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Living Veg in a "Non-Veg" Area: Lessons from Mongolia
My husband is a Peace Corps and U.S. Embassy Medical Officer so we move from country to country every couple of years. (We were both Peace Corps Volunteers at one time, though not now.) Whichever country we live in at the time, we are stationed in the capital city-in this case, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I actually became vegetarian, then vegan a short time later, while living in Papua New Guinea.
by Melanie Wilson
Being vegan overseas has sometimes been a challenge, but we love traveling, living in foreign countries, and exposing our children to other cultures and languages. Contrary to common belief, it isn't generally difficult to live as a vegetarian outside the U.S. Every country offers different options in the way of vegetarian foods, and we've always been able to make do very nicely with the local offerings. The key is threefold: 1) searching out the veg items that are already available, 2) making sure that suppliers know there is a demand for them, and 3) creating veg options for yourself whenever possible. You can use these same strategies where you live.
The first thing I do upon entering a new country is search out the local tofu master, who often happens to be a part of the Asian community. In Mongolia, there are large Chinese and Korean populations, so lots of tofu, miso, seawead, kim chee, dried mushrooms, and noodles of every kind can be found. Tofu is widely available here in several forms, some of it produced by small businesses and other kinds imported from China. If you can't find tofu in the grocery store, try calling the local health food store or Asian market to find out if someone makes it locally and when it's delivered to the store.
We can buy regular blocks of firm tofu, which are delivered daily to a local market. But our favorite is a variety of tofu that is like nothing I'd ever eaten before coming here: a smoked, pressed, very chewy tofu. It comes in a thin roll and actually looks like leather. In fact, the first time I saw it, I thought it was animal skin and naturally avoided it until I accidentally ordered it in a Chinese restaurant. It's delicious stir fried with green peppers, onions, and garlic. I also chop it into small pieces and use it in place of bacon in an old family recipe for creamy corn chowder. The Koreans slice it thinly and marinate it in red pepper for a spicy cold dish. You might be surprised what you can find locally if you are willing to venture out and try something new.
Mongolia is a big dairy country. When we first moved here, there was no soymilk to be found, though it's sold in many other Asian countries. We started asking for it everywhere we went, and several stores began ordering it for us. We spread the word in the small vegetarian community, and soon others joined us in making requests. Initially it meant a lower chance of getting our share, but eventually, supply met demand, and soymilk is now widely available. Then a few months ago, my husband decided we needed to use up the huge supply of organic soybeans we had sitting in our pantry (bought in bulk to save money), and he purchased a used soymilk maker on Ebay. If you can't seem to get the stores in your area to pick up soymilk, consider making it yourself. It's very easy! I also sometimes make almond milk in my blender, which offers a nice change of pace.
We are working on Korean suppliers to get veggie "meat" (seitan in a can), but so far no luck. In the meantime, I pay a local girl to make seitan for me. Thankfully, she already knew how to make it from her experience working with another vegetarian family, but you could easily teach a local teen (or any willing soul!) to make it for you if you don't have time to make it yourself. Another local woman makes homemade whole wheat tortillas, which we buy in bulk and freeze.
Of course, fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of our diet. Since the selection is a little less varied in the winter, we steam and freeze a lot of green veggies in the spring and summer, like spinach, broccoli, and green beans. We plant a very small garden in the U.S. Embassy greenhouse each year with kale and swiss chard, which we also freeze and eat all winter. I use fresh cilantro to make pesto, then freeze it in small portions for quick, easy meals.
There is an Austrian bakery here that makes the most delicious whole grain breads, but they are pricey, so we put our bread machine to good use! I cannot say enough about using kitchen appliances to save money. Though the initial cost may seem prohibitive, they often pay for themselves in the long run. For example, we purchased our first Vita-Mix blender on Ebay, and once we were sure we liked it and would use it often, we sold it to someone else on Ebay and bought a new one. We use it almost every day for blending, chopping, pureeing, and grinding.
Some of these ideas can take time so all of them may not be right for your family. But the results of your efforts are well worthwhile for the positive effects they will have on the variety in your vegan family's diet. Banding together as a group of individuals or families can make your consumer voice even stronger, and results benefit not only the immediate group but also other veg families in the community. Your location might require you to make a commitment to veganism that means a change in lifestyle for you, but it can be done - no matter where you are in the world!