Mongolian Food: Intro


When in the US, a lot of people ask us what Mongolian food is like, and a typical second part of the initial question is, “Is it like Chinese food?” In short: no, it isn’t, although there are a few similarities. To be fair, what Americans typically think of as Chinese food isn’t really what they eat in China either. (JUST SAYING!)

animal close up daylight domestic

Photo by DoDo PHANTHAMALY on

If I could boil down Mongolian cuisine into its simplest form, I would say that it’s meat and dairy. Traditionally, Mongolian nomadic herders would eat milk products in spring and summer (when the livestock is giving birth and raising their young) and meat products in the fall and winter–when animals are old enough to be butchered and prepared in a variety of ways.

The Mongolian diet is more varied than that, of course, but those are the base foods that the vast majority of Mongolians love to eat. (There are, of course, vegetarian and vegan outliers, but they are outliers for a reason!) I’m hoping to put together a short series of posts on Mongolian food in the next few weeks or so, depending on our schedule. It’s been a busy…life. 🙂 My goal is to have posts on breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.


Beth sig



Gandantegchinlen Monastery, Gandan Khiid, or simply Gandan, is a large complex on the north side of UB that consists of several temples, a monastery, and a few Buddhist educational centers. The two links above provide a decent rundown of the history of Gandan, so I will simply write here about my own experiences in this place.

When I first visited Gandan in August 2014, I was struck by the abundant art and architecture throughout the complex. Gateways and buildings, especially under the eaves, are particularly detailed. What stood out to me the most about that first visit were the copious amounts of pigeons everywhere and the smell of juniper as incense smoke wafted from ornate metal containers. Nowadays, the pigeons are still a large part of Gandan, but they remain primarily outside of the complex walls as their proliferation was beginning to be viewed as a health hazard. People sell birdseed outside Gandan’s front gate to feed the pigeons with the hopes that said birds will bring prayers up to heaven.

In the subsequent years, we have visited Gandan a number of times–with newly arrived foreign teachers, with students, and with visiting family members. Each new visit reveals new knowledge and a deeper understanding of Mongolians’ practice of Buddhism and its influence on the nation. One time, we visited the attached college where would-be monks can study in preparation for their futures. Another time, we encountered a class of young boys in training for future lives in the monastery. The youngest boy was only six years old, and one of the older boys said that they wouldn’t graduate, per se, but that their education was for life. On yet another visit, I encountered a Buddhist nun* in an otherwise unopened temple, which is the only time that I’ve seen a Buddhist nun in Mongolia.

Many people go to Gandan. Of course, there are the tourists like us, some of whom are curious about the place for its historic value while others are keen on exploring its spiritual roots. However, the vast majority of those who visit the complex are Mongolian. They go to pray, to meditate, to find peace. Wealthy and poor, old and young, you will see a bit of every strata in the country here–except, perhaps, the Kazakh minority who are by and large Muslim practitioners. Even some of our students who wouldn’t consider themselves Buddhist still visit Gandan from time to time.

If you visit Mongolia, Gandan is worth a trip if you are interested in the country’s religious heritage. Whereas Mongolians visit the site for free, foreigners must pay for admission. Inside the largest temple (with the notable statues), picture takers must pay an additional fee, but otherwise there is no photography charge (as of now–that could change in the future). Find a guide if you can, but otherwise, take the time to observe, be respectful, and learn what you can.

*I’m not sure if this is the correct term, actually, but I haven’t found a term specific to Buddhism that differentiates between male and female devotees in this way. If you know a different and/or correct term, please let me know in the comments!

Heart Home


This is where we find ourselves these days–home and yet not home. Our hearts and feet in two different worlds. We have been back in the US since June 2018, and although our current situation is “home”, we yearn to be back in Mongolia. Because we are actively working towards returning to Mongolia, we feel as if we can’t put down deep roots. Everything here (housing, work, health insurance, etc.) is temporary, and we know that and feel the constant reminder.

There are many good things about being in the US right now. The best part about living here for longer than a month or two in the summer is that we have more time to spend with friends and family that we have lived apart from for the last four years. It also means that we have access to resources that we didn’t have in Mongolia, primarily early intervention services for Z who is still not speaking at almost 3 years. (To be fair, I didn’t speak until about three years of age, and there are several other relatives on both sides of the family who had delayed speech but no other developmental concerns.) We aren’t truly concerned about Z not yet talking, but we do want to make sure that he is speaking before we return to Mongolia. Speech therapists are rare to nonexistent (to our knowledge) in UB, and English-language speech therapists? Might as well ask for a rainbow colored unicorn.

