| Organic in Mongolia |
Winter is long , cold and windy in Mongolia. And so the Mongolian diet, especially in the rural countryside, relies almost exclusively on meat (cow, lamb, yak, horse). Not a happy place for vegetarians or … gasp …. vegans! In every ger (yurt), so many deep-fried versions of piroshki filled with makh (meat), milk-tea (tiny bits of tea, lots of cow milk), tons of delicious homemade bread and butter (with sprinklings of sugar on top). And yak milk ice cream, definitely an acquired taste.
In the nation’s capitol, Ulan Bator (also sometimes spelled Ulaanbaatar), home to roughly half the country’s entire population, food choices are significantly more diverse. It offers an increasing array of ethnic restaurants and cafés. But even in UB (travelers’ shorthand for this bustling city of a million+), the Organic Café Shop is an especially welcome and delicious discovery. It’s a Mongolian green pioneer—the nation’s first restaurant and store to focus exclusively on organic foods.
Newly opened in mid-2010 by Bayarmaa Jarantai, her sister Enkhmaa and nephew Lkhagvasuren, this cozy, wooden-paneled, 4-table café offers a tiny but rewarding menu. I tried (on 2 separate visits), the vegetable salad (shredded cabbage with bell peppers, carrots and seasoning), stir-fried vegetables with tofu and the asparagus soup—all great. Other tempting entrees: 10-grain soup, eggplant, Mongolian tsuivan (vegetarian fried noodles). Prices range from 2,500–4,500 tugrik (USD $1.75 – $3.00). Vegetables used in the kitchen, while not certified organic, are sourced locally from farmers and gardeners who commit to not using chemicals.
Organic groceries from China
Entering the premises, you’re greeted by a handful of shelves of certified organic groceries, primarily stables such as rice, grains, sugars and jams. As Mongolia doesn’t yet have any homegrown organic packaged goods, all of what’s offered here is currently imported from China (from Lohao City distributors), due to an apparently exclusive organic trade relationship between the 2 nations. These grocery items tend to be on the more expensive side, but that’s likely to change as the market expands.
The place is not hard to find. It’s in downtown UB, about 4 blocks north of the central square and main post office, at 6 Ankaragiin Gudamj (which translates to “walk about”), on the west side of the street. The sign outside in Cyrillic letters spells out Organic Café Shop phonetically. Daily except Sunday, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served from 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; 10 a.m.–4 p.m. on Saturday.
Bayarmaa’s interest in health foods began when 3 books about macrobiotics were first translated into Mongolian, about 5 years ago. She estimates there are at least 120 Mongolians, mostly women, who’ve taken classes in UB on macrobiotic health from a few local experts, forming an initial core customer base. She plans to expand grocery and menu options in the coming months, though how she’ll manage to find fresh, locally grown vegetables during the hard winters remains something of a mystery, even to her.—Michael Straus, Contributing Editor