Sunday, October 30, 2016


Several years ago, we got a cat. It was the cutest mousetrap I could find. My daughter gave me three name choices she wanted to go with: Marina, Melissa, and Morocco. The first two, while nice names for girls, are not names I would give my cat. So, Morocco it was. Since then, the kids have had this interest with the country of Morocco. For me, I’ve been interested in it since I was a kid, and my best friend at the time told me her grandmother visited Morocco. I asked why, and she showed me some photos, and it was beautiful. And those couple of photos changed my view. 

Morocco, the cat, warming her booty on the vent.

The English name for the country (Morocco) is based off of the Anglicized version of the Spanish name of the country, Marruecos, which is named after the city of Marrakesh. Many languages still refer to this country by their version of the word for Marrakesh, although the Turkish word is based off of the city of Fes. The term Maghreb, which now refers to all of Northern Africa, literally means “the West.” It once referred to just the western-most corner of northern Africa.

Morocco is located in the northwestern corner of Africa, surrounded by Algeria to the east and Western Sahara to the south. The Atlantic Ocean covers its western side. Morocco is also just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain and Gibraltar (it’s only about 8 miles across between Morocco and Gibraltar). There are a few enclaves that belong to Spain; the major ones are Ceuta and Melilla. Smaller ones include Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, Peñón de Alhucemas, and the Islas Chafarinas. The island of Perejil near Ceuta is disputed between Morocco and Spain. The nearby city of Tangier is the oldest city in Morocco. The Rif Mountains run along the northern coast while the Atlas Mountains run down its backbone until it comes to the Sahara Desert in the south. Morocco has a diverse climate to match its diverse landscape. Its mountain ranges lead to cooler, drier climates with snowfall and skiing (and the record cold temperatures for Africa at -11ºF). There are also forested areas, coastal plains, Mediterranean climates, and desert, which all contribute to its biodiversity. 

Way a long time ago, Morocco didn’t quite look the way we see it today. It was far less arid for one thing; the Sahara used to be quite smaller. Scientists have made links between some of the original people here with Cro-Magnons and others in Europe; mitochondrial DNA evidence shows similarities between the Berbers and the Saami (of Scandinavia). When the Phoenicians began to explore the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, they began to establish communities everywhere they landed. Around this time, Morocco was part of the Kingdom of Mauretania (not to be confused with Mauritania the country). As the Roman Empire expanded, Morocco was swept up in their territory as well. During the 7th century, the Islamic Empire made its way across northern Africa, and the Berbers adopted their religion and ways of life. However, they did keep many of their own customary laws as well. From about the 11-15th centuries, the Berbers went through several dynasty changes, dealing with migration, warring states, and famine. Morocco was actually the first state to recognize the United States’ independence. They even declared protection for American merchant ships from Barbary pirates. France had its eye on Morocco and began to make the moves. However, Spain still wanted to hold onto Ceuta, and France wasn’t trying to hear it; often course, they fought for many years over which areas of Morocco they were going to take. Moroccans fought on the side of the French during WWI and WWII, and alongside the Spanish Nationalist Army during the Spanish Civil War. During the early 1950s, France ousted Sultan Mohammed V and put in the guy no one hardly wanted, Mohammed Ben Aarafa. That set everyone off in violent protests. Mohammed V finally returned, France ended the protectorate, and Spain gave up its territories except for the few enclaves it still has. The Polisario movement began during the early 1970s to encourage the independence of Spanish Sahara. After some political movements, Spain peaced out, and the land became known as Western Sahara. It’s jointly “governed” by Morocco and Mauritania, and Algeria has had its problems with this arrangement, which led to several conflicts and cold shoulders throughout the decades. There have been efforts in recent years to establish its independence, but the Polisario has rejected the proposals. In the past couple of decades, Morocco has had some problems with homegrown terrorists; a handful of Moroccans were responsible for the 2003 Madrid train bombings and a number of other violent acts. 

Although Casablanca is the largest city and namesake of the 1942 movie Casablanca, the capital is actually Rabat. This city is located at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, along Morocco’s Atlantic coast toward the northern part of the country. Across the river is its partner city Salé. It’s not one of the main ports, but it’s also the center for commerce, government, and has a number of sports venues, theatres, museums, and shopping centers/markets. With its modern architecture and infrastructure, it’s no wonder why this World Heritage Site ranked second on CNN’s “Top Travel Destinations of 2013.” 