Even so, we hope to return to Mongolia in fall 2019 or possibly spring 2020, but there are many factors that need to line up just so before we can go back. In the meantime, I hope to making blogging a more regular event here with both personal updates and interesting information about Mongolia. The biggest reason folks contact us through this blog is because there’s so little up to date info about Mongolia on the internet so I hope we can help out in that regard.


Small Town Life


Caleb is an English teacher who I know of from mutual friends in UB. Recently, he’s moved to a small town in Bayan Khongor to teach English in a more rural setting. If you’re curious what life outside of UB looks like, I recommend checking out his YouTube channel! He’s only just begun making videos, but I anticipate his channel being very informative as it develops.


Day Bag Packing Suggestions – City


If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you’re either interested in our lives or interested in visiting Ulaanbaatar or Mongolia at some point. We don’t spend all of our days either teaching or parenting, so we’ve had plenty of time to figure out what are some good items to keep on hand–or leave at home–whenever we go out. Without further ado, here are our recommendations.

DO Bring:

  • Water – It’s very dry in Mongolia most of the year, and it’s easy to get dehydrated. If you finish your water while out, there are convenience stores everywhere that sell bottled water.
  • Cash – You can use bank cards in UB, but cash is far easier. Think ahead to how much you might need during your outing and try to stick to that amount only.
  • Small packets of tissues – Public restrooms sometimes have toilet paper, but more often than not, you will wish that you had something along that you can use. Remember to toss used tissues into the garbage cans in the toilet stalls and not down the toilets themselves.
  • Photo-taking device – Whether it’s a camera or a cellphone (or tablet), you’ll probably want to take photos or videos while you’re exploring the city. If you want to take a photo of a person, however, ask if it’s ok first. (“Bowl-kho” is a rough phonetic transliteration of asking, “May I?” in Mongolian.)
  • Hat or sunscreen – UB has a relatively high elevation and also has pretty clear skies most of the year so sunburn and other invisible sun damage.
  • A form of ID – We’ve never been approached by police, but this is just a good rule of thumb wherever you travel.
  • An open mind – Be aware that you might not understand underlying motivations of actions around you. (This isn’t meant in a negative/cynical way, just a reminder that you’re no longer in the majority culture as a visitor.)
  • A sense of adventure – You never know what might happen!
  • Common sense – Is a shady dude trying to make you a shady deal in a shady alleyway? Use your noggin.

Suggested items:

  • Lip balm – Again, it’s dry here, especially with the wind. If your lips are prone to chapping, carry lip balm with you. Just be mindful of exceedingly dusty days as you may not want grit sticking to your lips.
  • Simple snacks – Ok, you can also get this in convenience stores when out, but especially if you have any particular dietary needs/preferences, it’s good to keep something quick on hand to tide you over until you can find something else.
  • Hand sanitizer or wet wipes – Public restrooms don’t always have soap so you might want hand san “handy”, especially if you’re germaphobic.
  • Light jacket/compact umbrella/hat – Weather can be unpredictable.

Do NOT Bring:

  • Wads of cash – Pickpocketing is too common. Don’t bring so much money with you that you’ll be in a bind if it gets stolen while you’re out.
  • Headphones – As mentioned a time or two above, pickpocketing is a problem in UB. Listening to music while you’re out and about will hinder your ability to notice if anyone is targeting you.
  • A bad attitude – Whether it’s a sense of superiority, entitlement, whatever, just leave it at home. 😉

Outhouse Wolves and Other Stories


A couple of weekends ago, we headed west of UB with some colleagues from our school to spend the night in the countryside with a herding family. The connection to this family was that the patriarch was the brother of the husband of one of our school’s headmasters, which was great for a couple of reasons. 1) It wasn’t a tourist camp so we had a more authentic experience, and 2) because we were connected, it didn’t feel like we were with total strangers. Our host family was so friendly and hospitable, and we had a great time!


crunchyside map

TBH, I’m not exactly sure where we stayed–as is the nature of traveling cross country to an impermanent settlement–but it was somewhere in or around the orange circle on the map. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What was neat about this particular location was that it held a variety of landscapes. We stayed in gers on the steppe, but we were surrounded by mountains and about a 30 minute walk away from where we stayed was a large stretch of sand, including quite a few dunes. We were told this stretch of sand runs from the Gobi up to Lake Khuvsgul in the north. So in a way, we visited the Gobi. 😉


crunchyside camelsCamels are one of the five key livestock kept by Mongolian nomads. (The others are horses, cows, sheep, and goats.) The Bactrian camel is native to Central Asia, and they are helpful beasts of burden in addition to providing wool for textiles and milk for dairy products. As you can see in these photos, the camels our host family had were in the process of shedding their thick winter coats and were semi-balding. There were camels that we used for riding, and other camels that were not–mamas and babies. One of the baby camels had been attacked by a wolf recently, so one of its hind legs was wounded. The family had been giving it antibiotics. The morning of our second day, that baby camel was on its feet and nursing. It was certainly favoring the wounded leg, but there’s hope for a full recovery!

