My Culinary Journey

Before coming to Mongolia, I could count on one hand how many times I had cooked a meal entirely independently (exactly five times). My mother was worried I would slowly starve, returning to the States merely as a sack of skin and bones. Luckily, that has turned out not to be the case. During PST, I lost about 12 pounds of which I have gained back about 5 since being at site. This most likely has to do with cooking becoming a staple in my life.

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Weight loss example A (it’s all in the face)

Peace Corps Volunteers crave aspects of their life which they can control. So many decisions are made for us or only with permission, from travel to adopting pets. As a result, volunteers focus on the parts of life which are under their control. Female volunteers, for example, frequently go through various hair styles and even colors in an attempt to have some semblance of control. While I have opted not to go this route, I have realized that cooking has become that anchor for me. It’s difficult to go out to a restaurant outside of UB and find food that really satisfies my cravings. Therefore, it’s up to me to cook the food I want. What does this mean for me? Foods that use spices, most commonly, Hungarian spices. There’s little that can make a person feel more at home than food.

Evenings are now spent watching Netflix, doing Zumba, and cooking when I’m bored. I never thought I would be experimenting with spices and various meals, especially in a foreign country with limited supplies. I’m lucky that I can at least find meat besides mutton. The chicken in Arvaikheer comes as chicken drumsticks, breaded strips, or plain chicken breast. Unfortunately for soum dwellers, only mutton and occasionally breaded drumsticks can be found in rural areas of Mongolia. Furthermore, they have fewer vegetables. While I can find bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, onions, squash, turnips, carrots, and occasionally rotten avocados, soum dwellers have a more challenging time finding vegetables. In some cases, people are happy they can even find peppers, let alone tomatoes, most of which are rotten. In any case, the spices, which perfect meals, are limited, so I’m grateful for the spices I brought from America or that have been sent to me. Among them are: Hungarian paprika, Old Bay, thyme, cinnamon, cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean, vanilla sugar (which can be bought in Mongolia), and Jamaican jerk. Here in Mongolia, I bought: basil, dried parsley, salt, pepper, and cumin. I’ve also made ample use of pickle juice for marinating chicken. Using these spices, it has been pretty easy to cook foods that remind me of home.

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Spice cabinet

I only have a stove top with two heaters, so unfortunately, I can’t make foods that require an oven (although I am in the market for a crock pot). However, I have gotten more creative and even strayed during the school break from the three meals I typically make. Generally, I do a rotation between chicken (either with paprika and cheese or marinated in pickle juice and topped with salt, pepper, and paprika) with mashed potatoes and green beans, paprikás krumpli (potatoes with Hungarian paprika), and lecsó (peppers with egg cooked Hungarian style). I also started making palacsinta (Hugarian crepes). During the last school break, I was with one of my counterparts who pulled out a treasure from her fridge, a type of food I have yet to find in the States, the gem of my new diet: curds. Now, I mean smooth curds, like before cottage cheese becomes clumpy. In Hungary, there are sheep curds (juhtúró) that are used in various meals, from dinners and spreads on bread to dessert fillings. Here in Mongolia, people typically eat camel curds (the highest quality) and cow curds, while sheep, goat, and horse curds are available but not popular. My CP had a half kilo of camel curds, which I was lucky enough to have bestowed upon me. I had just made palacsinta with which túró as a filling goes perfectly. I made túró from half of the camel curds and used the other half to make körözött (Hungarian spread with paprika and onions). Boy was I happy that week. I’ve also made fruit mixes from frozen fruits: strawberries, blackberries, and lingonberries. I typically add brown sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon to make a delicious fruity filling. Sometimes I add oatmeal to the mix and freeze it, siding it with whipped cream. The best dessert I have made so far is called madártej (which literally means “bird milk” and is similar to the French dessert called “Floating Islands”) and required about 3 hours of hand-whipping egg whites with two forks (early onset of carpal tunnel on the horizon). It turned out exactly like my father’s, which made me extremely proud. One time I even made buffalo chicken dip with ranch dressing found in Arvaikheer and cheddar cheese, hot sauce, and cream cheese from UB; it tasted about the same as buffalo chicken dip but wasn’t as much of a dip as it was chicken with some cheese added to it (probably because cheese is so expensive I didn’t want to use a lot and hot sauce isn’t as diluted as buffalo sauce is so I didn’t want to use too much). I also made chicken soup for the first time (although I only had beef bouillon cubes). Most recently, I experimented with rizses hús (Hungarian style meat with rice and eaten with pickles) and maple syrup glazed carrots for Thanksgiving (by request, not a personal favorite). Rather than using beef, I used chicken, and it turned out to be delicious, especially with pickles as a side-dish.

Of all my cooking attempts, only two have gone poorly. One time I added oil to the palacsinta batter per the recipe online (this was before I was sent my Dad’s famous recipe)… This resulted in the crepes breaking apart and sticking to the pan no matter how burnt they got. They still tasted okay at least. However, my worst cooking experience was the first time I made pasta. I had read online that one can never add too much salt to pasta, so I proceeded to add too much salt. On top of salty pasta, I was attempting to use beef, which seems to have a strange aftertaste here in Mongolia. I was hoping that cooking the beef in the pasta sauce I was making from tomato paste would mask the taste. This was not the case. I powered through and ate all the pasta, but it was quite the feat. My mother researched online and found that soaking the beef and mutton in lemon juice can rid the meat of the aftertaste, so perhaps this will be included in my next experiment.

