Friday, February 28, 2014

Grub Club: Tashkent

As you go toward the Peace Bridge into downtown Ulaanbaatar, there is a shopping center.  There are a variety of businesses in there - our buddies at The Moose and a company that sells products from my old visa sponsor, RAK Ceramics, among other things.  At the top of part of the building is a sign that says "TAWKEHT" and "Snooker" (I'm not sure why Tashkent is in Cyrillic and Snooker is not - perhaps because of whom each is marketed to?)  I've often wondered about the place - Tashkent is one of Uzbekistan's old Silk Road cities - but never had much reason to go up and check it out, because for as much as I knew, it was just a pool hall.
Well, Wednesday had us finding out.  Blondie asked her PA (whom I will be referring to as "Wild Ass") to make a reservation for us at Gangnam Style, which got her A Look.  When asked where we should be going instead, Wild Ass suggested Tashkent, so Blondie went for it.  After all, Wild Ass is the person who told us about and purchased the tickets for last Sunday's concert.  I got there before everyone else - I was trying to make it to the State Department Store, but traffic was bad and I ended up getting off and walking back over the bridge.  I was a little worried because at first glance it looked (and sounded) like an 80's Soviet-era front for the mafia (or, as Squeaker put it, "My Uncle John's living room."  And that's her Uncle John, not mine.)
However, they finally came and I relaxed a little.  The food sounded delicious, and turned out to be amazing.  Blondie ordered the carrot salad in the top picture.  A whole salad of carrots seemed ridiculous, but it actually tasted nice.  I went for the Greek salad instead, and even though the dressing didn't have any hint of balsamic vinegar and there was no feta cheese, I really enjoyed it.
The biggest hit, though, was their shashlik (listed as Uzbek barbecue).  The chicken was SO juicy and tender, without even a single gristly bite.  I don't know what it was marinated in, but it was divine.
Squeaker and Geek went for this noodle dish instead.  It was filling - neither of them actually finished it, although they both took the egg off - it was a little too uncooked for either of them.  Blondie got quite a few tens for her pick, so she's made Wild Ass her ace in the hole - she was really excited to hear how "we" did, and already planning which restaurant we should go to next. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sounds of Mongolia

I worry, sometimes, about what the world is coming to.  Not so much in the sense of how we are damaging the environment and what we do to each other as people (although those are problems, too), but because of what we do with our lives.  I think about how Shaggy and I used to amuse ourselves as kids - we were outside all summer, sliding down hills and wading in ponds - and wonder if kids do that anymore, or if they just sit around on their iPads and phones.  It's become so easy to amuse ourselves, and I worry that one day creativity, musical talent, the ability to find your own sense of fun...if these things will be lost arts.
Mongolia gives me hope.  Last fall when Engrish, Geek, and I stayed with Enkhaa's herder friends, as we were staring up at the Milky Way - so clear, far out from the city - someone took out their horsehead fiddle and played what I swear was "Home on the Range."  It felt like we'd stepped back in time - Mongolian music often makes me feel that way, even when it's Altan Urag rocking out.
Sunday night we went to the final performance of a gala concert called "Eternal Mongolia," which involved performances by nine different Mongolian bands.  Engrish, Blondie, and I are always up for some Mongolian music, and when we found out that both Altan Urag and Arga Bileg were playing in it we could hardly contain ourselves.  It was so much more, though.  There were dancers with some of the acts, and one of the best contortionists I've seen here.  The stage set-up was genius.  The backdrop was actually on a rotating axis, and while one band was playing a song, another band was on the other side setting up.  And for the big final piece, they dropped the curtain, and had two choruses sing a capella - the women pictured below and a group of male throat singers.
It was a spectacular performance, and it breaks my heart to say that it ended on a sour note.  Some fat old Mongolian dude that everyone seemed to know came out and introduced all the bands...and all the singers....and all the dancers.....and the president of Mongolian......and the producers of the show.........and the lighting guys......  It went on, and on, and on, and on - for a whole 30 minutes while we were roasting in our seats and just wanted to get home and get to sleep so we could go to work the next day.  It was a shame to see it go out like that, but there ya go.  Life's not perfect, and neither is Mongolia, but you can put up with a few imperfections now and again.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Grub Club: Schmapplebee's

