MONGOLIAN DIET PROBLEMS #1: KOREAN FOOD
Galbitan: Good Idea, Takturitan: Bad Idea.
There are alot of things wrong with the typical Mongolian diet. Like I say in my journal title, I'm working on taking the best stuff and combining it with some good American stuff: Mexican dishes with avocado... coconut curries... those banana-based "paleo" pancakes... though I'm pissed I probably won't be able to find any sheep tail fat in the US with there not being any Mongolian sheep or other fat-tailed sheep as far as I know. I'll look into it.
Bad Mongolian food stuff includes not only Coke and a wide variety of processed foods from Germany to the Phillipines (American grocery stores are incredibly boring to me for the past few years), but also ubiquitous sunflower oil (the smell of which brings back such nice Moscow memories when I first started cooking for myself really...) and a taste for floury stuff from bread to dumplings to noodles to doughnutty things fried in the middle of gers with a block of clarified yak butter the size of a overweight newborn. Oh yeah, and alcohol. Lots of vodka and lots of beer brewed the way Germans taught them how to do it.
I'll get to that stuff when I have some nice anecdotes of the day. But for now, Korean food just came up. Now I'm mulling over a blog post about how South Korea is a great example of the myth of "developed" vs. "undeveloped" countries but I haven't quite got there yet, and going over that material here should provide some background for this post. Basically, I had to live in Seoul for about a month last fall because I needed to arrange a Mongolian visa. My time had run out and visas can't be issued inside the country for some reason. Anyways. Seoul immediately struck me as being alot like Ulaanbaatar. The crappy construction quality that I had thought was blowover from the Chinese construction boom, part of the low status of construction as a profession, inexperience with new building materials and techniques, etc. turned out to be also Korean. Apparently there is a huge influx of people from "the countryside" there as well, many to try and study and get one of the few jobs with one of the few conglomerate companies. Seems like most of them end up doing construction (which is not considered to be a profession, so it is low-paid and laborers have little expertise), getting into trading at the open markets (Seoul has some of the world's largest open markets, incidentally the Central Asian/Russian/Mongolian neighborhood is right next door) or opening up a small restaurant. All of this is pretty much how thing are going down in Ulaanbaatar as well, though Mongolians often see South Korea as a model for development when they don't have experience with working there doing "black labor" and getting very, very badly treated. Anyways though, the small restaurants...
I developed a taste for Korean food in Mongolia, but in Seoul there was little meat to be had in the ubiquitious small restaurants, though the chicken seemed pretty ok. But everything was also drowning in sweet and spicy sauces. At Korean joints in Mongolia, one of my favorite dishes is a simple soup, galbitang, made from beef ribs cut into cube-like sections. Meat from pastoralist "nomads" is ubiquitous in Ulaanbaatar, and here it diverges from Seoul! Only one place I ate at in Seoul had something like this, a total hole in the wall set up like a place in the Mongolian countryside -- what I imagine North Korean eateries to be like (and indeed, some Korean places in Ulaanbaatar run by North Koreans are like!). Communal long tables, that Soviet shade of blue-green paint, calendars issued by the city restauranteurs' professional organization... But basically what I'm saying is that Korean food in Seoul is now dominated by sugary sauces that disguise the crappy meat quality and feed into the sugar/caffeine addiction of the masses beating themselves bloody 24 hours a day in coffee shops, bakeries and beer joints somewhere along the process of trying to nab a spot in the right school so they can get a job with the right company. It's food for poor stressed-out people, for whom failure means freaking out one's parents who just don't get it partly because they lived through the "boom" of the Korean economy which was of course the result of heavy American and Japanese involvement with the management of a couple of dictators. But it also means one will have to take up a job peddling terrible low quality food and piss beer, disguised just like a bad economy is by myths of economic development. "French" bakeries, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and rice-beer just like Budweiser. At least unlike Japan, it's cheap! No use of inflation tricks to boost the economy in the global arena. Cost of living was similar to Ulaanbaatar. Anyways though, sound like Robb Wolf, Gary Taubes, and Fathead? Fat, sick, poor, and consuming to make yourself feel affluent, successful and developed.
I can also say that I quickly fell into the cycle and I can at least claim that this is ethnographically-based all the more. Though I produced a pretty successful grant application, I also developed insane sleep hours and mood problems while rotating between donut shop, coffee shop, fast Korean food of the kind I just described and beer joints when there were friendly folks in the hostel or I was meeting with some friends teaching English in Korea. (A phenomenon which of course points to the state of the American economic situation... an epidemic of unemployable twenty and thirty-somethings racked with student debt).
So last afternoon I was craving a salad at a place that also happens to serve a Korean spicy chicken soup. I was thinking that the salad wouldn't be enough, so I ended up getting the soup as well. Both were amazing. The salad had beautiful lettuce, nice oily duck, and apples. The soup had delicious broth, just spicy enough, and two whole drumsticks. Though now to think of it, I'm pretty sure that they were the highly inferior Tyson imports (coming to Mongolia via Russia even...). Skinny. Like "Bush's skinny legs," the American chicken that Russians got care-packaged in the early 90s and thought was a bad joke because the quality was so terrible.
After I parted from my friend who had to go to work at 6, I decided to try and find some new green tea to try out in my new infuser. (That I picked up in one of the new Korean shops in town... another sign that the Korean economy is in trouble is how they are trying so hard to expand everything into Mongolia, which has a population of about 3 million people). I ended up going all the way across town and feeling hungry and even getting a sugar craving once the buzz that fueled my wanderings wore off. I haven't had any problems with sugar cravings like this for quite awhile now, though I have eaten sugary stuff if it was right there in front of me. But the last two sugary things I ate, besides ChocoPies (another Korean invention probably concocted with xylitol or some other chemical sweeteners), actually gave me acid reflux so bad I threw them up.
I ended up picking up some chocolate covered cherries from Poland, which is at least better than the wafers I bought last time I caved to buying crap at the grocery store. Unfortunately, it was only when I got home and had some jasmine green tea and a few of my chocolate-covered cherries (way too sweet, though I still had to kill the sugar craving to keep eating them with some walnuts and bitter chocolate) it finally dawned on me that the soup was probably full of sugar and salt Sweet-and-Sour Pork/Coca-Cola* style.
*See Sugar: The Bitter Truth - YouTube
And now it's past midnight! Gotta at least remember to use flux... (f.lux: software to make your life better Check it out.)