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First attempt at pasta turned out extremely salty

I am excited to continue to experiment with Hungarian meals and hopefully become adept enough at cooking them that I can move on to Mongolian meals like buuz and tsuivan. We’ll see whether this goal ever reaches fruition. Wish me luck!

P.S. Don’t worry about cooking if you’re considering coming to Mongolia with the Peace Corps… you’ll definitely learn to cook, and think of how much easier cooking will be when you’re back in the States. I know I do! I fully expect to be able to cook delicious feasts once I’m back home.

My New Home Part 2: Arriving at Site

With an 8-hour trip looming ahead, I had ample time for a lot of people watching. Basically, the bus ride demonstrated the communal culture within Mongolia. At the beginning of the trip, the bus riders did not particularly talk. It seemed it was an “each person for himself” setting. It was like a guessing game, wondering what each person would bring on the bus. I saw: 4 dozen eggs, a toddler’s bike, and khuushuur to name a few. As the trip progressed, children began walking up and down the aisles, and adults were conversing. A 5-year-old boy in front of me began playing peek-a-boo with me, while a 2-year-old behind me came up on his bike and excitedly stared at me. Upon reaching the halfway point for a restroom/eating break, everyone dispersed. The 5-year-old boy’s grandmother left him in the care of my supervisor, whom she had just met on the bus 4 hours earlier. At the stop, I met two students who attended my school. One of them had graduated the year before and was also on my bus. The rest of the trip, I sat next to him and had long philosophical discussions about why Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez broke up (my insight: they were too young to have a relationship in the spotlight. Brilliant, isn’t it?). We listened to the Justin Bieber songs he had saved on his phone and only stopped when the music videos on the bus switched from traditional Mongolian music to a Rihanna song. Once the song was over though, we were back to the Biebster. The second half of the trip felt a bit longer than the first. Take a gander why…

Anyway, we eventually reached my aimag center where my supervisor’s sister was waiting to pick us up. We drove to their mother’s house; she had prepared tsuivan for me, as my supervisor had asked what my favorite Mongolian meal is: tsuivan. Then it was time to go to my apartment!

My apartment turned out to be very big. It’s on the first floor, about a two-minute walk from my school. My friend, Valerie (Valerie’s Blog), lives on the third floor. Her apartment is a very different set-up. Luckily, she has an oven, and I have a fridge, so we have everything we need. I am fortunate because my apartment has hot water, a microwave, a queen-sized bed, and a semi-automatic washing machine!

I slept extremely well after having arrived so late that night. My supervisor let me sleep in before taking me to the market. Since my school and Valerie’s are so close, our supervisors have taken us to do a lot of activities together. We checked out the market the first day and also went to local immigration and housing to register in the aimag center. So far, we have mainly bought cheese and supplies for our apartments, like cups, plates, and pots and pans. The apartments are relatively bare, but they are starting to feel cozier! For example, a drying rack and shower curtain are now present in my apartment! I’ve even been able to cook! This is especially impressive considering I had only cooked five times in my life before coming to Mongolia. My first meal here was over-salted pasta. I’d read online that you could never add too much salt when making pasta, so obviously I proceeded to add too much salt. However, my second meal, chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes turned out extremely well! See for yourself… or as much as a picture can demonstrate deliciousness.

Valerie and I have hung out a lot. The first night we made pizza from scratch. It turned out alright…

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Valerie made a great point in our group message with the other PCVs from our training site. She said that she thinks we are having a uniquely different experience being able to live so close to one another. The feeling of impending solidarity hasn’t hit us yet. Not only do we have each other, we also have two site-mates in the aimag center, one of whom was a Resource Volunteer for another training site this summer. We have gone on two hikes so far: one with our site-mates and one with the few Mongolians we know. These included Valerie’s supervisor and counterpart (my supervisor was busy painting the new house her family had built two days before) and two neighbor girls who like to explore the aimag center with me.

It’s surprising how quickly you can start to feel integrated in a new place. The two neighbor girls are eager to show me around. They have taken me to the amusement park twice. The first time they wanted to pay for me since I forgot money, which I didn’t allow, so we went back the next day. We rode the Dragon Twin ride together; however, they left me to ride the merry-go-round by myself as they watched from the sidelines… no worries, I enjoyed it though (always love horseback riding, no matter if the horse is real). We also went to the local garden and some nearby stores. During the walk to the garden with the two girls, I ran into my supervisor’s sister leaving the bank! Earlier that day, I had seen the 5-year-old boy from the bus and his grandmother at a дэлгүүр (delguur – small shop). It’s crazy how small the aimag center is starting to feel. Yesterday evening, one of the girls held an origami lesson for the two of us at my apartment, and I have already made friends with a sweet lady who sells vegetables at one of the stands at the market! Furthermore, when I mentioned that Peace Corps recommends apartments getting new locks as a safety measure, two school workers came and immediately switched the lock (it probably helps that my landlord used to be the school director). However, the next day, my key wasn’t working. I called one of the English teachers from my school to inform her, as well as talked to one of the neighbor girls. I went from being alone in the hallway to having 8 Mongolians show up: the neighbor girl, a random boy from the apartment building, the school worker, my supervisor, the English teacher, and the English teacher’s husband and two children.  The lock was quickly fixed. My school and aimag center are already so welcoming. I can’t wait to see what the year brings! By the way… I’m now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer, forgot to mention that!