Morocco was ranked number one at one time among African countries when it comes to quality of life (now they rank fifth, but that’s still pretty decent). Since they began to privatize certain economic sectors that used to be controlled by the government, they rose to become the 5th strongest economy by GDP in Africa. Because tourism is such a high economic driver, the services sector makes up the largest portion of jobs. Textiles, telecommunications, and information technology are other fields that strengthen Morocco’s economy. 

Nearly all Moroccans are Muslim (about 99% of the people). Sunnis make up about two-thirds of Muslims, and non-denominational Muslims making up just less than a third. There is a small number of Christians in Morocco, mostly Roman Catholic with some Protestant denominations mixed in. In the larger cities (Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakesh), small Jewish communities surround some of the few temples in the country. 

Morocco has two official languages: Arabic and Berber. Some 90% communicate in Moroccan Arabic, especially using the dialect known as Darija. The Berber spoken in Morocco has three main dialects: Central Atlas Tamazight, Tarifit, and Tashelhit. Because of Morocco’s past dealings with France, French is still used often as a second language. In fact, it’s still used in the media, many governmental offices, and medium/large businesses will still use French for ease in the international business community. And because of their close ties to Spain throughout its history, Spanish is also spoken, especially in the some of the northern regions and in the south where the Spanish occupied Spanish Sahara. English is the top foreign language studied in school.

There are so many cool things about Morocco, that it would be hard to list them all here. But here are just a few: 1) the first time I heard of the city of Marrakesh was in an episode of the British show Absolutely Fabulous; apparently the city is famous for its markets. 2) The oldest university in the world is often attributed to the city of Fes. 3) Morocco is known for its large production of hashish. The term reefer is named after the Rif Mountains where most of it is grown. 4) To Moroccans, the liver is associated with love, not the heart. 5) Morocco has been used as a haven for artists, writers, musicians, and other foreigners who have been attracted to its Mediterranean climate and beautiful scenery. And I look forward to learning more about what drew them here.

Up next: art and literature

Monday, October 24, 2016


Well, it’s finally time for my birthday again. This week, I’ll be celebrating the 16th anniversary of being 21. So, this weekend I started a little early and spent some money on myself: something that rarely gets done enough. Of course, I also paid a ton of bills because I like having electricity and running water and other amenities. It’s also been a strange fall. Typically, the temperatures should have dropped, followed by an Indian summer, which makes the tree colors peak around this time. But that hasn’t happened yet, and most of them are still green. Maybe they’ll peak on my birthday this year for the first time??

It's so pretty from this angle. And won't damage your teeth!
But it was a nice day for cooking Montenegrin food. Finding a Montenegrin bread was more difficult than I imagined. I did find a recipe for Cesnica. It’s a bread that’s typically eaten at Christmastime and made with a coin buried inside the bread. The person who finds the coin gets their wish come true or something. My wish is to not have to use my dental insurance, so I left out the coin. That and 7% of US coins carry E. coli. So, that being said… I did cut my recipe down slightly. I mixed together 4c flour, a large pinch of salt, a yeast packet, and 1 beaten egg into a bowl. Then I poured 250ml of lukewarm milk into the flour slowly as I stirred it in. Once I stirred everything together I kneaded it on a pastry mat, adding a little more milk here and there to make it stick together. Then I covered it with cheesecloth and let it sit for about an hour. I pulled off about a third of the dough and broke that into three equal parts. I rolled each part out into a long rope (which should’ve been way longer) and braided them together. With the larger section, I re-rolled it into a ball, and then laid my braid around the top like a crown. Then I brushed the whole thing with an egg wash, covering it in plastic and letting it sit for another 40 minutes. Before I put it in the 400ºF oven for 35 minutes, I gave it another brush with the egg wash just because. During the baking, my braid came up a little short on the ends. But otherwise, from the point of view I took my picture, it looks beautiful! The taste was not quite as flavorful as I imagined, but the crumb was nice. It was on the dense side, but I like it like that. That means, it would be good to use with butter or jam. The outside was hard and crusty and had a nice flavor, though.