I've been working on a field trip for my darling 11th and 12th graders, and over the last few weeks I have been trying to figure out if the Union of Mongolian Artists gallery would be open the day we were going (I'm lazy and I haven't learned much Mongolian and it SUCKS!)  They had been renovating, and I finally saw a banner outside that day, so Blondie and I went inside to investigate.  We looked around the gallery before heading out with a sad backward glance over our shoulders at Bangkok, where we would NOT be eating that night.  Instead, we were going to...a restaurant that I will not call by their given name due to reasons of copyright infringement.  Instead I'll call them Schmapplebee's.

Geek and Engrish walked past Schmapplebee's last week on their way to zee Germans.  Geek joked about taking us there this week, and then decided, "What the hell, why not?"  We were afraid.  We were very afraid.  Just because a restaurant calls themselves by the same name as a popular American chain restaurant doesn't mean it's going to be a comparable experience.  In fact, based on my years of traveling overseas, I would say that it's more likely to be a surefire way to get food poisoning.  But trying new things is part of the Grub Club charter, so - bitching and moaning - we went. 

The decor was American, alright, but it didn't exactly promise good things.  Not that it was bad - it just wasn't swanky, or anything at all like its namesake.  But when the food came out, we were definitely eating good in the neighborhood.  Blondie had the cobb salad pictured above, and it was delicious.  They even held the dressing like she asked for.
They had lots of delicious sounding dishes on the menu.  I was tempted by the Philly cheesesteak, which Champ ended up ordering (not pictured due to the fact that it was not a very flattering photo, and I didn't want an unflattering photo of my girl-crush going out into the wide world), but ended up deciding to give the chicken fajita roll a try, and fell in love.  It was juicy and flavorful and an all-around excellent choice.

On the whole we ended up being surprisingly satisfied with Schmapplebee's, and I had to apologize to Geek for doubting her genius.  Would I go back there again?  Absolutely, and considering it is just west of the State Department Store on Peace Avenue, I'm sure it will be regularly.  Although probably not soon - I've had Greek food on my mind because I'm teaching my sixth grade about Hellenistic architecture.  There's a very good chance I'll be making moussaka Sunday night....

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Grub Club: German Doner

I recently had to explain to one of my students why I used to carry around Tabasco sauce in my purse: because it was really great on shawarma.  This prompted him to say, "Dude, since that movie (The Avengers) I've wanted to try it!  Is it good?"
Kid - you have no idea....
The good news is, he's got the chance to find out for himself.  Engrish picked the relatively new German Doner for grub club this week, which was a relief, since Blondie was going to make us go there on Saturday, and I was carrying a heavy bag of chocolate (ostensibly for my critiques this week, but really because I wanted the peanut butter cups inside).  If you've never traveled in the middle east you may be thinking, "Wait, weren't you just talking about shawarma, not doner kebab?"  If you HAVE, you realize that they're essentially the same thing - meat slow roasted on a rotating skewer and served in a wrap.  Also known as the food of the gods.

For the first time in recorded history, all Grubbies ordered the same thing - the chicken doner roll.  They had what they called "house meat" but none of us were brave enough to try it.  They also had a selection of greasy German foods (which is where the "German" in the name comes from, since doner is Turkish), but there was no question what we were going to have, and it was GOOD.  Geek wasn't impressed, but Engrish wrangled a trio of tens for the food, and it really did deserve it.  The ambiance...well, it was clean and comfy, but not, as I said, anywhere I'd take a hot date.*  Unless it was Valentine's Day and I wanted to say it with shawarma.

