Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mongolian Permaculture: Day 21 - Mongolian Spaghetti Carbonara and The Dilema of Chocolate Cake


Cake is still being requested each time I walk past the kitchen ...which I spent the better of part of today in... first to prepare the Filipino-Style crispy fried salted fish that was devoured pretty quickly, then to figure out how to prepare a spaghetti dinner to feed 26 hungry Mongolians using the sparsely inhabbited spice rack.

In fact, the pantry is looking pretty sparse, and Rick's watermelon search in town [for Kat's seed-saving lesson] reveals that the recent heavy rains have chewed into the roads and delayed deliveries from Ulanbaataar. We are both hankering for some peanuts to break the monotony of fatty meat broths and noodle dishes, and have been put on text-alert by Mogi The Peanutman, the young Lolly-Shopkeeper who is going to text us as soon as his delivery arrives!

There are no tomatoes in town, the potato and turnip boxes are down to the scraggly dregs that would have been thrown out of most western supermarkets weeks ago, all the milk has been commandeered to make traditional milk vodka by a wealthy local to celebrate an up-coming wedding, and Rick picks through an garlic stocking full of dried husks to come back with barely a handful of cloves. Of course these come at the end of the day, as the kitchen serves up our Mongolian Carbonara Creation...

...we are out of butter and cream, and there are 3 small packets of dried red spaghetti sauce packets in the kitchen. There is no garlic in sight, but we do have 3 potatoes, 3 small tomatoes and 3 onions to work with. A bagful of mineral salt leftover from the fish fry, and I find an unused packet of powdered white pepper. Luckily Kat has brought a packet of sweet paprika from Australia in her vegetarian survival kit, and this just may have saved the day...

Of course there is no shortage of meat, which the cooks insisted be included in our dish, so we use an old [clean!] grinder to mix our onions in with our mince meat. This is then salted and peppered with paprika.


I find a piece of sheep's fat in the freezer which we slice thin shavings from and use to oil our pan. A large wok-shaped pan sits directly on the thin-iron, wood-fire stove - you turn the temperature up or down by adding or withdrawing more firewood - and once the fat shavings are crispy, in goes the mincemeat mix. Once this had cooked through and started to simmer in its own juices, we removed it from the wok-pan and set aside for our garnish...

Meat as a garnish? A scandalous, revolutionary concept in Mongolian cuisine!

More fat shavings are fried to season the pan since we have run out of butter, how am I going to make a carbonara sauce without butter and garlic? I caramelized some onions instead, then add the last of the kitchen's milk and the cooks gasps audibly.

The sauce winds up being pretty tasty: lots of mineral salt, the freshest, most organic milk on the planet, some white pepper and sweet paprika to pick it up, simmer for two hours and thicken with flour... One scoop of sauce poured over the pasta and garnished with a ladel-full of mincemeat to stretch our meagre rations to feed 30 very hungry people who have just come in from an impromptu working-bee in the potato fields [time to mound the potatoes again], and hey presto Mongolian-Carbonara-with-Meat-Sauce!

Kat forgoes her garnish and one of the herders quickly asks for her portion: 'Wheeeeeeere's the Beef?!?'


Chocolate Cake.

Who am I to deny my newfound friends the simple pleasures of baking, and sharing a delicious, moist, melt-in-your-mouth Chocolate Cake?

Each time I walk past the kitchen, the question is plantively asked: "Cake?"

When I announce my intentions to teach the kitchen a simple chocolate muffin recipie with Kat, she is quick to point out her discomfort with introducing processed sugar into the diet of a culture not used to eating this kind of food. Have we really come all the way to Mongolia to introduce a part of western food culture that has only lead to epidemic diabetes and obesity rates?

Furthermore, neither sugar nor chocolate are locally available ingredients, having to be imported from tropical parts of the world - high cost goods in financial terms, but more importantly, extremely high-cost goods in terms of embodied energy.

Rick points out that we are here to teach Sustainability, not to be Jamie Oliver in the kitchen... and so agrees completely with Kat's stance.

Howzabout apple cake, I can rehydrate the dried apples bought in town and coat them in sugar to give a nice caremlized taste... when the Co-Operative starts growing apples, they can use their own produce in the recipie, and maybe even use their newfound baking skills to create a new micro-enterprise and income source. That's good, right?

Nope. Still using imported ingredients, and the processed sugar, so foreign to the Mongolian food culture, is very risky to introduce into their diet. Apples are at least 3-5 years away from production, and so won't be a locally available crop to utilize for quite some time. We can do better.

Perhaps carrot-cake, using carrots grown right here on the Co-Operative's plot, sweetened with locally harvested honey, or better yet, sweetened with a locally grown sugarbeet crop? Rick gives the nod, and so I begin my search for a good carrot-cake recipie ...I've never actually baked a carrot-cake!

In this way, we can meet the request of the community in a more responsible way, responding to their needs and wants a little more creatively - and perhaps opening the door to a new micro-enterprise [baking], or maybe even a new cash crop [sugarbeet].

It can be a slippery slope, this business of being more aware of our diet and consumption habbits. The more ecologically aware we become, the harder it can be to navigate our options, even in the Developed World ...perhaps even moreso in the Developed World...

...Organic is better than 'conventional' food production, but if it is produced organically in another bioregion and shipped thousands of miles to get to your door, than how 'green' is 'buying organic'?

A little deeper thought, a little more creatively problem-solving, and we can come up with better ways of living. I think it was Einstein, or perhaps Edison who summed this up best:

"Thinking is the hardest work these is. Indeed, that is why so few people engage in it."
-Einstein. or Edison. or maybe it was Benjamin Franklin...-

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