I admit it; when I first found out we were moving to Mongolia, I found myself suddenly panicked and inundated with millions of questions surrounding food. I mean, we all need to eat, right!?!
For all the other countries we had lived in, we knew a fair bit about its local cuisine ahead of time: the famous feijoada and stews in Brazil and let’s not forget the delicious caipirinhas and all the steaks, Viennese schnitzel (of course) and Austrian wine and beer, and – well – the maple syrup and Tim Horton’s coffee in Canada (kidding! Of course there’s more to Canadian cuisine!).
But aside from identifying local favourites, we also knew there would be major supermarkets and open markets in our new home countries and that while we might have to forego our favourite American cereal brands and Oreo cookies (the hard part of moving….I know!), we would very much be able to find local products similar enough or (gasp) even better than the American thing.
But Mongolia? No clue. None. We drew a blank thinking about a local dish we could name that didn’t involve fermented mare’s milk (which, by the way, I have yet to try here – it’s not as common as one might think at least in the places where I hang out) or the fake Mongolia BBQ, which is neither Mongolian nor a barbecue (bet you didn’t know that).
And then when we pictured what Mongolia’s cities would look like – you know, in the real rather than in the abstract “oh let’s move to Mongolia” sort of way – I slowly began to panic … just a little. I mean, was I going to starve to death? (By the way, that’s also the title of an excellent, excellent book written by a fellow FS spouse). Would I need to learn how to bake bread since we
are were such heavy bread and gluten eaters? Will there be fresh fruits and vegetables or will everything be canned and imported from China? Is cow’s milk available or will we need to learn to enjoy the taste of yak’s and goat milk? Is milk pasteurised? Is it good or does it taste funny? What about yoghurt? Should I bring a thermometer and glass bowls so that I can make it from scratch (spoiler alert: I tried that and failed desperately)?
But all of these unknowns did not scare me (much). After all, isn’t this what expat life is all about – the not knowing and figuring things out as you go along? Honestly, the moving around the world gig has added tremendous flexibility to my cooking skills – where else do you have the opportunity to try cooking with new (and sometimes very strange and unfamiliar) ingredients only to lightly shrug off a cooking disaster and blame all kinds of strange, foreign ingredients.
So, imagine my surprise when we arrived in – literally – foodie haven. Fine, so we knew ahead of time that the local food scene is quite a thing here – yes, there’s even a very active Facebook group dedicated to “UB Foodies” with over 36,000 members (yes, that number is in the thousands)! That’s how many people care about good food here; so it looked like we were up to a promising start. Insert my happy and slightly less stressed face.
So what’s grocery shopping like here? I am glad you asked.
It’s really a bit of everything; well, more like literally a bit of everything and from everywhere.
There are stores – both big(ish) and small, markets, and people selling things out of the trunks of their car or out of cardboard boxes on the street.
Just like anyone can be a taxi driver in UB (it’s true, you can flag down a ride with anyone who will stop to pick you up and there’s an agreed-upon rate for each kilometre driven ….it’s fancy hitchhiking if you ask me or “Uber light”), anyone can be a vendor as long as you have something to sell.
And you don’t really need a product to sell either. Sometimes you see people setting up shop on the street just laying down a scale where for a nominal fee, you can hop on and check your weight. It’s true – these types of stands seem to be so popular you can find them all around town and, coming to think of it, might make for a nice public health intervention to think about importing to the more “heavier” American cities (just saying).
Back to food though. One thing that completely surprised me when we first arrived is that there are so many international products available here that, at times, it seems like Mongolia is stuck between different worlds. I mean in every store, there are items from Korea, Russia, China, the U.S., and even Germany to choose from (and cheese from Austria!). Sometimes it feels as if a plane carrying a load of Costco products got lost and ended up here because all of a sudden, Kirkland products are everywhere to be found. Other times, the German Metro supplier route seems to have ended here and aro products are now heavily discounted (hello “Vanillezucker” which I bought well ahead of Christmas baking season!). And I proudly shop the German discount store Edeka products that are lovingly labeled “gut und günstig” (good and affordable).
I love the international feel I get from shopping here. Just look at our regular stock of German goodies – all good and affordable, even in Mongolia!