*The results of the ensuing conversation about where we would take a hot date?  Le Triskell.  Le Bistrot Francais.  Possibly the Ivy or Rosewood.  It's just as well that the eye candy leaves much to be desired, since a cafeteria serving buuz doesn't really put a girl in the mood for romance.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Celebrate Like a Mongolian

As my original 6 readers know, before I moved here I lived in China for two years, and I've had the chance to experience the madness that is Chinese New Year three times (twice in Shanghai, and last year in Harbin).  It was my absolute favorite time to be in Shanghai, because as long as you didn't go to Yuyuan Gardens there wasn't a single crowd to be found (unfortunately the same can't be said of Harbin).
And I haven't even really done the crowd justice...
While I have a complicated relationship with China, I have to say that they know how to throw a party.  Even with the city emptied out (because everyone goes back to their ancestral home in the countryside) Shanghai sounded like a warzone for about two weeks.  There are three nights in particular that the fireworks go off for pretty much 24 hours straight - lunar new year's eve, three nights later, and seven nights later (the night honoring the Money God, which - as you might expect - people really go nuts for).  My second year in Shanghai, I went out on this night at around a quarter to midnight and wandered the streets, watching everything go off around me.  It was mayhem, and I loved it.

I don't know if you've realized this from last week's post, but Tsagaan Sar is nothing like that.  The only thing that it really has in common with Chinese New Year is getting together with your family.  Some of our kids here did go out to the countryside, but not all of them.  There IS an exchange of money, but it's more formal, more ceremonial.  In China, you hand out red envelopes to all sorts of people - maids, drivers, children, etc.  If I understood Engrish right, in Mongolia it's about a hierarchy, and most people end up getting back about the same about that they give away (all in crisp new bills), and you present it on top of a blue khadag (silk scarf) stretched over your arms.
But unless you've got some good Mongolian friends or some REALLY awesome students (ahem), you probably won't get to experience the airag drinking, snuff-sniffing, ger-tastic fun of Tsagaan Sar firsthand.  So this is how I recommend celebrating:

1. Pay off your debts:  By Tsagaan Sar eve, you're supposed to pay back any money you're owing.  Since my credit cards have been paid off, the only person I was indebted to was Engrish - 30,000 tugrugs for the ticket to see Arga Bileg.  Sadly, I didn't get to give her the money until three days into the new year.  Ah well, better late than never!

2. Take a hike:  It's supposed to be lucky to meet the sun (in a non-vampiric way) the first day of the year:
"We're up all night 'til the sun
We're up all night to get some
We're up all night for good fun
We're up all night to get lucky"  

(^See what I did there?)
Now supposedly which hillside you go up to meet the sun depends on the time or the year or something having to do with your birth.  I say just go up the nearest one, especially if it has an ovoo.  Dress warmly.
3. Clean that filthy hole you call home:  Okay, seriously, as sad as it is, I have a really hard time actually cleaning my own apartment.  I blame this on having a maid for a year and a half in Shanghai.  I'll get part of it done, and then wander off and play around on the internet, or something equally important.  So that was what I did most of Tsagaan Sar Saturday - I swept, swiffed, wet-swiffed, did the dishes, did the laundry...

No, I didn't kill the nest of dustbunnies living behind my headboard.  They're just too damn cute.

4. Cook a big meal: You're supposed to stuff your face during Tsagaan Sar, so who am I to say no?  Supposedly if you enter the new year hungry, you might go hungry throughout the whole year.  While that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing in some of our cases, I say when in Rome, do a Roman.  For my big Tsagaan Sar dinner, I followed the tradition of cooking white foods...buuuuuuuuut...Romans or no Romans, I believe enchiladas are a good food for every occasion, and Tsagaan Sar is no exception.  Mine just happened to be chicken (white) enchiladas with pepper jack (white) cheese and salsa verde (green is close enough to white, right???).

5. Finally - Have your nearest and dearest over for dinner:  Blondie, Champ, Wallflower, and another friend came over and partook of my enchiladas, making my Tsagaan Sar dinner just about complete.  The only thing lacking was Engrish, who is basically Mongolian and would have given a certain kind of legitimacy to my bastard celebration.  However, she was still with her Mongolian families having thousands of buuz (steamed mutton dumplings).

