One Dish Meal
Some of you have been asking us about food (here it is Paige) in Mongolia. Although the choices are not as varied as they are in the United States, this note should help convince you that we are not wasting away. Along with a new currency and the need to use higher math for even simple transactions (all vendors use calculators to calculate prices—more than a thousand tugrugs for a small bag of potatoes) comes a simplified shopping list. At the big market there are a couple dozen vegetable vendors who have finally moved from outdoor stands to a large one-room building. They all sell exactly the same thing, and when I enter the door at one end they are all hoping I will choose their vegetables over their neighbors', making for a lot of guilt (mine) and disappointment (theirs.) At this time of year their list of offerings is short: carrots, cabbage, turnips, potatoes, and onions of several varieties. They also have garlic, and a few remaining beets. There are even a few watermelons, but our last one was not so good, so we are done with them for this year. Until a week ago there were still local tomatoes, pale and ripened in the dark, but quite tasty compared to hothouse tomatoes from home. At the pink market we find Chinese cherry tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, along with some imported fruit. And today, at the stand of the woman who has helped me through my weeks of ignorance about Mongolian money and numbers, we found two large pumpkins for the Russian/English department pumpkin pies that Judy volunteered to make.
The vegetables here are substantial and hearty in a way that makes our grocery store variety seem wimpy. Here they go from the earth into large bags, and in the same bags to market, where you are the first person to touch them since they were pulled from the ground. There is no washing or even rinsing until you get them home, and there has been little if any sorting. Most noticeable is their serious build. These are vegetables that are competitive with meat (which deserves its own notebook) in a Mongolian diet. Their job is to make it through a very serious winter, and they do not do so by being delicate. Especially husky are the carrots, with broad shoulders and a sharp taper that helps get them out of the ground and into storage without damage.
Entirely missing of course, is salad, a fact that I anticipated by bringing seeds. A couple weeks after we arrived I planted my first batch of mesclun and arugula, and I have another container of soil ready to plant today. I am hopeful.
Here's a collection of meals made with these ingredients in our modest kitchen—one thin frying pan and pot that came with the apartment, and a smaller pot that we bought to cook rice. Our tiny sink still doesn't have hot water, making dish washing difficult. And although we have four electric burners, only two work when you turn on the oven. For these reasons, I have been trying to perfect the one-dish meal.