This definitely made people jealous.
The main dish for today was Montenegrin Stuffed Cabbage. I had recently made a stuffed cabbage dish for Moldova, but this one offers a slight variation. I removed the stems from my cabbage leaves and blanched them, setting them aside to cool when I was done. Then I fried my onion, green onion (in lieu of a leek), and dried bouquet garni (in lieu of thyme). When my onions were transparent, I added in some minced garlic and some diced mushrooms. After about 5 minutes, I added in a ½ c rice, stirring to mix it with the other ingredients before adding in some chicken stock. Once the stock was all absorbed, I poured this into a bowl and set to the side. Then I browned my minced pork, adding in some Dijon mustard, fresh dill, Parmesan cheese, and a beaten egg. Once that was mixed together, I added the mushroom mix back in. Then I made my sauce: 150 ml of tomato passata (I found it in the Italian section of the grocery store – it’s like uncooked tomato puree and supposedly tastes different – the jury’s still out on that), 150 ml chicken stock, some paprika and some honey. I set this off to the side. Now time to do the dirty work: I took a cabbage leaf, put a piece of prosciutto on top, then a spoonful of the pork-mushroom mix, and folded it all up like a parcel. I secured them with toothpicks and put it in a casserole dish. After I finished the whole thing, I topped it with the bits of cabbage that didn’t make the cut, a little bit of sauerkraut, and the tomato sauce I made. I baked this at 335ºF for about 1 hour 10 minutes. I thought this was really good. The prosciutto added to the flavor along with the tomato sauce. My husband really liked this. I thought it was spectacular and reheats pretty well.

You can never go wrong with this.
While the stuffed cabbage rolls were baking, I made the next two dishes. First I made Blitva. This easy dish called to boil some cube-sized potatoes until they were soft. I used new red potatoes and kept the skin on. When they were soft, I threw them into a skillet with some olive oil and garlic and fried them up. Then I threw in some sliced collard greens (in lieu of chard). I added a little salt and pepper to it. The kids loved this and ate all of it up. Luckily there was a little left to take in my lunch tomorrow! 

Surprise of the day. It was so good, there was none left when I got home from work thanks to my husband.
Finally, the last dish I made was Njuguski Fruit Salad. This salad was pretty easy to make and the flavors surprised me. Actually, it surprised my husband who said it would probably be gross when I described it to him (which he later recanted on). In a large bowl, I mixed together diced cantaloupe, crumbles of asiago cheese, small bits of prosciutto, diced red onion, sunflower seeds, parsley, and drizzled with a little bit of olive oil and apple cider vinegar. Essentially, I just eyeballed the amounts to make it consistent (or at least “look about right”), using a half cantaloupe as the first ingredient. I truly enjoyed this. Amazingly the flavors came together in a new way, and I have to admit I was quite surprised. It was a nice balance between the other two heavier dishes. 

Overall, this was an amazing dinner. Thanks, Montenegro!
For a country that I was only moderately familiar with (as in, I saw it on the map when I did nearby countries earlier for this blog), I learned quite a bit. Enough that I wouldn’t mind visiting one day. Photos probably don’t do it justice. It’s hard to believe that this country became a country not long after my daughter was born, yet I don’t remember ever really hearing about it. You would think that watching a country be born would be a really big deal, right? I guess it just depends on who’s reporting it and who’s listening. That might be true for all news stories these days....

Up next: Morocco

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Montenegro’s musical traditions are a combination of folk traditions with influences from all over Europe. The earliest forms of music were religious-based musical traditions. Venetian music and Albanian music pretty much dominated Montenegro during the 15th century. 

Montenegro has been highly influenced by the classical music traditions of Western Europe. One of the most prominent composers to come out of Montenegro is Jovan Ivanisevic. From about the 17th century, most serious musicians studied in Prague, and Ivanisevic was no different. He produced many different kinds of works (including most notably, the national anthem); the tragic part is that he produced so much, yet died at the age of 29. I wonder if he lived longer that more people would be more familiar with his works. Operas and librettos were quite popular during the 19th century, which followed the trends in other areas of Europe. Even in the 20thcentury, Montenegrin classical music continued to flourish. The city of Cetinje was a major city for classical music studies, followed by Podgorica, even though music schools opened in many of the major cities across the country.

The main instrument is the gusle, a single-stringed bowl-shaped lyre. It’s held upright between the knees and played with a bow. Vocal music, however, tends to dominate folk music traditions. Many of the lyrics are based on traditional epic poetry. 

One of the most common folk dances for Montenegrins is the oro. It’s also danced among Herzegovinian Serbs. The oro is thought to have originated from the Crmnica region. Although it’s a dance, it’s also a game. This circle dance is danced by both men and women; one person starts mocking someone on the other side of the circle through song, trying to get them to come dance in the center of the circle. Usually a young man will enter first, dancing the dance of the eagle and clearly trying to impress the others. Second, a girl will enter, imitating his movements but more gracefully. (Of course.) When they get tired, they give each other a kiss, move back to the circle, and another couple enters. 

