When planning my three week trip to Mongolia, I was faced with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. For a very long time I have wanted to explore this country’s expansive wilderness and immerse myself in the countryside’s Nomadic culture. However, when researching my trip, it soon became apparent that Mongolia was somewhat of a vegan nightmare, often labelled one of the ‘least vegan places in the world!’. For someone who is obsessed with food, this was a little worrying… Alongside the general lack of vegan food thanks to a diet predominantly made up of meat and dairy, I read post after post which suggested that refusing food, no matter how politely, would cause great offence to Nomadic hosts. This evoked a moral dilemma – would I rather compromise my veganism or upset my hosts!? Luckily it never came to that and my experiences seemed to contrast with all those I’d read about previously. I found being vegan in Mongolia was actually very easy; I experienced an abundance of incredible meals within popular restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, and ate like a Vegan Queen every day of my tour through the Mongolian countryside.
I’ve sorted the information below into three categories; restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, supermarkets, and tours/ outside of Ulaanbaatar (aka. how to handle weird offerings from Nomadic families!).
ULAANBAATAR // RESTAURANTS
Quite the opposite of their Nomadic relatives, Mongolian city-dwellers are hurtling forward into modern life with a love for all things Western. Due to this, there is definitely not a lack of shops or restaurants within the capital! We were shocked to find such an amazing selection of restaurants – including two 100% vegan eateries which rank first and third in TripAdvisor’s top “Cheap Eats’ (the place ranking second also had a decent vegan and vegetarian selection). As well as being a great surprise, it also meant I could stuff myself with a delicious range of healthy and fast-food style dinners after living off mostly potatoes, buckwheat and cabbage in Russia…
We only tried the five restaurants listed below during our week’s stay in Ulaanbaatar – we liked them so much that we didn’t bother seeking out any others! There are a couple more places listed on Happy Cow that we didn’t go to.
The highest rated budget restaurant and fifth out of 225 restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, we visited Luna Blanca multiple times during our week in the capital. Between the three of us, we managed to work our way through a good chunk of the menu! Mostly offering Mongolian cuisine, it’s the perfect place to try traditional dishes that would usually be stuffed with meat and/or dairy.
Clockwise from the top: Mongolian fried noodles (‘Tsuivan’), peppered steak with mashed potato, curried seitan with rice, traditional Mongolian steamed (Buuz) and fried (Khuushuur) dumplings and Sichuan tofu with rice.
The Sichuan tofu was nothing to shout about, but the Buuz and Khuushuur were the best we tried in Mongolia by far. We also loved the curry, and Emily loved the ‘steak’ so much, she went back another two times for it!
It might not look like much, but after weeks of heavy curries, dumplings, lots of rice etc, it was actually very refreshing to enjoy a crisp, healthy salad. The vinaigrette from Luna Blanca was very similar to my old favourite honey-mustard dressing – delicious!
This popular vegan chain is well-known amongst many vegan and vegetarians thanks to hundreds of restaurants dotted around the world. I never thought I would stumble across a Loving Hut in Mongolia… let alone seven!! Although there were multiple restaurants, the one we visited (nearly every day, oops..) was much bigger and seemed to have more choice on the menu. It was located just around the corner from Luna Blana on Juulchni Gudamj street.
THE GREEN ZONE
Not a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, but the Green Zone does have a decent selection of vegetarian and vegan options. We went twice – the first time I had a sandwich with roasted veggies (I asked them to hold the butter and cheese) and Gary had a vegetarian lasagna which he was really impressed with. Another time we tried the pizzas (no cheese) which were also pretty good. The choices aren’t as exciting as Loving Hut or Luna Blanca, but it did have a pretty impressive veggie selection for a meaty restaurant!
