Outside the wall

Dan and Sarala’s blog from Hohhot

Meet my pet bacteria

08 Sep 2014

Some friends gave me (Sarala) some starter from their yogurt. Now we too have a Mongolian yogurt culture living in our house. It sits on one corner of the dining table in a yellow plastic tub that was originally a takeout container. I eat some each morning and feed it more milk each afternoon.

This yogurt is very low-maintenance compared to American-style homemade yogurt. It does fine at room temperature, and it can handle some disruptions to its schedule. It doesn’t require sterilized milk, although at the moment that’s what it’s getting because that’s how the milk is sold (UHT). It doesn’t require a sealed container either – in fact it does better if you leave the lid ajar and stir it a few times a day.

Of course, the results aren’t much like American yogurt either. Maybe more like kefir? The consistency is runny, like melted ice cream. The yogurt can get pretty sour and foamy and even a little alcoholic if the weather is warm or I don’t give it enough fresh milk. The flavor is different too. Not better or worse, just different.

For breakfast I always eat it with toasted millet, which is one of my favorite traditional Mongolian food products. Millet is a tiny little yellow grain (the top one in the photo). The toasted version (lower left) puffs up bigger and rounder, though still less than half the size of a grain of rice (lower right).

It’s extremely crunchy but softens quickly if you put it in a liquid. To maintain the perfect amount of crunch I usually sprinkle it onto my yogurt just enough to cover the surface, then eat that layer of millet, then sprinkle another. This is the same way the friends who gave me the yogurt eat it.

It’s funny how different foods fit together to form a meal. If you remove one product, suddenly the meal doesn’t work. And yet, two completely different meals can fulfill the same need if they have certain characteristics in common. Take my American breakfast versus my Inner Mongolian breakfast. You might guess from the above that I am a cereal eater. In fact, I’m more of a cereal hater. Plain uncultured cow’s milk tastes gross to me, cereal gets mushy too quickly, and I don’t like sweet foods at breakfast. Usually I have whole-grain toast with butter or peanut butter or cheese, plus strong coffee or tea with lots of unsweetened soymilk.

That breakfast is pretty hard to replicate in Inner Mongolia. There is no good whole-grain bread, no toaster, and although unsweeted freshly-pressed soymilk is easy to get, it is not stabilized so it tends to curdle if you put it in tea. (And let’s not talk about coffee.) Through trial and error, I’ve found that yogurt plus millet plus plain tea or instant coffee makes an equally satisfying breakfast. I guess the key elements are crunchy grains, a hot drink, a milky liquid with protein, and caffeine.

It's useful to find a locally available meal that has a similar feel to one of my usual meals from home. It means one less craving for comfort food.

As for Dan’s breakfast? He’s just carrying on as usual: oolong tea and oatmeal. Did you know they have oatmeal in China? It's grown in Inner Mongolia and (allegedly) even organic.