Mongolia has a nomadic culture and dry climate, so it’s no surprise that the diets of most nomadic Mongolians are made up of meat and dairy. Here’s how we survived as a vegan and vegetarian in Mongolia, and how you can too.
Mongolia has a large nomadic population, with around half of the country living on the steppe. These nomadic herders raise horses, camels, yaks, goats and sheep for wool, milk, meat and transportation. At least three times a year, herder families pack up their gers, round up their herds and move to new pastures with the changing seasons. But even if they stayed in one place, the arid rolling hills and desert flatlands don’t lend themselves well to growing vegetables. Farming just isn’t worth the effort and it’s unsurprising that plant-based diets are not well understood among Mongolia’s nomadic population.
Mongolia also doesn’t have a strong food culture. Food just isn’t as important here as it is elsewhere. It’s important to remember that having a choice in what we eat is a privilege that we often take for granted. Many people in Mongolia eat, simply because they need to survive, and often make do with what they have. In the case of nomadic herders, this is usually meat and dairy, and they’re happy with just that.
Sticking to a vegan diet in Mongolia was not easy, but not impossible. Vegetarians will have a smoother ride than vegans, and be able to experience some of the culinary ‘delights’. Mongolians love their Süütei tsai, salted yak butter tea, and they often incorporate regular milk and horse milk and cheese into meals.
Vegan in Ulaanbaatar
Let’s start with the easiest place to find vegetarian and vegan options in Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar
Travelling to Mongolia, I was expecting to have a hard time finding food. I’d prepared myself for a diet of rice… and not much else. We did not anticipate finding so many wonderful vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants in the capital city. Ulaanbaatar is a bit more cosmopolitan than the wilderness of the rest of the country and there are so many places to try vegan versions of traditional Mongolian dishes – you won’t be missing out at all!
Here are some of our favourites:
This restaurant says Italian cuisine, but don’t be fooled. They offer a large amount of vegan-friendly Mongolian dishes as well as European home comforts; pizza, falafel, hummus, soups and vegan schnitzel. They even offer plant milk alternatives for popular Mongolian drinks, like Süütei tsai! This was our favourite restaurant in Ulaanbaatar by far. It’s budget-friendly and everything we tried was delicious.
Luna Blanca is the highest-rated budget restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, so instantly appealing to anyone without cash to splash. This vegetarian-friendly restaurant mostly offers Mongolian cuisine, so it’s the perfect place to try out traditional dishes that would usually be stuffed with meat and/or dairy. There are plenty vegan options here too.
This popular vegan chain has reached Mongolia, offering more plant-based alternatives to meat-heavy Mongolian dishes. It’s cheap and cheerful – check out their Tsuivan (noodle stew) and Khuushuur (dumplings).
Hazara Indian Restaurant
Indian cuisine always seems to offer a good selection of vegetarian and vegan food, no matter where in the world you dine, and Hazara was no exception. Located between Ulaanbaatar centre and the sprawling Narantuul Market, this slightly upmarket but still reasonable priced restaurant has a cosy charm. Expect to dine on thick, elaborately decorated cushions with your table separated with colourful curtains. Hazara was one of the more ‘expensive’ restaurants we ate at whilst in Ulaanbaatar, although still considerably cheap by Western standards
A little cheaper than Hazara, Delhi Darbar will appeal to budget travellers. They serve up delicous vegan and vegetarian dishes. They also list on their menu whether things contain eggs/ milk etc which makes it a safe bet for vegan and vegetarian travellers or those with allergies.
Outside of Ulaanbaatar
The dizzying glow of the milky way. Sharing a campfire under the stars. Exploring the sand dunes at sunset on a two-humped camel. There are many things you’ll remember from your time in Mongolia’s wilderness, but it won’t be the food!
Most likely you’ll be on a tour or organised trip as public transport in Mongolia is limited. Make sure you let your guide or tour company know in advance what you do and don’t eat so they have a chance to prepare. You’ll be eating to live rather than living to eat, but stocking up in Ulaanbaatar before you hit the road will make your trip far more enjoyable. Most tours stop off at a supermarket on the way out of Ulaanbaatar so you can discuss with your guide what you would like to cook on your trip. We recommend stocking up on tofu, rice and veggies.