Another non-veggie restaurant, LA was a lucky find! Hungry after a full day exploring the city, we wanted somewhere fairly close to our hotel where we could chill out with dinner and a few beers. We were just flicking through the menu, when we discovered they have a full section at the back labelled ‘Vegan Options’.. amazing! Although, word of warning.. I’m not sure they know exactly what vegan means. We ordered the ‘Vegan Pizza’ but specified no cheese to the waiter. He was really surprised and repeatedly asked us if we were sure that we didn’t want cheese. The pizza was really good – loaded with vegetables and huuuge. We went back another time and Emily ordered straight off the menu, forgetting to specify, and it turned up loaded with cheese…
Most Indian restaurants have a good selection of vegetarian and vegan food and Delhi Darbar was no exception. There are a quite a few Indian restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, but this one came up as being one of best cheaper options which appealed to our traveller budget! They also listed on their menu whether things contained eggs/ milk etc. So we were able to choose a flatbread side, rather than naan bread which contained milk. (Note: Raita pictured isn’t vegan).
The supermarkets were surprisingly well-stocked! I was shocked to find normal and flavoured soya milks, lots of tofu and in one particular supermarket, an INSANE amount of faux meat products. They had tofu/ seitan sausages and a load of different Mongolian style meats. Spicy ‘chicken’, BBQ ‘ribs’, patties, shredded meats and more! We bought the BBQ ribs and the spicy chicken to take with us on our 8 day tour as we were worried about what we were going to be served! Our lovely guide cooked them up with some veggies and rice and they were DELICIOUS!
TOURS // OUTSIDE OF ULAANBAATAR
If you plan to do a tour/ road trip around the Mongolian countryside, chances are you are going to be doing it on some kind of organised trip. Make sure you let them know in advance what you do and don’t eat so they have a chance to prepare. Luckily for us, our hostel (Danista Nomads) was GREAT and the manager was super helpful in reassuring us that he had let the guide (who doubled up as the cook) know. On the first day, we stopped at a grocery store and I helped pick out some things for us to eat – lots of veggies and tofu mainly! We also had the two packets of faux meat we brought with us. We ended up eating SO well on the trip – so well in fact, that all but one of the meat eaters converted to veggie by the end of the trip as they were so sick of mutton and agreed that the veggie dishes were better!
More about what we ate in my tour diary:
As for avoiding strange delicacies like fermented camel/ horses/ goat milk and curds, that was much less stressful than anticipated. Being on a tour, my local guide could easily tell the Nomadic families we stayed with that some of us didn’t want to eat or drink anything. Contrary to posts I’d read beforehand, the families were not offended at all (I guess they are used to tourists passing through and not wanting to try anything!). They just laughed at our refusal and had the attitude of ‘great, more for us!’. We were able to enjoy the fresh tea, without milk, and took Oreos with us to dunk instead of their camel’s milk biscuits. (Yep, Oreos are vegan!)
If you decide to travel on your own (you’re braver than me) or hire a driver (who may not speak English), things are likely to be a bit different. You will probably want to learn how to say ‘no milk’/ ‘no meat’ etc, but be prepared to deal with a dinner of plain rice if you are just relying on the hospitality of random Nomadic families you pass on the way. They will happily provide you with dinner, but their diet is so hugely made up of dairy and meat, there is often no vegetable in sight! If you are following a traditional route or visiting popular destinations you are more likely to come across families who are used to tourists and tour groups so you might be better understood there. I still can’t promise any vegetables though!
One thing to bear in mind is that all food stuffs are likely to be bundled into the same boxes to be transported. We made sure to specify that we wanted our veggie stuff stored separately from the large defrosting sheep carcass that was being used for the whole eight days.. Ick. It’s almost impossible to keep everything apart, so that’s another thing to think about. Our guide was really good at keeping veg and meat separate whilst cooking, but it’s common that everything is washed up together and often with just water. We had a specific meat knife, but this won’t always be the case on these trips. Just make sure you let your guide know that you would like everything to be kept as separate as possible. Mongolia also has a distinctive meaty and milky aroma that will follow you whilst you travel through the countryside. It sometimes got a bit much for us when they were cooking inside the small Gers, so regular fresh air is advised!
SO… You should definitely not be worried about being vegetarian or vegan in Mongolia. There is plenty of choice in the city, road trips definitely don’t have to be spoilt by a lack of decent food and most importantly you don’t need to worry about offending your hosts, especially if you have a guide. I had a fantastic experience, ate an abundance of delicious food and would recommend Mongolia to EVERYONE!