Mongolian meat markets

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Meat Last year, we almost starved a young Mongolian girl to death. We didn't mean to, and luckily, the girl survived.

When my family moved to Ulaanbaatar, we had a student live with us to help look after the kids while we were settling in. She was not a city girl, but came from a Khuvsguul province, in the north. She hoped to practice English and make some money to pay for her studies, and we needed some extra help.

It wasn't long before we noticed that she hardly ate. When faced with a salad, the poor girl would take a single leaf and move it around her plate with her fork. She would nibble at broccoli, but leave most of it untouched. I would watch with interest as she rearranged lentils on her plate. All we ever saw her eat with enthusiasm was meat, which forms a very small part of the family diet.

Her preference is the result of centuries of livestock-based, nomadic civilization. Meat and dairy products form the core of the Mongolian diet, which evolved to suit harsh climatic conditions. Not much grows in the cold, arid climate, so people learned to live off their animals. Even today, after significant urbanization, there are about 40 million goats, sheep, cows, horses and camels in the country (there are only 2.7 million people). 

Meat2 In the market, the meat section is vast. Mountains of mutton, beef and pork lie stacked up on the counters, including thick pieces of pure fat. It's not cheap: beef costs about $2 per kilo, but it's a lot cheaper than it is in the West. If you like steak, this is the place to be. Especially if you want meat from grass-fed animals who live outdoors. No cages here.

Eventually my wife realized that the girl wouldn't last much longer. She was losing weight, and she was already a wisp of a girl to begin with. So we went to the market, bought lots of meat and potatoes, and started including generous portions at every meal. Just in time. The girl tore into the meat in a frenzy, and regained her strength in time to start university.

I don't think she'll want to work for us again.


David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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