What happens when, try as you might, you really don’t get along with a country’s food? That’s pretty much what happened to me in Mongolia, and it made me consider the deep-rooted the link between what I eat and how I feel.
From the very good…to the very bad
Food fascinates me and it’s one of the elements I look forward to most when I travel. A plate of food can offer a glimpse into the history, landscape and traditions of a country. It’s the perfect introduction to a new place and I’ll always try to eat local, which (happily) also tends to go hand-in-hand with cheaper, fresher food.
I’d been travelling through Asia for over a year, making my way through South Asia, South East Asia and southern China. These are regions blessed with some spectacular food, much of which had left me licking my fingers in delight. I looked forward to trying new dishes on an almost daily basis. Rarely (aside from the odd bout of Delhi Belly) losing my appetite for local food.
Then I reached Mongolia; a vast landscape shrouded in mystery, but alas, not exactly known for having a rich or exciting food culture. It’s a food culture born of the traditional nomadic lifestyle that people here followed for centuries (and that 25 percent of the population still follow).
Red food and white food – meat and dairy – are the cuisine’s cornerstones. Foods that are mobile and easily preserved, two crucial elements for nomadic life.
For most of the year the climate in Mongolia is unsuitable for growing vegetables and cultivating them doesn’t lend itself to a nomadic life. Historically, vegetables were also considered by the Mongols to be “goat food”. From the scarcity of vegetables making an appearance in Mongolia today I’d say that this thinking still holds true.
What shall we eat for dinner?
I’m always excited about my next plate of food. No sooner have I finished one meal than I’m thinking about what I could eat later – in Mongolia this all changed.
I got to the point where I dreaded meals. The thought of yet another bowl of mutton soup or another buuz (dumpling) filled with cubes of lamb fat made me feel miserable about eating for the first time on the whole journey.
It’s hard to underestimate the power that food has to alter our moods. Your favourite food can provide a temporary high or momentary refuge from some other problem in your life. It’s a form of edible escapism. Likewise on the flip side; when you only have access to food that you don’t enjoy, it can bring your mood down.
(Before anyone starts throwing things at me – I realise this is a very first world problem and one that it’s a luxury to have!)
Longterm travel and food
I’m not a picky eater (honestly!). In fact I think that longterm, budget travelling is a lot harder if you are picky about what you eat. Sure, I have preferences, things that I’d prefer not to eat, things that I don’t really enjoy eating, but, if the situation dictates that something I dislike is all that’s on offer then I’ll try to suck it up.
Food-wise I also tend to have a try anything once attitude. Recently this maxim has led me to eating, amongst other things, horse sausage, brain tacos and playing Chinese menu roulette (close your eyes, point at an item on the menu, hope for the best) on the regular.
I always view food as part of my travel experience, I don’t visit places to eat the same kind of food that I can eat back in London. Part of the attraction of travelling, for me, is that I get to eat food that I wouldn’t at home. Or versions of dishes cooked by or with locals. It’s part of learning about and embracing another culture.
That said, after being on the road for long periods there are days when all I want is a bowl of green vegetables or a simple tomato and cucumber salad. Eating something so uncomplicated when you’ve been eating meat for the past 14 days straight is very attractive. But in Mongolia that wish was mostly unattainable.
On the lamb
I had an inkling that Mongolia wasn’t to be my spiritual food home before I’d even arrived. For a start mutton is one of the country’s staple foods, but you see lamb and I do not get along.
When I was a kid I often spent the summer in Tunisia, where my dad’s from, and stewed lamb was on the menu most days. Stewed lamb and 40 degree heat didn’t really do it for me and since then, lamb and I have pretty much gone our separate ways.
It’s mostly the smell. Lamb, and especially boiled lamb fat, has a pungent, farmy, odour that wraps itself around my nostril hairs and is near impossible to flush out. Before I’ve even raised a fork to my mouth my brain is already rejecting it.
However, I wasn’t prepared for quite the level of lambiness I encountered in Mongolia. Avoiding it was difficult as most meals consisted of some kind of meat, usually mutton. Even my attempt at ordering vegetable soup was foiled; they’d just picked the pieces of mutton out and left the vegetables. It was mutton soup in disguise.
I took to carrying a tube of Adjika chilli paste in my bag, so that when the unavoidable happened – another mutton packed meal – I could at least smother it with a taste I love.
Food is personal
I’ll bet there’s a particular food that you aren’t a fan of too. Something, that were it served to you day after day after day might make you a bit miserable.
It reminds me of a play I studied for one of my A-levels, Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. A doctor subjects Woyzeck, the main character, to a cruel medical experiment, whereby he is only allowed to eat raw peas for three months. He ends up having hallucinations and a complete physical and mental health breakdown. It’s the same reason that fad diets make people miserable. Food not only nourishes us physically but mentally too and when deprived of things we enjoy eating it can have a huge impact on how we feel.
But what one person loathes, another loves.
One evening in Mongolia we invited one of our new friend’s out to thank her for finding us a place to stay for a few nights. She told us that she couldn’t come for dinner because she already had a sheep head cooking at home. “It’s my favourite meal!” she declared. Our offer was not worth missing out on that for.
On another occasion we were staying with a family of yak famers in the Altai region. For their dinner they tucked into a tray of lamb fat and the sheer joy that this shared plate of lamb bits gave them was clear to see. It was an utter delight and pleasure for them, the most delicious thing they could think to eat.
But I don’t think it’s just a matter of taste or flavour. There are a whole host of associations and cultural ties bound up with liking certain foods. For example, Mongolians serve the platter of lamb fat I mentioned above on a communal plate. If you didn’t like what was on that shared plate then you would automatically be excluded from that moment of bonding and social interaction.
Can you change how you feel?
According to some research it is possible to learn to like food that you dislike. You can literally train yourself to enjoy certain foods by eating them more often, building up a tolerance. The idea being that when we’re born we’re a blank slate in terms of our food preferences. We learn what to like and dislike. What we come to perceive as a delicious meal depends on a host of different things. From what we’re fed growing up, to past events and their impact on us, through to our beliefs and ethics.
In an episode of the always excellent podcast Gastropod, they investigate cilantro (coriander) and its love-it-or-hate-it reputation. Food scientist Harold McGee suggests that cilantro haters can convert their hate to like by introducing cilantro in small doses. You could try the same experiment with any food I suppose.
I’m not convinced it’s possible. Maybe if I’d grown up eating fatty lamb all the time I’d love the stuff, but I didn’t and to be honest I’m not that keen to start a course of fatty lamb conversion therapy. Unless some day I move to Mongolia…then it might be a good idea.
I still want to go back to Mongolia, the cuisine hasn’t scared me off. It’s a fascinating place whose charms far override the lack of desirable food options. If we’re being honest, Mongolia isn’t ever going to be food destination, but why does it have to be?
I’ll go more prepared next time though, with a stash of foods that boost my mood. Just to balance out those lamby-lows.
Find out what else there is to eat in Mongolia, besides the lashings of lamb, in my Eating in Mongolia post.