With its nomadic culture and extreme climate, it’s no surprise that the diets of most Mongolians are made up almost exclusively of dried meat. Here’s how I survived a two-week solo trip around Mongolia as a vegetarian and how you can too.
After seven hours of driving through the Gobi Desert without seeing a living thing (except for tiny cashmere goats), we have finally arrived at our host family’s ger (yurt). It’s everything I hoped it would be: children riding horses bareback in the distance, a wood-burning stove belching smoke through a hole in the roof, simple wooden furniture painted with colourful swirls that symbolise clouds.
However, when our host mother reaches under the bed and pulls out the dried leg of a camel, my stomach drops. She proceeds to hack off a section of the grizzled meat and grind it into strong-smelling powder, before tipping it into a saucepan filled with bobbing bones. Dinner time.
Mongolia is, without doubt, the hardest place I have ever travelled as a vegetarian. To be honest it’s pretty out there for meat-eaters too. With sheep eyeballs and barbecued marmot – both traditional dishes – even carnivores may find themselves opting to join the veggie train.
Here are my top tips for coming back from Mongolia with your ethics (and stomach) intact.
The key phrase that’ll save your bacon
Mongolia is home to the last truly nomadic population on earth. At least three times a year, herder families pack up their gers, round up their horses and move to new pastures to escape the harsh weather. But even if they stayed in one place, the scorching Gobi Desert is no place to farm crops, so it’s unsurprising that vegetarianism is considered a little eccentric among nomads.
However, they will be more than happy to accommodate your dietary needs if you can communicate them successfully. It’s one of the benefits of travelling with a company like Intrepid; they can cater to dietary requirements in places like Mongolia, so no one goes hungry. I travelled on my own, and it was definitely challenging at times.
Many country folk are not literate, but it’s worth asking a hotel worker in the city to write down a few key phrases for you before you venture out onto the steppe, just in case. Other than that, you’ll have to rely on fledgling Mongolian to get by.
Repeat after me: Bi makh, takhia iddeggüi. I don’t eat meat or chicken. For some reason many Mongolian’s don’t count chicken as meat.
Veggie dishes to look out for
Mongolians love their meat. A backpacker I met shakily described their host family slaughtering a goat in front of them, in honour of their arrival. But it’s a myth that no Mongolian dishes are suitable for those of us who prefer their goats alive. In fact, as of 2010’s National Census, about 53% of the country is Tibetan Buddhist, a religion that bans eating animals.
A few popular dishes to look out for:
Essentially the Mongolian version of a Cornish pasty, these pastries can be made with just potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Be sure to remember to ask for yours ‘with no meat or chicken’.
Bite-sized pieces of fried bread, which are often offered to guests when they arrive. They may not be the most flavoursome things in the world, but they’re inoffensive and fairly tasty when dipped in tea.
Essentially a noodle stir-fry with potatoes, onions and carrots. Again, you’ll need to request yours meat free.
5. Budaatai huurga
This is very similar to tsuivan, except the base is rice rather than noodles.
Veggie restaurants in Ulaanbaatar
Mongolia’s capital is growing fast, with thousands of herders opting to move to the city each year, as climate change makes pursuing their traditional lifestyle more and more difficult. The result is a vibrant, exciting atmosphere with new restaurants and cafes springing up like mushrooms, including a wide selection of vegetarian restaurants, where local hipsters gather to sip sea buckthorn juice and have a gossip. Here are some of my favourites:
Luna Blanca was the first vegan restaurant in the country. Today, it specialises in healthy European Asian fusion food, such as miso soup, fresh tofu stir fries and borscht (Russian beetroot and cabbage soup).
Loving Hut has three outposts throughout Ulaanbaatar, each managed by a local family, giving them a warm, independent feel. The cream soups are all as comforting as a hot bath on a cold night (of which there are plenty in Mongolia); they also have a great range of fresh smoothies.
Bosco Verde Vegan Restaurant serves Italian-style coffee and vegan food in a casual, trattoria-style setting that’s popular with expats. The thin-crust pizzas are particularly good.
Shopping for the steppe
The dizzying glow of the milky way. The silhouettes of camels trotting home at sunset. Mongolian cowboys cracking their whips as they round up their horses. Strange moonscapes made of flaming red sand, and vast chasms filled with ice. There are many things you’ll remember from your time in Mongolia’s wilderness, but a gourmet experience won’t be one of them.
You’ll be eating to live rather than living to eat, but stocking up on a few key supplies in Ulaanbaatar will make the experience far more enjoyable.
Here are a few things you might want to consider taking with you (they can be tricky to get hold of outside the city):
- fresh fruit, such as apples and bananas. These last over several days and will help you get your vitamin fix
- cereal bars
- pesto and pasta, or pot noodles
- tomatoes and cucumbers. These are great for adding a fresh element to whatever your host family cooks up (generally I ate a lot of plain rice with salty camel’s milk)
- presents for your hosts: vodka, fruit, a carton of milk or a bag of sweets will all go down a storm. On Intrepid trips, you’ll stock up on gifts for your hosts before you head out onto the steppe, but you’re also welcome to bring a little something from home.
It’s gonna taste ger-ate: food etiquette in a Mongolian ger
Life in Mongolian gers is governed by a complex and fascinating web of rules, many of which can be traced back hundreds of years. For example, it’s considered rude to stretch your legs out fully, and if you stand on someone’s foot you should shake their hand immediately, or they may think you’re spoiling for a fight.
When guests enter a ger, it’s customary for hosts to offer them something to eat and drink. It’s rude not to accept, so be prepared to take a token bite or sip of whatever is offered. Generally it shouldn’t be anything more threatening than tea with butter and salt, boiled sweets, or aaruul, a very tough dried cheese which needs to be dunked into warm tea to make it chewable. You should always accept food with your right hand, and make sure you hold your cup by the bottom rather than the rim.
One of the many benefits of travelling in Mongolia with Intrepid is that you’ll have a local leader by your side to help you figure out what you’re eating (and whether it’s vegetarian!). Check out our range of awesome small group adventures through Mongolia now.
Feature photo by Belovodchenko Anton, Shutterstock.