She may be practically Mongolian, but by that point she was wishing she was at my place eating enchiladas.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Grub Club: Tendo

 What kind of girl takes you to an Italian restaurant and doesn't show you what the pasta looks like?  This girl right here.  I have to start out with an apology this week - I was starting to worry that my pasta was never going to make it, and when it finally came, I jumped right in.  By the time I realized what I'd done, it was too late...everyone was nearly done because, regrettably, the portions were not that big.

Anyways, this was our last day of vacation, and it didn't take much convincing to get everyone to agree to go ahead with Grub Club.  Today it was my turn to pick a restaurant, and I went for a new Italian place on Beatles Street that I'd heard about on UB Foodies - Tendo.  From the outside, it's not much to look at - a brown facade with a very small sign with the name on it (luckily the directions left on the Foodies were specific or I would have had my work cut out for me on my reconnaissance).

The inside, however, had a nice ambiance - warm, low lighting and dark colors.  It's not a huge restaurant (with not-huge chairs that my ass just barely managed to squeeze into).  More to the point, it came with a carb overload.  I've never been into the long crunchy breadsticks, and these were pretty much par for the course, but the little bread knots were brushed with olive oil and white wine (which probably cooked out) and were hard to stop eating.

Especially when more and more dishes kept coming out, none of which were my penne arabbiata.  As I said, the dishes were small ("Japan-sized," as Champ put it) so the fact that I ate waaaay too much bread kind of worked itself out, and I didn't go home starving (thankfully, since Engrish bought me a 6-pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups).
Besides carbs and MORE carbs (I don't care what you call them in Italian, Geek and Squeaker ordered fried taters), there were some soups (minestrone and cream of mushroom) which went over well, Engrish had a nice side salad (I don't know if it was as nice as she thought it was - probably she was just happy not to have to eat any more buuz), and - of course - pastas of all sorts.  We ended up with linguine, penne, and spaghetti all on the table.  I found them to be fairly authentic, which is to say, a lot lighter on the flavor than we Americans usually make it, but it was a nice change of pace.  They also had some paninis which sounded amazing, but since Blondie wasn't there to order a sandwich this week, we can only guess.

Monday, February 3, 2014

One Last Event

Sunday was a good day; a full day.  After the Winter Festival and our wandering we ended up at the Square Pub and Grill.  Our office Wonder Woman sent out an email about an ethno-jazz concert taking place there that night, and after Engrish, Blondie, and I decided not to go through with our original plan to (finally) visit Sainshand in favor of the Winter Festival, it wasn't long before one of us said, "Hey, we should go to that jazz thing, too." 
We weren't sure what we were in for.  Arga Bileg was the band's name, so they were clearly Mongolian, and the ethno probably referred to traditional instruments, and it did, but we weren't sure exactly how this would translate into jazz.  My first experience with Mongolian-jazz fusion was at the 2012 Great Steppes of Jazz Festival, and I liked it, but if their rendition of "Someday My Prince Will Come" was good, it was nowhere near as enjoyable as Arga Bileg.
What made Arga Bileg so amazing is that instead of just covering jazz standards on their instruments, they took the essence of jazz - the chords, the rhythms, and the improvisation - and truly melded it with their own musical tradition.  I've got to say for Mongolia that it's been a long time since I've enjoyed live music as much as I've enjoyed it here.  After the show, they had the cd on sale, and Engrish and I both bought one, which makes the second cd I've bought this year (Altan Urag being the first).  So it turns out that staying in town for Tsagaan Sar was not as bad as I was afraid it was going to be on Thursday after school when nothing was open and I was staring down the barrel at two days of the same.  However, if I AM here for next Tsagaan Sar, I have a plan of attack, and you will get to hear all about it this coming weekend.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Snow Bunnies

