Vegetarian Guide to Mongolia
Until very recently, Mongolia was probably the last place on earth a vegetarian would want to… well, eat. With annual consumption of meat topping 200 pounds per person and livestock outnumbering people 14 to 1, Mongolia is a carnivore’s paradise. But a few years ago, vegetarianism hit the streets of Ulaanbaatar and now there around 25 restaurants in the city and a further 10 in the countryside offering a vegetarian menu.
Luna Blanca, a vegan restaurant opened in 2008 and is ranked #2 out of 142 restaurants in Mongolia by Trip Advisor and #4 in the 2013 Edition of the Lonely Planet Guide. It offers a variety of fresh salads, soups and main dishes made with soy and tofu. The international vegan chain Loving Hut also has a has 12 branches in Mongolia, most in UB, but also in Erdenet, Uvurkhangai, Bulgan, Khutul and Darhan. Operating as a franchise, each restaurant is slightly different in character but all are well-priced.
Nomadic herding has always been at the core of the country’s culture and its attendant diet, heavy in meat and dairy, is the national norm. The new popularity of vegetarianism seems at first glance completely at odds with the traditional Mongolian lifestyle. Reports vary, but about 1% of Mongolia’s population, that’s an estimated 30,000 people, are believed to be vegetarian. It could be explained, in part at least, as a trend away from the past to a more urbane, cosmopolitan, sophisticated future – young people rejecting the eating habits of previous generations. In a fundamentally Buddhist country, vegetarianism might seem to resonate, but more and more people are actually turning to it for reasons of health.
Access to fruit and vegetables has increased, with fresh produce now being available in supermarkets and shops – most of it imported from China. For all Mongolia’s wide open spaces, a dry mountainous landscape and a nomadic lifestyle have meant very little agriculture goes on. UB Post correspondent and committed vegan, Undraa says: “In Mongolia, we have so much land, yet most of our fruits and vegetables are coming from China. We should plant our own vegetables in our own soil… In fact, right now, many of our association members are planting sea-buckthorn seeds. They are planting sea-buckthorn by their own hands. They hope to sell the fruit to the people and get people to consume organic, Mongolian fruit.”
There are efforts to encourage people to grow their own fruit and vegetables, again with the emphasis on the health benefits. Professor Oyuntsetseg, an expert in Food Engineering and Biotechnology from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology says, “Several studies show that regular fruit and vegetable consumption reduces the risk of coronary artery disease which is the third most likely causes of death for Mongolians.” Vegetarians also have lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians, all health risks for Mongolians.
Travelling to the countryside, particularly if you are going to a homestay with a nomadic family in a ger, is going to be a lot more problematic for visiting vegetarians to Mongolia. The harsh winters and sparse conditions have created a strong tradition of utilising every part of the animal for food and sustenance, from hooves and bones boiled up for broth, intestines and offal enjoyed with relish, skulls picked clean with hunting knives… nothing is wasted. Ask your guide to give your hosts advance warning about what you will and won’t eat, but don’t be surprised if you are still offered meat. Mongolian hospitality is legendary and a matter of honour. Pasta, rice and potatoes are common family accompaniments, and if you stock up on canned and dried goods before you leave the city to supplement this, you will get by. In fact, offering storecupboard products as a gift to your hosts would be most appreciated.
Altanzaya, co-owner of Luna Blanca, says vegetarianism is taking off in popularity as a reaction to the“extreme meat consumption,” of most Mongolians. She also co-owns Green Tara Ltd, a company importing and distributing vegan meals and food products. “Our goal is to make meat-free foods available,” she says.
It is certainly becoming easier to eat as a vegetarian in Mongolia. At Panoramic Journeys, we pride ourselves on being able to cater – with style and substance! – for the dietary needs of all our guests, including our vegetarian clients. Our own chefs can prepare dishes with fresh ingredients and to an internationally high standard. So whatever your food choices, don’t let that put you off visiting Mongolia!