When Mongolia was decided as the holiday destination for this year, I had no idea what to expect. I’d like to think of myself as reasonably well travelled through Asia. I’ve been to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Nepal and India. I can deal (sort of) with heat, I can deal with dust and pollution, I can deal with crowds, and I can definitely deal with Asian food. I had assumed that Mongolia would draw on my past experiences, and fit into my ideas of Asia but I couldn’t be more wrong.
Given the timeframe we were working with (I had three weeks of leave from work), and my lack of Mongolian language skills, we opted to go on a Dragoman tour. Going on tours can often be risky, you might not be able to see the things to you, you might get stuck with annoying people, and basically you don’t have full control of your holiday. But on the flip side, you have someone that organises everything for you, you don’t have to stress about anything, and if you get lucky, you can meet some pretty cool people. I have travelled with Intrepid in China and Peru with no issues, so I was comfortable going with Dragoman. I had actually booked my trip with Intrepid, but later found out that their Mongolian Overland trip was outsourced to Dragoman, but this was no issue.
Dragoman specialise in overland tours. What this means is that you get to travel the country in a huge truck, which is kitted out with all the necessities - a fridge, some tables, charging points, speakers for music and lots of storage room. You get to drive around, stopping where you want, and when night falls, you find a good camping spot, set up your tents and stay there for the night. It’s a great way to travel, to really experience the country, and venture off the beaten track.
Every night when we stopped, there was an allocated team that was responsible for cooking dinner. There was a lot of cooking equipment on board, including 4 gas burners, lots of pots and pans, and a well stocked spice box. The truck had previously been travelling through Kyrgyzstan, and there was an Indian on board, who had made sure that a decent selection of spices were purchased. So when a request was made for a curry night, I happily volunteered, knowing that I had ingredients aplenty at my disposal.
Based on what I had to work with, I decided to make a potato curry, or as the Bengalis would call it, alu’r dom. This is a curry I have grown up with as a child. My Sunday lunches were filled with alu’r dom, served with luchi or puri, and I would always try and outdo myself and eat more than my body could handle. The curry was always delicious, and as a result, I was apprehensive of whether my curry would even get close to the standards that came out of my mum’s kitchen. On top of that, I was to cook in a makeshift kitchen in the middle of Mongolia, for 23 people, with a significant amount of improvising. Still, I was really missing being in a kitchen and cooking, so I was eager to give it a go!
Much to my delight, the curry was a bit hit! I served it with rice, and yogurt sauce (raita) and by the end of the meal, the pot was scraped clean! Perhaps it was the fact that we were starving, but it was nice to know that my curry tasted good. Perhaps a little bit of my mum’s talent and ability to improvise in the kitchen has rubbed off onto me!
Below is the recipe of the alu’r dom that I made. I’ve included variations, which can be adapted depending on what ingredients you have on hand.
Potato and pea curry (Serves 4 - 5)
1kg potatoes, scrubbed clean, and cut into 1 - 2 inch cubes (skin on)
2 tbs oil
1/4 stick cinnamon
2 cardomom pods
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 dried chilli
2 large, ripe tomatoes, chopped, or the equivalent in canned tomatoes
1 handful of fresh or frozen peas
1 large onion, either sliced thinly, or grated (or put through a food processor)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp chilli powder (or more if you like it hot!)
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 cup yogurt, coconut milk or cream
Salt to taste
1. Boil all the potatoes in water until they are cooked. Drain and allow to cool. Once cool, peel them and set aside. It is important to boil them with their skins, so that they don't fall apart.
2. Heat oil in a large pan. Once the oil is hot add the cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom pods, cumin seeds and dried chilli.
3. When the seeds start spluttering (should take less than a minute), add the onion and garlic. Fry this mixture off until the raw onion is cooked off. If you have grated the onion, this will be difficult to tell, but estimate about 5 mins. (Grating the onion will mean that the gravy will be nicer).
4. Add the tomatoes and mix well.
5. Add the boiled potato and continue to mix gently, being careful not to break the potatoes up.
6. Add the ground spices, turmeric, chilli powder and cumin and make sure they are combined through the curry.
7. Add the yogurt, salt and sugar. At this point it would be wise to taste, and make sure that the flavours are balanced. Adjust if something seems out of whack - add more tomato and cumin if it is too sweet, more sugar if the tomato taste is too predominant, etc.
8. Allow to simmer for 10 - 15 mins. If there is too much gravy remove the lid to the liquid can evaporate. If it seems to dry, add water and cover.
9. Serve with rice, roti, puri or naan bread
And as a final note, put Mongolia on your travel wishlist. The food there isn’t very good, but the country and the landscape is seriously awesome.