As far as modern commercial music goes, I was surprised to find quite a few Montenegrin hip-hop artists and groups. One group I came across was the strangely named group Monteniggers. I’m not sure who advised them that name is perfectly cool, but, no. I see where they were trying to go with it, but again, no. Not to mention, that one dude is wearing a Confederate flag bandana. (Sigh.) I listened to the album Allboom; their music is highly influenced by the musical styles of the early 1990s or so. 

If you’re into that style, you’d probably also like Rade Rapido’s album Kamo Sjutra. There are a few catchy songs mixed in the album, but otherwise, the style isn’t settling well with me as much. But I can’t quite place my finger on it. It almost sounds like a “you had to be there” kind of band/album. 

Rambo Amadeus’ sound is a combination of metal and funk and classical. Like someone took the vocals from Rammstein and put it on top of early Red Hot Chili Peppers. And there is one song that sounds like an avant-garde opera. It’s not quite doing it for me. 

I liked the flow and instrumentals of the group Who See. It kind of reminds me a little of Australia’s Bliss N Eso at times or even Croatia’s Elemental at times. It’s got quite a chill feel to it, sometimes almost a reggae beat underneath it. Several of the songs utilize upbeats and some syncopation to keep it interesting. 

If I were to pick a favorite Montenegrin artist, Sivilo might be toward the top. I really liked the album Tamna strana srece. His use of strings and piano, pop and electronica influences, and melodic vocal lines underneath his rhymes are what makes this so attractive and quite dramatic. It’s quite chill in places. There’s just so much to love about this album. 

One of the most well-known rock bands is Perper. They aren’t quite what I would categorize as rock, though. Well, to me, it’s more of a combination of soft rock and indie rock, and at times they remind me of Crash Test Dummies.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Early art in Montenegro stems from the larger, more dominant Greek culture. Stone sculptures were spread throughout this small country, but many of them have been destroyed throughout the years due to war and earthquakes. Their karst landscape leads to large deposits of marble. However, their marble tends to not be of the soft quality of other deposits that are preferred for most sculpting purposes.

Handicrafts were also an important part of Montenegrin folk culture. Needlework and other textile art went into decorating the home as well as traditional clothing and costumes. Terracotta bowls and engraving arts were also found around the country. 

Montenegrins have long history with painting. It’s one of the arts they gravitated toward as a means of expression to what it means to be a Montenegrin. Artists who wanted to study art seriously often traveled abroad to cities such as Belgrade, Zagreb, Paris, and other art centers in Europe. There, they would learn to hone their skills from the best and bring it back to their country where they would add in a certain Montenegrin flair to their work.

Some of the more notable painters to come from Montenegro—and especially from the Old Royal Capital of Cetinje—include Boris Dragojevic (surrealism, hyperrealism), Milo Milunovic (impressionism, cubism), Dimitrije Popovic (painter, sculptor, art critic), Vojo Stanic (painter, sculptor), Petar Lubarda (painter, art professor), and Dado Duric (illustrator, engraver, sculptor).

Although the official language of this country is Montenegrin, most literature is written in Serbian. Some of the earliest literary works (that we know of) date back to the 12th century with the Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja. During the Renaissance period, the city of Kotor became the center for a revived literary scene.

Montenegro made history when they developed the first state-owned printing house located in the city of Cetinje. This printing press was first put to work in 1494 where Oktoih, the first book in Church Slavonic, was printed. (Incidentally, it was also the first book to be printed in Cyrillic in this area of Europe.) During this time, monasteries were one of the main places that housed manuscripts, mainly because there were only a select group of people who were learned and most came through the church.
Petar II Petrovic-Njegos
Epic folk poetry was a common genre and many poets carved out their own voice and style. One of the more well-known poets was Petar II Petrovic-Njegos. He was most notably known for his epic work “The Mountain Wreath” (1847). He paved the way for other poets such as Jevrem Brkovic, Balsa Brkovic, and Borislav Jovanovic. 

Branimir Scepanovic
There are several authors who have hailed from Montenegro and/or Serbia. Modern literature spans an array of genres and subjects and is typically written in Serbian. A few notable authors to look for include Branimir Scepanovic, Igor Luksic, Dragana Krsenkovic Brkovic, Milovan Djilas, Mirko Kovac, Miodrag Bulatovic, and Borislav Pekic. You can read about these authors and their works in more details here (it’s a great blog for modern world literature).

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, October 16, 2016


I wonder how many people know that this beautiful country hides along the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. Certainly, its neighbors are far better known, especially if you were old enough to understand anything about the news during the 1990s and early 2000s. But do you really know anything about this Slavic country with a Latin name?

