I feel like I’ve been blast into the past. It’s 1985, and vegetarianism is still a little unusual, unheard of in some places. Most of my friends are not vegetarian and have never encountered vegetarians before. They think it’s weird, and some of them give me hard time about it. I try hard not to tell people I’m vegetarian, because I don’t really want to have to justify it all the time. Dietary choices are personal (but the personal is political, as 1970s feminism taught us). Mostly, though, people don’t really care why I’m a vegetarian. They just want to feel better about their dietary choices, and they see mine as a threat or, at best, an oddity.
Fast forward to 2018. In the US and Europe, vegetarianism and veganism have caught on and gone mainstream. People are worried about their health. People are worried about animal welfare and cruelty. People are worried about climate change and the environmental impact of food. All sorts of different dietary options are out there, and the two v’s are not that strange. No one bats an eye about someone else being vegetarian or vegan, especially in certain neighborhoods in southern California, AKA vegan paradise. People who make fun of veganism are still out there, but they are easy to avoid. I haven’t had to justify my food choices in years.
Not so in Mongolia, which has a long, proud history of nomadic pastoralism, reliance on livestock for not just food but many aspects of daily life. Meat is food. Dairy is also food, as pastoralists rely on a wide variety of dairy products during the spring and summer months. But not to eat meat? It’s very strange. People are curious. They ask about it a lot. Under the curiosity there’s an undercurrent of bafflement, sometimes, rarely, suspicion. “It must be very difficult to be a vegetarian,” they say, not sure why someone would want to be so unhealthy.
But there are Mongolian foods without meat, and people in the city of Ulaanbaatar are getting interested in eating other kinds of food. The variety of vegetables available has increased tremendously over the last few years. There’s even a large vegetable market downtown (which I haven’t been to yet). Korean food is immensely popular; there are Korean restaurants everywhere, and the big-box store e-Mart has made it to Mongolia, providing a one-stop shopping experience with imports from Korea, including soy milk and tofu. There are vegetarian and vegan restaurants (even a Loving Hut, which I also haven’t made it to, yet).
So, it’s entirely easy to be a vegetarian in Mongolia. Especially if you are living here and have your own kitchen. I’m not sure about the tourist experience, but in our brief trips out of town, we’ve been treated to delicious vegetarian versions of Mongolian dishes like buuz (steamed dumplings) and khooshoor (a kind of fried pie, usually with meat). The farther out of town you get, the more difficult it might be to find vegetarian options; we’ll find out when we do more extensive traveling in the spring (stay tuned!). But here in Ulaanbaatar, every restaurant we’ve been to has had at least one or two vegetarian or vegan dishes, marked as such in the menu.
We haven’t been to many restaurants, partly because it’s not cheap, and I like to cook at home. Also, Emma is a limited eater, so she is not excited about going out to unfamiliar restaurants and encountering unfamiliar cuisines. It was a bit easier when she still ate meat. When she became vegetarian over a year ago, our eating out options became more limited, especially while traveling. Our favorite restaurant so far is the Big Bull Hot Pot, which is a very short walk from our home. Emma’s happy because they have ramen and tofu. I’m happy because they have an amazing variety of vegetables and mushrooms. They also have veggie dumplings, which we have yet to try.
As far as cooking at home goes, it’s also easy to find vegan and vegetarian options. I have fallen back to ovo-lacto since I’ve been here (mainly lacto, but I eat the occasional egg). It took a few weeks to find a source of tofu (e-Mart!), but there are plenty of canned beans available at the local shops. We rotate between a variety of bean dishes (I even found chili powder!), rice dishes, pasta, stews, and various soups (barley!), and Emma eats fried egg whites a fair amount (she won’t eat the yolks). I’m back to eating yogurt; it’s so good here! And so far, it’s been easy to find broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, cabbage, and zucchini. The variety is greater than I expected, based on what I read ahead of time. And the vegetables are really fresh, too. The only thing we miss is lentils, which I haven’t been able to find.
My experience as a vegetarian has always been that it’s a lot easier than non-vegetarians think. Even in Ethiopia, which has a wide variety of vegan options because the Orthodox Church requires “fasting” (not eating meat) two days a week, people thought being a vegetarian was difficult. It was easy! Same here. You don’t realize the variety of non-meat foods available until you stop eating meat. It makes sense; when I go out, I don’t bother looking at the meat items in the menu because I’m not going to order them. (Though at one shabu-shabu place, the “bull pizzle” caught my eye; it’s hilarious to me that people who will eat bull penis think that vegetarianism is strange.) I don’t imagine meat-eaters look much beyond the meat, so they might not realize what inroads vegetarianism has made.
I have lived in a lot of places where vegetarianism has not been common, so I am used to the range of responses, from disbelief to curiosity to hostility. In my American sub-culture, dietary choices are considered a personal matter (though the personal is political, right?), and people don’t even ask, though I have friends who talk endlessly about being gluten-free (which is now what vegetarianism was in the 80s, I guess). But go elsewhere, and you have to answer a lot of questions and listen to a lot of justifications for eating meat.
Last night, the vice president of my university, who is from South Korea, invited the president (also Korean) and several other Korean faculty and staff out to dinner. My daughter and I were also invited. We went to the Shangri-La Hotel, whose Café Park has an immense, elaborate buffet, with lots of different kinds of food. It was luxurious and, for me and Emma, a bit overwhelming. Even in the US, I steer clear of buffets (except for Souplantation, which we both love). But last night I was really excited by the salad bar, which was delicious, and there were several other vegetarian/vegan possibilities. Emma, on the other hand, had a harder time. She ended up with a couple of different rolls, corn from the salad bar, and a plate of rice with some sauce on it. If we were to go back, I think she would like the salad bar, but last night she was tired and really not up for it. There was also a noodle station which may be worth trying at some point.
While we were eating, the vice president mentioned our vegetarianism a few times. It came up that Emma was also vegetarian, and the president asked me, “Did you push her?” A natural question; I’m her parent and might have a lot of influence over her diet (if people only knew!). But no, she ate meat whenever she wanted to, up until she decided it was wrong to kill animals for food. (She also won’t buy leather.) She and I both came to our vegetarianism in different ways for different reasons, which might be hard for people to understand. At any rate, the vice president and president continued to discuss our diet in Korean, so I am not sure what they said, but every once in a while, I also heard, in English, “very difficult.” Once, the vice president came back from the buffet with a plate that was half meat, half kimchee and cabbage, and said, “Look! I am being vegetarian! I am following you!” I think we might be the first vegetarians he’s come across.
It’s interesting, because Emma and I don’t sit around talking about other people’s food choices. Especially not in front of them. But I’m used to being a dietary curiosity, and Emma will get used to it, too. Though she’ll probably get less of it than I did. When mainstream newspapers are running stories about how avoiding meat is one of the best ways to do something about climate change, it’s less weird to be vegetarian or vegan. Maybe before long we’ll have shifted, and meat-eaters will be the ones who have to justify their dietary choices, in a world where it makes little sense to grow human food just to feed to animals who are only going to be killed. In Mongolia, though, with a long cultural history of nomadism and a large population of free-ranging meat on the hoof (in 2017, there were around 70 million livestock for 3 million people), eating meat is a completely different story. One which I’ll be writing more about.