An Unexpected Feast

Going Places

December 2013


Mongolia's captial Ulaanbaatar is surfacing as a culinary hot spot, fast gaing a bon vivant reputation amongst in-the-know foodies, writes Tatyana Leonov

Vast barren plains, mammoth snow- capped mountains, the stark Gobi desert – these are the images that spring to mind when one thinks of Mongolia. But a thriving culinary scene? Welcome to this year’s biggest gastronomy surprise.

The new wave “Ulaanbaatar is an open market, everything is fresh,” Dhanushka Wijesekara, chef and owner of Mongolia’s first and only Sri Lankan restaurant and tea bar, Ceylonta (ceylonta.mn) exclaims. He smiles looking at his heavily pregnant Mongolian wife, Odjargal Baljinnyam, and says. “We could’ve moved to Singapore or Sri Lanka, but Ulaanbaatar has big potential to grow a small business – especially when it’s as unique as ours.”

Dhan (as everyone calls him) is successful not only because of the exceptional food (the chicken curry is a crowd favourite), or the strong Sri Lankan team he brought over. Dhan’s success also lies in his aptitude to capitalise on an opportunity. Mongolians can be reluctant to try new foods, so Dhan served them fish from local Lake Khövsgöl before presenting imported prawns. He introduced a number of meat- heavy dishes (Sri Lankan food is chiefly vegetable-based) to keep Mongolian meat lovers happy. And he runs English classes for his staff so that non-Mongolian speaking diners can easily converse when ordering.

Dhan and his team are not the only group of immigrants setting up a culinary business that’s doing exceedingly well. Guantanamera (Tel +976 7768 6868), the first and only Cuban restaurant, is also perpetually busy. The mojitos are great, the food is even better, and the quirky-cool team of Cubans heading up the rollicking joint know how to have a good time.

Ernesto Lopez Aquila, manager of Guantanamera, cracks a staggeringly wide smile as he weaves between tables
to drop off an enticing-looking dish of slow-cooked tender beef slivers teamed with fragrant purple rice, black beans and fresh salad. He’s met with an even wider smile. The Cuban chefs in the kitchen move their hips to the ubiquitous Cuban tunes, affable staff appear with cocktail concoctions, more diners walk in having heard about Guantanamera. New cuisine is in!

Ten years ago Mongolians were not actively seeking out new gastronomic experiences, and even today many are still wary of trying new foods, but change is in the air and Ulaanbaatar is coming alive with culinary connoisseurs curious about new flavours and international fare. Hotels are getting in on the game too.

The new Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel (bestwesternmongolia.mn) opened its doors in August
this year, and with 198 sleekly appointed rooms and the lavish premier lounge bar located on the 25th floor (offering unrivalled views of Ulaanbaatar), it’s one of 
the top spots to stay in town. Stephen Nisbet, the hotel’s food and beverage manager, cites the exciting times in Mongolia as one of the reasons for his move to Mongolia. “After serving my apprenticeship in some of the best hotels and restaurants in the South of France, and having worked in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and all over Asia, Mongolia was the next move,” he says proudly. “I’m here to create food concepts from the beginning, which is an exciting and challenging project in any country – but even more so in a place like Mongolia that has come so far in such a short time.”

The hotel houses two restaurants: Le Cabernet is an international eatery with a distinctive French flair (with delightful French- style pastries and breads baked daily), and Prime Grille pays homage to the Mongolian love of meat. “Our head grill chef has worked in Britain and knows the standard expected by international clientele,” explains Nisbet. “And he is Mongolian so knows the local market very well.”

The first international cuisine to take Mongolia by storm, however, was Korean. During the first half of the 20th century, thousands of Mongolians travelled to Korea to work, then after a few years, with enough money saved, they returned home. These Mongolians missed their Korean food, and Korean businessmen quickly tapped into this opportunity, with a massive influx of Korean eateries opening up across Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s.

Today it’s very easy to find a Korean restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, and the Korean influence has even found its way in to regional cooking, with kimchi and seaweed regularly appearing in traditional dishes.

Mongolian food today

Although there has been an immense shift in the variety of food on offer, as well as a positively inquisitive attitude to the novel plethora of options, traditional foods remain the same – rustic, gusty, hearty, filling. Sansar Haisvai is a New Age Mongolian – a semi nomad. He spends the winters in his ger with his wife and two children (with a third on the way), living life almost exactly as his father and grandfather did, and his summers working as an Intrepid (intrepidtravel. com) tour van driver.

His favourite dish is boodog – a wondrously unique dish: Hot stones are placed inside an animal, which is then cooked
in its skin.
Khorkhog is a more conventional version (hot stones and meat are placed together inside a pressurised container for the preparation of this dish).

Dumplings are also very popular, and in the majority of cases, the beef or mutton (although camel and horse meat are sometimes used too) will be minced, diced and sliced into a dough pocket of sorts, then steamed, boiled
or fried. Large steamed
buuz are especially popular during Nadaam festivities, boiled miniature bansh offer a different taste sensation, and flat, fried khuushuur are greasy addictive morsels that are eaten throughout the whole year.

In Ulaanbaatar, the best place to try traditional Mongolian food is at Modern Nomads (various locations, modernnomads.mn). Almost every local resident cites the restaurant chain as one of their top three places to eat, while visitors appreciate that menus come with pictures and clear symbols differentiating meat types (beef, pork, horse and so on). There are even symbols singling out super spicy, organic and high-fat dishes – ideal for the health-conscious traveller – or anyone slowly nudging their way into and around Mongolia’s fascinating food scene. 

A quick history lesson

When it comes to the local market, meat is the key word. No story about Mongolian food is complete without a (sizeable) mention of meat, and many Mongolians apply this ethos to their eating habits.

“I adore meat. We all love meat,” exclaims local tour guide and director of Mongolia Trails, Timur Yadamsuren. “And the meat in Mongolia is the best. Our cattle are grass-, flower- and herb-fed.”

Approximately half of the Mongolian population lives nomadically in gers – a portable circular tent made of light wood and covered with felt – moving two or three times a year. They live by and for their livestock. Traditionally meat is only eaten in the winter months, and dairy produce is the main component of their diet for the remainder of the year.

Mongolia is landlocked between China and Russia, and cookery influences from both countries made their way into Mongolia first – Chinese food in particular fast gaining popularity in larger towns.

 

Mongolia tips

• Most travellers to Mongolia will need to organise a visa before arrival.

• The Mongolian tögrög or tughrik (MNT) is the currency of Mongolia. USD1 is about MNT1,685.

• Tipping in restaurants is not expected, but welcomed.

• Most Ulaanbaatar restaurants are in the city centre and reachable on foot. Official taxis are easy to book through hotels.

• Mongolia is expansive and tourist attractions are spread out. Many roads are unsealed and can be
difficult to navigate. It’s advisable to book a tour that will take care of your travelling needs. Intrepidtravel. com is a trusted global brand.

• Read up on Mongolian ger etiquette. If you’re fortunate to be invited into a ger, you’ll get to experience Mongolian nomadic life first-hand. There’s a long list of rules to learn, including customs concerning which way to enter the ger, which hand to use when accepting food, gift protocol, milk spillage (a big no-no) and much more. Get knowledgeable and avoid embarrassment!