Our ride took us a half hour out from camp to the stretch of Gobi sand (then back another half hour). The camels liked crowding each other as we rode, so I have some pretty gnarly bruises above my right ankle from when my camel crushed my leg into the neighboring camel’s metal stirrup, but there was no bolting, biting, or spitting, so I’d count that ride as a win. 😉 On our return walk/ride, one of our colleagues sang us a traditional Mongolian long song. He grew up in the countryside–not the city–so for him, being back where he grew up is always relaxing and nostalgic.

Good Eats:

crunchyside food

One thing that happens whenever we spend extended time with Mongolians is that we eat so. much. food. Personally, I can’t complain because I love eating, but some foreigners feel overwhelmed by how much food they are offered and don’t know if it’s ok to turn it down. (It is, but be nice about it and try to eat something!)

Our hosts served us a variety of traditional foods, including milk tea, khuushuur, and khorkhog. Khuushuur are fried meat pies. Some of the khuushuur were stuffed with mutton, and others were stuffed with “sheep stomach” (which tasted like minced organ meats, and not just tripe). That picture of Z eating a khuushuur in the top left? Sheep stomach! He was also interested in watching the frying process. The top right photo shows how the khorkhog was prepared. One sheep was butchered and the meat and bones were layered with minced onion, hot rocks from the stove, salt, potatoes, and carrots in a giant metal bowl with water on the bottom. The whole thing was covered and cooked for about an hour, turning into the most delectable meal.

In the morning, we had leftover mutton from the khorkhog, boortsog, more milk tea, coffee (!), rice porridge, and fry bread. Sadly, I wasn’t in the ger when they made the dough for the fry bread, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to recreate it at home, but I am definitely interested in trying. Delicious delicious food!

Countryside Living:

crunchyside Zach

When we first got to where we stayed over the weekend, Z was fairly shy, but he warmed up and ended up quite sad when we left. He was particularly enamored with the kids and lambs that stayed around the gers, and very much enjoyed chasing them. I don’t think they minded much, but I did worry that their mothers would be less than thrilled.

I don’t like to be the type of mother who hovers over her children, but there were a number of concerns that I had to balance while we were out of our normal. Z is not around animals enough here in UB to know that some animals are safe and some are not, so I had to corral him away from some of the livestock–like the overprotective camel mama whose baby had been attacked. She was a mama on a mission. I was also worried that Z would wander into the outhouse, which wasn’t deep, but also had no door on it and was exposed on one side and the top to the elements. I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on fishing my toddler out of a toilet. 😉


What I pictured happening to me.

Speaking of toilets, I needed to use it during the night. I had somewhat seriously told Eric as we got ready for bed that if I needed to pee before daybreak, I would just pee in one of the unused diapers we had brought along rather than go outside at night because of the wolves. (Ok, maybe just wolf–singular–but apex predator I am not.) Around 3:30am, well, I needed to go, and Eric (who was also awake) convinced me that I shouldn’t use a diaper for my bathroom break. I was still hesitant to use the outhouse–WOLVES, people!–but I decided maybe I could just pee behind the ger. I didn’t want to bring my phone for its flashlight because it’s hard enough to pee outside without peeing all over yourself in a squat without also having to juggle a light source. Anyway, once outside, I realized the moon was bright enough to cast shadows so I opted to use the outhouse. I know, I know. All that fuss for nothing. I was thankful for not needing a flashlight for that trip though because I have a record of losing items down outhouses. (RIP first Fitbit.) For the record, I squatted facing out so that if a wolf decided to take me down while in the outhouse, I’d at least see it coming and know my fate. My tombstone would have read: Here lies Bethany. Dead from outhouse wolves.


crunchyside Talitha

We are just so flippin’ blessed to have the relationships that we do with Mongolians. Over the years, we’ve worked alongside educators, administrators, students, business folk, and more. Our children have been loved by all. We’ve written numerous recommendation letters, proofread so many essays and applications, and coached and encouraged and been coached and encouraged in return. Mongolian doctors have delivered both of our babies and been invested in their growth. Whenever folks ask me what my favorite part of living in Mongolia is, I tell them it’s the people, and this weekend reminded me again as to why.

Beth sig

PS. I had the bulk of this post written the night we came back from the countryside, but then things got really crazy so I only just finished wrapping it up.