Engish - a hobbit amongst elves
Today - which is apparently a very auspicious day for people who believe in such things - was the first ever Ulaanbaatar Winter Festival.  When Engrish, Blondie, Champ, and I are old and grey, we just might be telling our grandkids (or great-great niblings) about the winter of 2014, and how we were at UB's very first winter festival.  We school-dwellers set out from the teachers' apartments with the newest newbies, Young and Love, for the Tuul River bright and early at 10:30 yesterday morning.  We should have known better - as much as I love Mongolia, things rarely start on time, especially when it's the first time - but I was really excited about this festival.  Ice archery!  Knucklebone shooting!  And the thing I was looking forward to most - dogsledding!
If you're not wondering about where at the river I was talking about, you should.  Where I come from, you just don't go out "on the ice" unless you're ready to get wet, because there's no guarantee that it will be able to hold you.  It just doesn't get that cold in the mid-Midwest, and I've fallen into the creek on my parent's place at least a couple of times in winter.  On the other hand, I know from experience that back in Iowa I can walk home from it and not have to have my toes amputated from frostbite.  Now, if the ice on the Tuul River is thick enough to drive on (and it is - Enkhaa and I were joking last week that if the traffic was bad we could always take the river), it's probably safe for even someone as Rubenesque as me, but the cracks in the ice and the bitter cold (around -30C) did make me consider how bad the frostbite would be before I got home.

We wandered around, watching them set up, during which we lost Young/Love (they went home because it was kinda cold and nothing was happening), but it was kind of interesting watching everything get set up.  We were particularly fascinated by seeing them get the archery course ready.  This is Uriankhai archery, a kind of Mongolian archery that - from what I can tell, involved shooting targets (snowballs, in this case) that are lying on the ground.  The problem was that there wasn't a back side to the course, so we spent some time trying to figure out which direction they were supposed to shoot from:  Engrish - in her rush to find Enkhaa at one point - nearly walked between the archers and their target.  The good thing is that if she had, the arrows are blunted.
Since my New Year's Resolution - if I believed in them - is to elf myself, I was tempted to get Enkhaa to ask them to teach me to shoot.  Engrish, on the other hand, was more interested in the knucklebone shooting....
These guys were shooting while things were still setting up, but later it became an open invitational, and everyone, including foreigners, were allowed to participate.  Engrish was a little too late to sign up for it, and because she's a nice polite Canadian she didn't force the issue.  Manners are overrated, and since I'm a loud American I offered to convince someone to let her take a shot, but she insisted it was fine.  So now I have to go find some shagai in town so we can try it out on the school ice rink.
Dogsledding is one of the things that's been on my list for a while now.  A friend got to do it here last winter, and I passed up the opportunity because I was supposed to be running an activity at church that Saturday.  Since November I've been trying to figure out a way to do it with the French guy in town that runs it, but his tours were too long and expensive.  I was determined to get in one of those sleds yesterday - and then I didn't.  Engrish got the brochure from the Mongolian guy who runs this company (ie, this isn't the French guy), and it's way more reasonably priced.  I might not get to do it this winter, but I'm definitely staying for another year, so it's definitely going to happen.
The events were great, but it was just a really good experience.  It was great getting out of our apartments and breathing some fresh (-ish) cold air (and - as Bear Grylls says - you burn twice as many calories at extreme temperatures!)  Seeing the kids all bundled up was too freaking cute, and I may have said, "I can't put my arms down!" more than once.  It also amazes me to see how well the Mongolians have adapted - and continue to live with - the cold.  Unlike some places where I have lived that are extremely hot, they keep living and thriving in the cold, instead of just staying inside for the worst of it.  Engrish and Blondie followed up the morning by even more walking around in the cold as we headed up to Gandan ONE LAST TIME after thawing out at California's (where Engrish was glad NOT to eat buuz!)  I STILL didn't get to see sand painting, so I guess it just wasn't meant to be, but I'll say it again, a monastery is never a bad place to be during a holiday, especially when it's a very auspicious day.