Oh and then of course, if you return to the store a few days later to stock up on the now much-needed-will-die-without-it German or American applesauce, you will find new surprises again because inventory tends to be limited. So one rule we made for shopping here (not just for groceries but for other things as well) is if you like and see something now, buy it right then and there because it will probably be gone tomorrow.
Next, the markets: I love shopping at markets. When we lived in Brazil, I longed for our weekly open air market (“feira”) that sold the best local fruits and vegetables. It was also the place where I developed my proud bartering skills in Portuguese.
There are two main markets I like in UB – you know the places where you shop at individual vendors rather than fill a cart and check out when you are ready to leave. Both offer fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, – and lots of fresh (?) meat.
You’re missing the meat in that picture? Fear not – here it is:
Yes, the meat. It’s a stable in the Mongolian diet (vegetarian options are hard to come by). What types meat you ask? Well, sure there’s chicken (mostly imported from Russia), lots of pork, sheep and mutton, and … camel, and horse. If you’re lucky you can get a nice close-up of a fresh sheep head. Bon appetit.
I haven’t tried camel or horse meat yet (and will have no problem doing so – again, this is part of the fun part of living abroad so you can widen your palate). I was with a friend who bought camel meat at one of the markets and learned that since camel meat is so trim (who knew?), vendors always add a good chunk of fat from the camel’s hump to your purchase – you know, to pack in those desired calories (because remember, your body needs to stay warm in the cold winters here).
And speaking of fat, did you know that there is a special kind of sheep tail fat that is reserved for babies to suck on when they are left with caretakers other than the mother? I am not making this up here – fat is a very important part of Mongolian cuisine and, apparently, childrearing (maybe this explains the success of those “check your weight” stands?).
Oh, and did I mention the bakeries here? Oh my goodness – and they are German bakeries too! And here I thought I was going to have to bake my own bread. Turns out I just need to bake the gluten free bread for the sensitive eater in our household.
I mean look at that deliciousness – it’s really hard to forget sometimes where we are (yes, my German friends – that is Melitta coffee available for sale here – and now another favourite way of starting our morning; just like we did in Austria).
And these are just the goodies you get from going to an actual store or market (or just walking on the street). Amazingly and very surprisingly, Mongolia – a developing country in many ways – seems to also be home to some of the best internet/technological advances when it comes to food and grocery shopping.
Are you surprised? Well I was too so let me start by introducing you to our new, dear friend – the songo app – for your iPhone or Android phone. Don’t have a smartphone? No worries, it’s also on Facebook (side note: many stores and restaurants here do not have a working website – word spreads via Facebook pages here).
What is songo? Oh it’s so revolutionary you will never want to live without it again. It’s an app for restaurant AND grocery delivery (and featuring a laundry service soon). Imagine all your favourite, go-to restaurants in one app along with their delivery menus so that you can click your way around to order whatever you’re in the mood for for a nominal delivery fee.
But wait! It gets better! Songo also does your grocery shopping for you with a list of vendors and supermarkets updating their inventory online so you can literally pay someone to deliver your apples, red beets, potatoes (we’re still in the land of root vegetables), bottles of wine, tea, flowers, and whatever else you can find. Yes, when I am running low on fruit, I’d rather pay someone $1 to bring whatever I desire directly to my home than sit in traffic and figure out how to work the scales and barter for a good price (fine, there’s not much bartering here).
Oh, you like access to fresh food delivered directly to your front door? Well then wait until you hear about my absolutely favourite thing in the world of grocery shopping in UB – the Greenbox. Yes, it’s another Facebook link since that’s how information travels here.
What is the Greenbox? It’s a weekly delivery service of a box full of organic, fresh, and local Mongolian vegetables delivered right to your front door! Yes, all organic veggies and they are delicious! See?
And it’s a true “green” box in every sense of the word – no plastic bags, no waste. All this every week for about $10. Brought to your front door. Yes, please! (Side note: it’s still an uphill battle to get our kids to enjoy red beets…. another local ingredient that is being added to my cooking repertoire!).
And that’s how I shop here. Not bad, right? I assume by the time we get back to the US, songo will have taken over North America as well ….