Stocking up for the Steppe
The biggest and most well-stocked supermarket we found was the NOMIN Hypermarket in Ulaanbaatar’s one and only department store. It was surprisingly well-stocked with a weird amount of German foodstuffs, much to Marius’ delight. It was here that I discovered my love for Trolli Dinorex, a dinosaur-shaped vegan alternative to Haribo Tangfastics. NOMIN also has normal and flavoured plant milk, lots of tofu and some faux meat options if that’s your thing.
Here are a few things you might want to consider taking with you:
- Fresh fruit that travels well, such as apples and pears
- Fresh vegetables, cucumbers and tomatoes are particularly great for adding something to the plain rice you can expect when staying with host families
- Trail mix, nuts, dried fruit and cereal bars
- Crackers and peanut butter
- Dried pasta and jar sauces/pesto
- Beers and/or vodka always go down well
- Presents for your hosts: ideally something from your home country but vodka, fruit and sweets will all be appreciated.
Staying with host families
One of the highlights of our trip to Mongolia was staying with nomadic families, although this is the one situation in which being vegetarian or vegan in Mongolia can be difficult. Nomadic families have a heavy reliance on milk, meat, and long-life grains, such as rice.
When staying with a nomadic family, it is highly likely that they will offer you food. Whatever they have, no matter how little, they’ll happily share it with you without expecting anything in return. Upon arrival it’s customary to offer dairy-based snacks, such as aarüul (dried milk curds) and Süütei tsai (salted yak butter tea). Most of the main meals the family eat will also contain mutton.
It’s important to remember that if we have the privilege to travel to Mongolia, we already have so much more than Mongolia’s nomad population do, and this offer to share what they have is a gesture of kindness that should be appreciated. It can often appear rude to decline an offer of food without having a taste. This is where having a guide can come in really handy.
Vegan in Mongolia with a guide
If you’re worried about causing offence at your family homestay, we recommend taking a tour with a guide that speaks your language. On a guided tour, it may be possible that your guide can communicate that you don’t eat meat, are not hungry or are feeling sick from the bumpy drive. Our guide could easily explain our dietary requirements to our Mongolian hosts in a way that didn’t cause offence. Most families were surprised at first – a diet without meat is unimaginable to many Mongolians – but they made do, and cooked our meals with what they had.
We could drink black tea without the milk, and breakfast was a hearty meal of sweetened rice pudding and jam instead of the noodles and mutton they ate themselves. Dinner was usually fried rice with veggies; mutton and egg were added afterwards for those that ate meat. There wasn’t much variety but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. One of my favourite memories was making Khushuur (Хуушуур) with the women of one of the nomadic families we stayed with. These are deep-fried pastry pockets of – usually mutton – but were replaced with potatoes and the fresh veggies we had brought.
Vegan in Mongolia on your own
If you are planning to tackle the Steppe alone, or with a non-English speaking driver, you need to remember that when you stay with local families, they will not be prepared to serve vegan guests. We recommend bringing snacks and learning some key phrases, such as Bi makh, takhia iddeggüi. I don’t eat meat or chicken. If you are offered tea, ask for Khar tsai. This is a simple black tea served with sugar but no milk.
When visiting Mongolia, it’s important to remember that many nomadic people do not have the privilege to choose their diet. They often have to make do with what they have. It is customary for hosts to offer guests something to eat and drink upon arrival at a ger. It’s rude not to accept, so be prepared to take a bite or sip of whatever is offered (even if you subtly spit it out into a tissue afterwards).
If you’re not prepared to honour the local customs and culture of the country, it’s worth considering hiring a guide who speaks the language to explain. It’s also worth noting that Mongolia has a population that are heavily reliant on animals for food, clothing and transport. If this doesn’t sit right with your ethics, you may also want to consider whether Mongolia is the right destination for your next trip.
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