Vegetarianism Takes (Tender) Root in Meat-Loving Mongolia

Article excerpt

More Mongolians are going vegetarian as people seek healthier diets and restaurateurs seize the initiative. Vegetables remain unpopular, though; menus tend to feature traditional meat dishes made with soy.

An unlikely vegetarian movement is taking root in Mongolia, where livestock outnumbers people 14 to 1 and meat consumption tops 200 pounds per person a year.

The first vegetarian restaurant in Mongolia, Ananda's Cafe, opened in 2006. Today more than 20 vegetarian and vegan restaurants pepper the capital, Ulan Bator, and a handful of others are scattered throughout the country. Ananda's has launched a catering service, and another popular restaurant, Luna Blanca, now sells frozen faux-mutton dumplings in supermarkets.

The restaurateurs, mostly Mongolians, belong to Christian and Buddhist-influenced spiritual movements that promote vegetarianism, some of them fringe foreign meditation sects.

Mongolians are turning to vegetarianism "mostly because of health. Also because of meditation - they're following this trend," says Solongo, a former assistant doctor for the United Nations, who like most Mongolians uses only one name. She estimates that vegetarians number around 30,000 or 40,000, just over 1 percent of the population. In the US, about 3 percent of adults are vegetarian, according to Vegetarian Times.

Increased trade with Russia and China and expanding Internet access are providing more information about food and nutrition, she adds.

"When things go to extremes, like extreme meat consumption, things go to the other extreme," says Altanzaya, a sociologist and a co-owner of Luna Blanca who considers herself Buddhist. "Our goal is to make it available."

Mutton dumplings, meat stew

Mongolia's unique brand of Buddhism does not emphasize sparing the lives of animals for food, probably out of pragmatism. The country's dry, mountainous landscape and nomadic culture mean that people have historically ignored agriculture and depended instead on meat and dairy products.

That high-protein diet fueled Genghis Khan's hordes as they swept across the known world some 800 years ago. Historians have noted that Mongolian soldiers could ride for days at a time, drinking blood from their horses' necks for nourishment on the go.

Some here consider meat the only real food. "If there's no meat, [my father] doesn't consider it a meal. You give him leaves and he says, 'What am I, a goat?" says Dolgor, a young mining company employee.

The staples here are often bland, relying heavily on flour, rice, and meat, particularly mutton. Dishes that most Mongolians refer to as the "national foods," buuz and huushuur - mutton-filled dumplings steamed or fried, respectively - and tsoivan, steamed noodles mixed with meat and root vegetables, originated in China. …