The other day I was shopping at Tenger Plaza, my local supermarket, and I found quinoa in the grain section. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, quinoa originated in South America, in the Lake Titicaca basin of the Andes. It was domesticated around 7,000 years ago for livestock use, but people also started consuming it 3,000-4,000 years ago. It has a higher protein and mineral content than other grains, so it has also recently become popular in the USA and other places around the world as a healthier alternative to rice, wheat, and oats. Ironically, though its status in the USA has risen among foodies, it has been considered a low-status food in the countries of its origin. When the Spanish conquered the area, they considered it “food for Indians,” and tried to suppress its cultivation. At times, they forced farmers to grow wheat instead. More recently, though, Bolivian farmers worked with international aid organizations to export quinoa, and it has succeeded as an export crop. These days, many people living in quinoa growing regions can no longer afford it. They eat white bread, noodles, and other processed foods, which have gained status among young people.
I had gotten used to eating quinoa in California, and Emma likes it as well. Finding it here in Ulaanbaatar was a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t cheap—around $4 for a half-kilo package—and the first thing I noticed was that the package was in English. In fact, it was certified USDA Organic (a symbol I haven’t seen in a while), but next to that was an unfamiliar purple and orange logo with a bird in the center: “India Organic.” I flipped the package over and saw “Product of India” stamped on the back. The company is Nourish You, and the package read just like one you’d find in an American health food store with a US-style nutrition information chart. It was clearly packaged for potential export to the USA but had also found its way to the shelves on Tenger Plaza in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I bought a bag of the plain white quinoa, and also a mixture of quinoa and brown rice.
When I got home, I looked up http://www.nourishyou.in to find out more. It was started by a group of “young biotechnologists” who were concerned about the poor eating habits of Indians. Presumably wealthier Indians, as they also run an online shop featuring not only quinoa but chia, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, as well as boxes of muesli, with prices ranging from 177 Indian Rupees (around $2.50) to 825 rupees ($11). Their products are also available at amazon.in, placeoforigin.in, and other websites. Their own website features a blog with nutrition tips and recipes for their products.
Its presence in a Mongolian supermarket might seem a bit strange, but it fits in with a trend I’ve noticed here in Ulaanbaatar—an interest in healthy eating. Yesterday, on our way back from a department lunch at California Restaurant on Seoul Street, I saw an Italian vegan restaurant called Bosco Verde. I’ve also heard that there is a Loving Hut here, and there are numerous vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants listed on TripAdvisor. At the Shangri-La mall, there are a few smoothie joints, and smoothies seem to be popular here. People have also mentioned that Korean food has also become a popular option as urban Mongolians try to add more vegetables to their diets.
As far as organically grown food goes, it’s possible to find in supermarkets. I am not yet sure about produce here, but I’ve heard that there is hydroponically grown lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers that are essentially organic. I’ve found local organic flax oil, buckwheat, and sea buckthorn juice (which people drink here to boost their immunity in the winter). I’ve started paying more attention to labels as I get more familiar with my local supermarkets. I always look to see where food comes from (Mongolia, China, Russia, Korea, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Germany, and even the USA, just off the top of my head). If there’s any English, I read it, but often the packages are in many other languages, and English isn’t one of them, or they are only in Mongolian.
My label-reading here is different from my label reading in the USA or Switzerland, where I’m checking nutrition labels for sugar content and reading the ingredients. Here, it’s more with a curiosity about the origins of the food, since the imports are so apparent. I look for Mongolian foods, wherever possible, and I’ve been able to find quite a lot. Dairy and baked goods are easy, as well as eggs (which Emma eats a lot of now), tea, oatmeal, and honey. Some foods are not necessarily grown here but are packaged and sold by Mongolian companies. Now that I can read some Mongolian, it’s easier to look for local foods, but I usually tell from the address or telephone prefix (976).
The challenge for me now is that I don’t have a large kitchen, so my meals have to be quite simple. In California, I have a stove with four burners, an oven, a microwave, a juicer, a blender, and an Instant Pot. I also have a lot of pots and pans, since I took my parents’ after my mom died and added them to my own. Here in Mongolia, I have a hot plate and a rice cooker. My apartment came with the hot plate, and I bought the rice cooker on our first shopping expedition. I have a frying pan, a small covered sauce pan, a covered wok, and a larger casserole. So, I do a lot of one-pot cooking, and re-heat leftovers on the stove. We have a bit less variety in our diet, but I am getting a bit more creative with what we have to make things a little more interesting for me. Emma is happy with a simple diet, so that is good.