Dear Friends and Family,
Walk into a Mongolian supermarket and you will find an abundance of dairy products. Cheese, of course, commands a sizable portion of shelf space but it is also surrounded by a whole cohort of peers; including products that are familiar to me (milk, yogurt, butter, sour cream) as well as those that are strange and more difficult to identify (aarul, aarts, camel milk energy drinks, powdered horse milk).
If you wonder what I am doing strolling around grocery stores (which are a trek from the countryside), the explanation is simple: I decided to leave yurt life to explore more broadly the relationship between cheese and Mongolian culture by contrasting my rural experience with an urban one.
I miss the countryside (whose beauty stands out against the noise and pollution of my new home, Ulaanbaatar) but city life is not without its perks. I am renting a great apartment and it is nice to have access to a hot shower again, as well as a laundry machine. I also like the new challenges of life here, such as navigating unfamiliar streets, decoding the Mongolian alphabet to read signs and figuring out how to wave down taxi cabs. (In Ulaanbaatar, anyone can be a taxi driver and so you must have a little faith and hold out your hand until someone stops. Yesterday, I got a ride home with a spikey-haired, punk teenager.)
Best-of-all, Ulaanbaatar has a lot to offer a cheese explorer. In addition to the vast dairy section of almost every market, even the smallest, hole-in-the-wall type corner stores sell a range of cheese and milk products. You can even find, next to the beer and cola products no less, buckets of bulk raw milk equipped with self-serve ladles. While I have not yet come across milk tea, a beverage Chimgee, Haygaa, and I drank with every meal, the multitude of dairy products indicate how central milk is to the Mongolian diet.
Whats more, the city provides a more nuanced look at the relationship between milk and Mongolia. As I was walking around, I found the following cheese-based foods: Camembert mousse cake, cheese cake, cheese cake ice cream, and cheese puff snacks. I never expected to find something as American as “cheese cake” or as French as “camembert mousse cake” and I cannot help but wonder if these dairy treats suggest that Mongolia is on the cusp of a culinary expansion.
Seeing as traditional Mongolian food is very basic, un-spiced variations of three staples (beef, hardy vegetables and, of course, dairy), I would not be surprised if there is a growing interest in new flavors and global food trends.
I am still looking for friends (which is difficult as I do not speak Mongolian and this city is hardly a tourist destination— meaning few locals speak any English) but most everyone is friendly and I am enjoying the fresh “cheese trails” to explore as well as the quiet, self-reflective time that comes with being alone.