Vegetarianism takes (tender) root in meat-loving Mongolia
More Mongolians are going vegetarian as people seek healthier diets and restaurateurs seize the initiative. Vegetables remain unpopular, though; menus tend to feature traditional meat dishes made with soy.
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Even more than meat, the traditional Mongolian diet depends on dairy products. Milk is viewed as sacred; each morning, women in countryside homesteads and urban apartment blocks throw an offering of the day’s first milk tea to the sky.Skip to next paragraph
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A few generations ago, herding families subsisted almost entirely on milk products during summer, when grazing is good. Milk comes in all forms here: unsweetened yogurt, dried curds, thick cream, distilled liquor, pale cheese, or the ubiquitous milk tea.
According to Altanzaya, one of the challenges of starting a vegetarian restaurant in Mongolia is getting people to realize that the menu isn’t just dairy. The Mongolian terms are only subtly different; the phrases for dairy products (tsagaan idée) and vegetarian food (tsagaan khool) both translate to “white food.”
The menus of most vegetarian restaurants here use soy-based meat substitutes to mimic traditional Mongolian dishes. At all of them, vegetarian buuz and tsoivan are among the most popular items. Vegetable-based meals are less common, except at Ananda’s Cafe, which anchors its menu on a different vegetable medley every day – cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini, and others – to lure vegetarians hungry for a broader spectrum of nutrients.
The food’s originality, or lack thereof, is often beside the point. “The more we care about the environment and others and animals, the better we feel,” says Altanzaya.
Skepticism on both sides
Mongolian vegetarians often face skepticism. “A lot of people think we’re crazy,” says Erdenchimeg, a chef at the Loving Hut, a chain owned by the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association, which promotes meditation and prayer. She became a vegetarian in 2008 and in recent months switched to veganism – all part of a commitment to lessening her impact on the environment, she says.
Javkhlan, a university teacher in western Hovd Province, also took up vegetarianism18 months ago, after he began practicing the Supreme Master’s meditation technique. He cooks tofu, dehydrated soy meat, and what few vegetables are available in the province center. The imitation meat tastes bland without flavoring, but he doesn’t miss meat, he says. “I’m happy being vegetarian. My health has improved.”
Still, even some of the vegetarian restaurants’ employees haven’t fully committed, for example, Amarmurun, a server at the Stupa Cafe, part of the international Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a Tibetan Buddhist organization. “I like meat,” she says sheepishly. “I just work here.”