia and China this summer and as vegans, are particularly concerned about starving! But your post has given us hope. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • April 28, 2014 11:11 pm

      I was really worried about what my daughter would eat. The Mongolians didn’t understand non-meat eaters at all. But she managed especially in the big cities. I think her Muslim friends had more of a problem trying not to eat pork in China than she did avoiding meat! Enjoy your trip.


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