The name Montenegro comes from the Venetian Italian for “black mountain.” They were referring to the dark coniferous forests on Mt. Lovcen. The Montenegrin term for their country is Crna Gora, which also means “black mountain.” In the past, this land was known as Zeta (named after the Zeta River) and Doclea/Dioclea (named after an ancient Illyrian tribe who was living around Podgorica).

Montenegro is surrounded by Bosnia and Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia to the northeast, Kosovo to the east, Albania to the southeast, the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, and a tiny sliver of border with Croatia near the Bosnian border. Although it’s a smallish country, it’s quite mountainous, and its karst environment dives into the Adriatic Sea below. The highest mountain is the Zla Kolata, located along the border with Albania and part of the Dinaric Alps. The mountains jutting through Montenegro are some of Europe’s most rugged terrain. The Bay of Kotor is the largest bay in Montenegro and is listed as a World Heritage Site.

The Illyrians were the first people to move into this area and settle down. Their culture was pretty similar to that of the rest of the Balkans. As the Romans spread their empire across the Adriatic Sea, they moved into this area, too. They renamed the area the Province of Dalmatia, and its largest city was Doclea. Byzantine Emperor Justinian introduced Christianity to this province. During the Middle Ages, the land changed hands several times within the Serbian Empire until the Ottomans took over. Although the Montenegrins exercised a certain amount of autonomy under the Ottomans, they didn’t like being under their rule at all after a while, and fought to come out from underneath it. It was all brought to the front in the Great Turkish War. The country declared itself a principality in 1852 under the direction of Nicholas I. However, there were still political rifts between various parties, which led to some skirmishes because of it. However, Montenegro became a kingdom in 1910 and within a couple of years, the Ottomans lost all of the land in the Balkans. During WWI, Montenegro was part of Austria-Hungary and later became part of Serbia, but there were tensions there as well. In 1922, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes were incorporated into Yugoslavia. During WWII, Italian forces took control of the Montenegrin region of Yugoslavia. And in 1944, it was liberated by the Yugoslav Partisans and remained part of Yugoslavia until it was dissolved in 1992. During the Bosnian and Croatian Wars of the early 1990s, Montenegro generally sided with Serbia. This relationship lasted into the mid-2000s when Montenegro finally voted for their independence in 2006. (I didn’t realize it was such a young country.)

The capital city is Podgorica, which I’ve been mispronouncing the whole time. (It’s something close to POD-gor-ee-tsuh.) During the years the country was part of Yugoslavia, the city was known as Titograd. The city itself was founded sometime before the 11thcentury and has gone by other names during that time. Today, it’s the largest city in Montenegro with a population of somewhere around 186,000 in the metro area. This city located in the southeast corner of the country, where the Moraca and Ribnica Rivers meet. Podgorica is the center of government, finance, and media. There are also many museums, theatres, galleries, sports venues, colleges and universities, and markets. It’s a city with a mix of ancient castles mixed with modern architecture.

Montenegro is in transition to a market economy. From what I can figure out, they use the euro although their national bank hasn’t officially adopted the it yet (pretty sure their bank’s Facebook status just says, “it’s complicated”). The vast majority of their economy is made up of the service industry with a little bit coming from industry and agriculture. Their infrastructure is extensive and laid out, but it’s not quite to the quality of other European countries. In recent years, Montenegro has grown to become one of those Unknown Tourist Destinations people rave about. 

The vast majority of Montenegrins belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The second largest religious following is Islam. A large portion of the Albanians living in Montenegro is Sunni Muslim. There is also a smaller number of Roman Catholics there as well. 

While the official language is Montenegrin, this country is a multi-lingual country. Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, and Albanian are all spoken in various communities across the country, all with ties to their neighboring countries. During its Yugoslav days, the language was Serbo-Croatian, and during the decades leading up to independence, Serbian was the dominant language. 

Montenegro may not be one of the most well-known tourist destinations in the world, but for those who love the climbing mountains or skiing, it should be on their list. And actually, everyone can certainly appreciate the beautiful karst formations and Adriatic beaches. In fact, part of the movie “Casino Royale” (2006) was set in Montenegro (even though it was filmed in the Czech Republic). I have a feeling there are more hidden features here than they let on. And I’m on a mission to find out more.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, October 9, 2016


Fall has finally arrived. I can now wear my boots, sweater jackets, and scarves without feeling like I’m suffocating. Well, I mean, in the mornings, I suppose. The afternoons still warm up to the 70s. This is the perfect time of year. I even saw a couple trees starting to turn reddish on top. I wish there was somewhere on earth where this was the weather all year round. 

