November 22nd, 2011 10:38 am | by CHEF GREG HIGGINS Food & Drink | Posted In: Higgins in Mongolia

Higgins in Mongolia: A Day at the Ulaangom Market

Portland chef Greg Higgins (of downtown's Higgins restaurant) is in Mongolia, sharing his sausage and charcuterie expertise with local butchers as part of Mercy Corps' Farmer to Farmer project, and he's blogging the whole trip for WW:

So as bumpy as the road from Khovd had been, our start in Ulaangom proved to be even more so. There had been a death in the family of the owners of the Zei Gobi sausage factory early in the week. The funeral ceremonies were going to take place at the woman's ger (yurt) there on the premises of the plant. Obviously we were going to have some unexpected free time before starting our teaching and production.

Each of these larger towns have sizable open markets where the folks from far and wide come to buy and sell everything from coal to camels. The markets also serve as gathering places and transit centers where vehicles for hire fill their seats for rides to other aimags and soum centers. We had visited a number of the open markets in the capital so, this was a chance to see a more rural, less gentrified nomadic version.

The Ulaangom market spreads out in a labyrinth of tarp and blanket roofed stalls packed into several square blocks. There's a portion devoted to hardware, clothing, house wares, gers, car parts and pretty much anything one might need to lead a life in a tent on the surrounding steppes or mountains. Next to this rambling nomadic Walmart is the grocery section, stall after stall all stocking the identical selections of basic groceries, candies, noodles, soap and other sundries. I really could find no difference in the merchandise or the prices, I guess if your family buys their bar laundry soap from Badam, so will you.

In cavernous rooms of a sprawling old warehouse near the grocery area are the dairy, meat and fresh produce vendors. There's no refrigeration, but with the sub zero temperatures of this time of the year it's not an issue; cutting the frozen meat is more the problem. The dairy products are made from sheep, camel, yak and cows milk. The vendors offer fresh milk, yogurt, fresh butter, rock hard curds, string cheese and aged butters that look like parmiggiano, some aged in animal stomachs and intestines. The aged hard butters are shaved into boiling water to make a tea or soup of sorts. The hard curds are snacked on, the camel curds I tried were jawbreakers with a mouth puckering cheesy tartness. Probably a good pairing with some hopped up barley wine; they've got a really long finish.

The meat market was the place to be. The room buzzed with crowds and conversation. Every Mongol has strong opinions about meat. On long narrow tables piled high with carcasses of goats and sheep the butchers cut away. A woman in traditional nomadic garb was making the rounds pouring them hefty shots of vodka in a small soup bowl. They work at a steady pace using cheap flimsy knives some wrapped with tape for a better grip. Behind them on racks made of pipe and rebar hang the quarter sections of the larger livestock: camel, yak and cattle. On the rough cement below the tables are solemn rows of heads and convenient bundles of entrails. Nothing goes to waste and it's all for sale.

The local produce is limited to garlic, carrots, beets, onions potatoes and cabbage. Fruits are apples, seabuckthorn and a few types of nuts and dried items. Most of the sellers also offer Chinese imports: mandarins, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, napa cabbage and a few herbs. Vegetables play a small role in most of the cooking here. When you order dinner it's by what meat and how it's cooked.

I've got to say that I was an attraction there at the market—apparently they just don't see to many American hockey fans lumbering through their aisles. Nearly everyone paused and glanced over my way as we passed. Our mission, other than being a market tourist geek, was to glean some spices and herbs to make sausage with. We sifted through nearly every grocers little basket of seasonings til we had assembled a hodgepodge of spices and herbs. These would be the start of our Ulaangom charcuterie production.

Read more of Higgins in Mongolia here.

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