In a land saturated in milk, meat, and the likes, you’d think one would be hard-pressed to live a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle on the steppe.
As wealth and affluence enter the nation thanks to the mining boom, it brings with it greater variety in food choices. Year by year, it’s becoming easier and easier to maintain a vegan or vegetarian diet in Mongolia. The Economist even talked about it. Increasingly, you see young and old alike sitting down for vegetarian takes on classic dishes like khuushuur, buuz, and tsoiven.
Why the switch? Some do it because of health reasons, but there is still the pervasive attitude in the country that the traditional diet of meat and dairy is the healthiest for Mongolians. It’s an interesting thought, because I knew one Mongolian woman who switched to a vegetarian diet for health reasons. Unfortunately, she got very sick due to a variety of factors (the details of the illness were never disclosed to me). So, she was informed by everyone around her (including a doctor) that she needed meat in her diet, and that’s why she got so terribly ill. Now, she is back to eating meat, so there we have it. An unfortunate series of events in this case, I reckon.
The switch could come from influences form abroad, such as interaction with non-Mongolians. Some volunteers, when meeting their host families during training, perplex their families with their vegetarianism. Some families have no clue what to prepare for them. One volunteer got onions covered in mayo for a meal before straightening things out. To be fair, that was out in a small village in the countryside, where eating a strict vegetarian diet may not be in your best interests, or even possible, due to the limited selection of non-meat essentials. However, the exposure to such a diet can get people thinking. You see more of the selection available in aimag centers and large cities, like UB, Darkhan, and Erdenet, which, not coincidentally, is also where you see the most vegetarian options.
Another reason for the switch could be affordability. Vegetables tend to be cheaper than meat, although with the rate of inflation, it seems like everything is getting more expensive. Usually, the vegetarian and vegan restaurants (each with their own “master” that they follow, not necessarily Ching Hai, mentioned below) are the cheapest meals in any city. I enjoy the array of vegetables they include, as well as how filling they are.
Loving Hut has quite a presence in the nation, as well as mom and pop restaurants that play Supreme Master TV on loop. Some believe Ching Hai and her group are a cult, and I have been told that several times before. I’m not here to pass judgement on this aspect, however. It is a strange thought that I might be supporting a cult by visiting their restaurants, you know? Definitely worth mentioning.
One of my favorite places is a restaurant called Stupa in UB. The daily specials are pretty incredible: Linguine with broccoli and pine nuts, eggplant parmesan, carrot cake, and potatoes au gratin, just to name a few. There are plenty more all across the country. If you live in Mongolia, feel free to share where your favorite is.