Flea crackers, as I call them. But much tastier.

But it’s also the perfect day to cook some Mongolian food. Today, I started with making Mongolian Sesame Flat-bread Crackers. Starting with making the dough first, I mixed together 3 c of all-purpose flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and 2 tsp of salt in a large bowl. Then I cut in a stick of unsalted butter and added a cup of plain yogurt. I did add in some water to it, somewhere between ¾ -- 1 c. Once it started to come together, I began to knead it by hand. Once I got the dough to become soft, I divided it into four pieces and wrapped each piece in plastic wrap, putting them in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes. While it was in the freezer, I made the glaze: I beat together 1 egg, 1 Tbsp sugar, and 1 ½ tsp of soy sauce until the sugar was dissolved and set it aside. I just took out two of the dough quarters from the freezer to use first. I divided each dough quarter into 8 pieces, rolling out each piece so that it forms a rectangle about 2 ½” x 3 ½”. Then I took each rectangle and tri-folded them like a letter, placing them on a greased baking sheet. When I was done folding all of the crackers, I brushed them with glaze and sprinkled them with sesame seeds (I thought I had some white sesame seeds left, but I must’ve used them, so we used black sesame seeds). I baked these in a 350ºF oven for about 20 minutes until they looked golden brown. These were absolutely wonderful, although I couldn’t necessarily call them crackers. To me (and perhaps I’m using an American English definition), crackers are flat and crispy. These were small, but tasted more like croissants. But I could eat about 16 in one sitting. 

It tastes professional. Which is strange for me.
My main meal for today is Mongolian Beef with Spring Onions.  For this, I heated some sesame oil (instead of vegetable oil) in a saucepan and cooked the minced garlic and ginger for about 30 seconds before pouring in the soy sauce, water, and brown sugar. Then I raised the heat a little, stirring constantly until the sauce starts to boil and thicken. I removed it from the heat and set it off to the side. Then I placed my sliced beef into a bowl with some cornstarch, making sure it was all coated. I let this sit off to the side for about 10 minutes to make sure all of the juices were absorbed. In my deep–sided skillet, I heated up some oil and put in my beef to sauté for about 2 minutes. Once the beef was done browning up, I poured in my sauce. (If there was a lot of oil left over, the recipe said to drain the oil first, but I didn’t use that much oil, so there wasn’t really any to drain off.) Once I brought the sauce back to a boil, I added in my green onion that I cut into 2” lengths. I let it cook for about two minutes until the onions turned a bright green. This tasted like it came straight from a Chinese restaurant. I seriously thought this was the best part of the meal. I was rather impressed with myself. 

I've always been a fan of noodles. And I always will be.
I served the beef and spring onions on Stir-Fried Mongolian Noodles. To make this, I bought two packages of Japanese udon noodles (throwing away the flavor packs) and cooked the noodles in a pot of boiling water along with a bag of broccoli florets. In a separate bowl, I stirred together some hoisin sauce, soy sauce, a little bit of pepper, and some water. When the noodles were cooked and the broccoli was tender, I took it off the heat. In a skillet, I stir-fried some garlic for about 30 seconds before adding my noodle-broccoli mix and then poured in my sauce, stirring until everything was coated and mixed well. I let it cook for another couple of minutes until the sauce started to thicken a little. My original sauce wasn’t quite enough, so I stirred in another small dollop of hoisin sauce. I liked this recipe. It’s a pretty basic recipe that can be utilized as a base for a number of varieties. (And actually, the original recipe called for chicken, I just took that part out.) It went well with the Mongolian beef and spring onions. Like they were meant for each other. 

Not picture perfect, but they were rather tasty.
And finally to go with this, I made Mongolia buuz. I felt that I couldn’t cover Mongolian food without including buuz. This type of dumpling is typically eaten at special occasions and celebratory events like holidays. I started out making the dough: I mixed together the flour and salt, making a well in the center to pour in the water. Then I mixed everything together until it formed a dough; I laid it out on the counter and kneaded it by hand until it was soft. Then I let it rest for about an hour in the refrigerator. While it was resting, I made the filling. In a bowl, I mixed in some ground beef [in lieu of ground lamb], onion, green onions, garlic, coriander, salt, and pepper. I stirred it altogether so that it was consistent. When I took my dough out, I rolled it out into a log that was about 1” in diameter, cutting it into 1” segments. I rolled these segments out into a circle, trying to keep it thicker in the middle than the edges. I spooned a little bit of the beef mixture into the center and pinched the edges together as I rotate it to close it up. This was harder than I thought it would be. There should be a small opening in the center at the top. Now comes time to steam them. I bought myself a steamer insert just for this (and I’m tired of trying to rig something together that doesn’t work). I sprayed the bottom of the pan with a little cooking spray to keep them from sticking, and I placed them in my steamer that I set on top of a pot of boiling water. (It’s important that the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the steamer.) The recipe said it should take about 20 minutes to steam them with the lid on. I still struggle with steaming dumplings, and I had to leave them in longer than the recipe said (closer to 30 minutes). But in the end, they were pretty good. My husband loved them. Two are deceptively filling. 

