When Ming Tan and his best friend Justin Chow went to Ulaanbaatar in October 2017 to test-run a burger pop-up brand in a city cafe and cook a high-end private meal for a client, they wondered, at times, if they had bitten off more than they could chew.
Tan, who is currently the executive chef of Jam at Siri House, and Chow, chief marketing officer of digital healthcare provider Whitecoat Gobal and co-founder of private investment platform Fundnel, had to understand the Mongolian F&B supply chain, visit markets for produce, and source ingredients through various fixers – and it was their first visit to the country.
Fortunately, the duo was well taken care of by their clients, who hosted them for meals and brought them to well-known restaurants, hidden spaces and late night karaoke joints.
Among them was Hana Sushi at Monnis Tower, the private restaurant of a Mongolian tycoon that was helmed by a Tokyo chef and served “high quality Japanese food, amazing fish and great tasting sushi rice”.
Popular Rosewood Kitchen + Enoteca lived up to its highly-ranked reputation on Tripadvisor with its hearty European dishes made mostly from scratch from good quality local ingredients. It also ran a grocery shop selling freshly baked bagels and all kinds of local meat.
And at what Tan regards as “probably the best South Asian restaurant in Ulaanbaatar”, the always-crowded Namaste scored full marks for its freshly cooked naan and hot curries at authentic spice levels.
But the one item that stole Tan’s stomach was the ubiquitous Mongolian dumpling khuushuur – deep-fried curry puffs stuffed with chives and spiced pork, lamb or beef – that was found in every bar, restaurant, and store that Tan and Chow visited.
Tan says, “Some were small, like the size of an egg, and others about the dimension of a modern smartphone. Whether I was cold, drunk, hungry or full, awake or half-asleep, every khuushuur I consumed was offered with a smile, served piping hot and tasted damn delicious. In my mind it is the best representation of a Mongolian dish.”
Ironically it was the work part that supplied all the fun. One of their liaisons in Ulaanbaatar was heavily tattooed and pierced Chef Mars, who, together with their driver Tumurr, a large middle-aged man with broad shoulders, huge hands and a beer belly, took the pair to various places to buy their goods.
In one nondescript warehouse filled with Japanese and Korean products, Tan found himself confounded by butter, milk, cheese, and cured meats wrapped in packaging covered in Cyrillic script. He said with amusement, “It was a goldmine for the curious foodie or chef, but hell for someone trying to cook with these ingredients.”
In another warehouse advertising “imported foreign goods”, boxes of pasta and cereal were stacked perilously high next to jars of pickles, jams, and anchovies, while imitation caviar in glass jars sit beside local cheeses bobbing in murky whey.
“The hall lacked the squawk and cackle of a busy hub of exchange,” recalled Tan. “I could just as easily be buying ammunition and Kevlar kneepads as I am looking for mayonnaise here.”
Topping the weird and wonderful list was Huchit Shonhor wholesale meat market, a popular place that was somehow constantly referred by Tan’s fixers as a “black market”. He later found out that not all the meat in the market was institutionally inspected; a good half was sold via trading with nomadic herders with the meat slaughtered at an abattoir just behind the market.
The cluster of squarish single-storey buildings was located away from the city centre, and each building housed around 20 meat sellers, each manning open food chillers displaying various cuts of beef, lamb and camel, with some camel tomahawk steak cuts as large as a small adult.
Tan found the place surprisingly clean. Nothing was wet due to the ambient temperature of one degree Celsius. “There was no signs of rot, no whiff of funk. Just a constant, very noticeable meatiness coupled with the smell of cattle, like a very buttery-smelling zoo.”
The vendors, mostly stern-looking women dressed in uniforms with matching Mos Burger-style caps, presided over their chillers, which had cards with prices scrawled on them. One yelled at Tan when he took one photograph too many. “I have only felt similar shame bumping into fishmongers in Tsukiji and touching lobsters without permission in Noryangjin.”
What was even more astonishing was the price. Well marbled, plump and boneless shortrib slabs were retailing for under S$3 a kilo and nothing was “dripping or flabby except from the beef fur that needs to be removed prior to cooking”.
With autumn temperatures hovering at zero degrees Celsius all day, everything was packed swiftly, without wrapping, into plastic bags. Every customer was shouldering a carcass of some kind, be it an entire lamb or the legs of a cow. Tan even saw someone nonchalantly throw a lamb carcass into the boot of a large BMW X5 before driving away.
“We paid what seems to be a ridiculously low amount for whole primal cuts of beef to grind for our burgers,” said Tan. “The patties we made from them were phenomenally tasty, with a rounded beefiness that I still remember clear as day.”
All these local interactions precisely make up what Tan feels food should be about: people.
He said, “A memorable food journey should include experiences of how locals buy, cook and eat their food. I love visiting places near food markets, where you can often find a thriving economy of kitchenware shops, and I get fascinated learning how food is grown and gets into someone’s mouth.”