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Vegetarianism takes (tender) root in meat-loving Mongolia

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.

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Erkhem Ayalguu, a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant near the Gandan Monastery, serves traditional Mongolian meals with soy substituted for meat. A vegetarian version of popular tsoivan – steamed handmade noodles with meat and root vegetables – is simple but filling.

Andrew Cullen

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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

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