Overall, this was a fabulous meal! I loved it all.
This meal was awesome. I was completely blown away at how good the food was. I’m not exactly sure that I had any expectations going into it, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. And as far as I could tell, my husband and kids liked it, too. I might have to say that I liked the beef and noodles the best. This is definitely one to repeat. I’m still going to have to work on my steaming ability. But at least I’m getting closer to having the right equipment. Maybe by the time I get to the end of this project, I’ll finally have all the things I need.

Up next: Montenegro

Saturday, October 8, 2016


One of the dominating styles of Mongolian music is the love song. However, I think it’s probably a very different kind of love song than what many people might think of. These love songs consist of long, drawn-own syllables. The average 3-4 minute song might only have a few words to it. So, I suppose it’s not what you say, but how you say it. (I tell this to my husband ALL THE TIME.) The subject of the lyrics may vary from philosophical to romantic, and horses seem to be used as symbolism. It sounds like the making of a country song, but remember, much of Mongolian history and culture is based on the horse culture that was common throughout Central Asia. 

I read about overtone singing when I was studying music in college, and it’s a style that Mongolia is fairly famous for. It’s more commonly practiced in the northern regions of the country along with some of the southern regions of Siberia (in particular, the area of Tuva). When most people sing, they sing one pitch at a time. But in overtone singing, the singer is able to produce two pitches at the same time; one of the pitches is typically a drone note. This practice is sometimes referred to as throat singing and can also be found in a number of cultures. 

There are a number of instruments utilized in Mongolian music. Probably the instrument most well known in their music is the horse-head fiddle. It also goes by the name of morin khuur and is often seen as a symbol of the country. This two-stringed instrument is played with a bow and held similar to a cello, with the exception that it’s held between the knees rather than balanced on the ground with an endpin. The upper end of the instrument’s peg box typically has a carving of a horse on it, leading some scholars to tie the morin khuur to shamanism. This video is a little longer, but there is some good background and info here.

Mongolian music utilizes other instruments that are similar to Chinese and Japanese musical instruments. Some of the ones you’ll hear include the ikh khuur (like a bass version of the morin khuur), shants (a three-string, long-necked lute), bishhuur (similar to a clarinet), yoochin (like a dulcimer), everburee (like an oboe), khel khuur (similar to a jaw harp), khuuchir (bowed spike-fiddle), tobshuur (a plucked lute), and the yatga (a plucked zither). 

There are several traditional dances that are tied to Mongolia, many stemming from their nomadic traditions. One dance called the Biyelgee incorporates all of the motions of the nomadic ways of life. This particular dance is famous in the Oirat culture, the group of people who live in Mongolia’s western regions. Another type of dance in called tsam, which means “dance” in Tibetan. In this dance, the performers wear masks and do what’s almost like a pantomine play. It was tied to Buddhism ceremonies, but a lot of the information we know about it got destroyed when over 700 monasteries were destroyed during the communist years.  

I was really surprised at the pop music and rock music scene. Classical music (especially Western classical music styles) is important and has an integral part of their music. I didn’t expect Mongolia to have such an extensive number of groups and that many of them stream their music online. I listened to the female group Sweetymotion. In some songs they stick to more of a strings-heavy soft rock sound or even R&B, but other songs sound like a club pop song (which sounded better, in my opinion).

Another musician I listened to is Sarantuya B. Her music is a little slower, more chill. It reminds me of the kind of music you hear as you’re shopping. It’s not bad (if you like soft rock, I suppose), but it’s a little too chill to listen to in the car. I might get too relaxed or something. Or just drift off.

Now I came to the first Mongolian rock band I listened to. They’re called Nisvanis. All of their songs were written in the Cyrillic script, and it would take me forever to try to remember what little Cyrillic I remember. But their music is probably what I would call garage punk. I was kind of digging it. The instrumentals were pretty clean, although the vocals had that raspy, raw sound to it. 

I also listened to Magnolian. They sung mostly in English and had an indie rock or folk sound to their music. Using a variety of guitars, they reminded me a little of the Estonian band Ewert and the Two Dragons. I really liked what I heard here. 

The music of Altan Urag is kind of hard to place. It could easily be metal if it were played with different instruments. However, it uses more traditional instruments, and the lead singer demonstrates the use of the throat singing at times. It’s odd, yet fascinating. Metal, but not metal. Not even folk metal, but it could be. Someone needs to make this happen.

Yes, it’s true that I like a lot of non-English language rap and hip-hop. There’s just something about listening to the rhythms of the language. Plus, the lyrics often talk about the subjects at the heart of the people, or at least typically those who struggle the most. But anyway, I listened to Battulga, and struggle is exactly what it is. His flow just wasn’t there; it was like there was no feeling in what he was saying. I was struggling to listen to it. It was like he was either not sure or not comfortable with what he was doing, and it showed.

In contrast, Lumino knew what he was doing. At least he had better advisers and mentors on how to do it. His flow and rhythms sounded like he had practiced and that he actually believed in what he was rapping about. Ice Top is another one. His music seemed a little harder, but was equally put together better as far as the overall package goes. One main difference is that Ice Top’s music incorporates more of a rock-rap, Latin, and sometimes a soul sound to it.

Finally I listened to The Lemons’ Red Album. They had a nice happy alternative rock sound to them. They mixed their style up a little bit by using slightly different textures in different songs, but otherwise much of their music sounds like it came straight from the 1990s.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


The earliest art found in Mongolia was cave and rock drawings. It mainly depicted their nomadic lives of the time. Once Buddhism was introduced to the people here, most of the art from that point forward was tied to their religious stories and characters. This pretty much lasted up until the 20th century. 

Buddhist art generally fell into a number of mediums. One common art form was the thangka (sometimes spelled a number of other ways). It’s essentially a painting on a piece of cloth, typically of either a deity or some other religious symbol or scene. It wasn’t framed, but rather rolled up like a scroll. Sometimes it’s imprinted like an appliqué. Sculptures were also created in a variety of different sizes and materials. Bronze was typically the most common material used for sculpting Buddhist deities. A spiritual leader by the name of Zanabazar (which I keep reading as Zanzibar) was quite influential in the art of the 17th century.

During the 19th century, art started to change. An artist by the name of Marzan Sharav began to implement more realistic styles of painting. As the country changed its socio-political views and their government adopted communism, socialist realism became the thing. However, many of the thangka-like religious paintings suddenly began being produced as secular paintings. Artists who tried to push modernism were subject to harsh censorship and criticism and were dealt with accordingly. Today, artists enjoy more artistic freedom and delve into a variety of different styles.

The vast majority of literature in Mongolia is written in the Mongolian language. There really isn’t that much literature preserved from the times when the Mongol Empire reigned. However, one notable exception is that of The Secret History of the Mongols. (I suppose it’s not so secret now, is it?) It’s the oldest piece of Mongolian literature there is, that we know of. Even though there are portions of this that contain much older poetry. This work is so significant that it’s not only considered a classic in Mongolian literature but in world literature as well. 

A few other portions of poems and literary works have been found from these early centuries, but not very many. Most of it fell into the category of epic poetry, genealogy, and stories of epic heroes. As Buddhism began to spread its way across Mongolia, religious texts also appeared in Mongolian as well. Many of these were also translations of texts from India, China, and Tibet.
Tseveen Jamsrano
As Mongolia aligned with Russia and became a communist nation, important Russian works were translated into Mongolian. Tseveen Jamsrano was a leading Buryat (an ethnic group living in the northern part of Mongolia and Siberia) scholar and politician who was also a writer, journalist, editor, and translator. 

Excerpt from "Moon Cuckoo"
Religious theatre has had a presence for several centuries. One popular story line is the character Milarepa, a Tibetan hermit. These plays were especially popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. The oldest one, “Moon Cuckoo” by Danzanravjaa, was written in 1831 (even though it got lost during the early part of the 20th century). Theatre companies started popping up during the 20th century and lasted even during the communist years to today.
Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj
Some authors of note to look for include Begziin Yavuukhulan (famous poet), Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj (often considered founder of modern Mongolian literature), Vanchinbalyn Injinash, Byambyn Rinchen, Ayurzana Gun-Aajav, Lodongiin Tudev, Chadraabalyn Lodoidamba, Galsan Tschinag, and Mend-Ooyo Gombojav.

Up next: music and dance