Mongolian sushi chef D.Mendjargal won the Asian cuisine competition at the 15th International Istanbul Gastronomy Festival, which took place from February 2 to 5 at Tuyap Fair Convention and Congress Center in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Mongolian team, consisting of master chefs D.Mendjargal, J.Otgonpurev and B.Battulga, seized six medals and came in fourth place in the team competition at the fiercely competitive event which saw more than 2,800 master chefs from 30 countries.
D.Mendjargal currently operates Miko Sushi Restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, allowing people in Mongolia to get a taste of Japan’s finest cuisines. He spoke about the 15th International Istanbul Gastronomy Festival and Asian cuisines in the interview below.
Congratulations on winning the International Istanbul Gastronomy Festival this year. Can you tell us about the competition?
The World Association of Chefs Societies organized the festival in collaboration with the Cooks and Chefs Federation of Turkey earlier this year. Over 2,800 chefs from 30 countries competed in 70 categories.
I specialize in Japanese culinary, so naturally, I entered the Asian cuisine competition. Chefs from Japan, Korea, China, India and other Asian countries took part in this competition. Although I doubted that I could outshine them, I was able to win a gold medal. The Japanese and Koreans have standard principles and recipes for cooking certain cuisines. Hence, I tried to break the traditional Japanese way and infuse it with European food. I made it easier to eat for anyone.
I made a roll, maki sushi, during the competition. Japanese chefs put rice on top of seaweed. Instead of seaweed, I made a rice ball with fried shrimp inside it. I paid a great deal of attention to presentation and won.
How many times have you entered the festival? Have you participated in other categories?
I competed in this festival for the first time this year. Director of the Mongolian Association of Master Chefs (MAMC)’s Chefs’ Academy J.Otgonpurev won silver medal in the Asian cuisines competition and head chef of SouthGobi Sands LLC B.Battulga took part too. It was really good that B.Batbaatar, a member judge of the World Master Chefs Society and executive director of MAMC, was appointed as one of the judges of the festival. It’s a huge achievement for Mongolia.
We came in fourth in the team competition, which was very competitive. The organizers gave us a box of ingredients that could and couldn’t be used together. We had to make an appetizer, main dish and a dessert using the given ingredients within a time limit of one-and-a-half hour. Points were deducted for using the wrong combination of ingredients. You have to start plating when there’s five minutes left on the clock otherwise points are deducted.
Only 30 minutes are given for individual competitions. You have to make enough food for two within a time used for boiling water. Chefs are required to have expert cooking skills, manage their time well, and be clean.
How long have you been cooking?
I have been cooking for 18 years. I worked as a chef for over 10 years in the USA. I opened a sushi restaurant when I came to Mongolia.
Is it possible to compete in an international competition with Mongolian cuisines?
Mongolian chefs used to compete with Mongolian cuisines in the past. However, Mongolian cuisines aren’t consistent with European standards.
…There’s nothing stopping us from coming up with a light meal recipe for Mongolians which uses meat. Mongolian chefs have already started paying attention to this area…
Why is that so? Is it related to the use of meat?
It hasn’t been recognized yet. I think it’s because they don’t really know Mongolian cooking. In general, the understanding and awareness of Mongolian food is very poor worldwide. This is partially the fault of Mongolian chefs for not promoting the national food. So we shouldn’t say that Mongolian food isn’t internationally accepted because of the meat.
Meat produced in Mongolia contains more than 300 types of nutrients. Meat from other countries isn’t like that. I noticed that Mongolians aren’t very good at processing and storing meat. Families make buuz for Tsagaan Sar. They season the minced meat with black pepper and artificial flavoring. The meat starts to lose color a bit later. I deduced that Mongolian meat doesn’t go well with excessive seasoning. We need to observe these kinds of things and change the way we use meat. Moreover, people place large quantity of buuz on the balcony to freeze it. The buuz will likely absorb all kinds of chemicals in the air. We have to pay attention to these little details.
I don’t put various artificial flavoring in the meat for buuz. I put in jamts salt (rock salt), anise, onion, and sheep tail fat. Sheep tail fat has low cholesterol and is good for the eyes and helps improve memory. As rock salt doesn’t contain various chemicals, the meat doesn’t change color. Overall, it’s important to keep the Mongolian taste strong.
How challenging was it to learn to make sushi?
It is difficult. You need an extremely sharp knife for making sushi. One wrong move and you could slice off a finger or two. It could become a mess if you cut your hand in front of customers. Americans are scared of blood and find it gruesome. I don’t know if it’s due to the high prevalence of blood-borne diseases like HIV. If I do cut my hand, I silently go back to a room without causing chaos. People also don’t like to eat food made by someone with a band on their finger. Only people with precision and fast hands make sushi. You also need to be friendly with customers since you work right in front of them in a sushi restaurant. You’ll need to converse with them while working and even drink sometimes. I leaned to make all kinds of cuisines, not just sushi, while working in the USA. I believe I managed to learn it all with sheer effort and enthusiasm.
It’s said that Japanese people don’t teach cooking and that you have to learn from observation. You must have also had language barriers, right?
It wasn’t easy to work all day on your feet and in front of people in the beginning. I was exhausted after a while. Moreover, people were telling me to find another job while I’m still young instead of tiring myself by working all day in a restaurant. Then I started thinking that I could actually work as a substitute driver, taxi driver or construction worker. I tried working at a construction site for a month. It wasn’t for me. Other workers drank during breaks. I took out a loan so I ended up spending all my salary on loan repayment. A person who can’t speak the language needs to work hard. When I was working at the construction site, the restaurant owner phoned me. He offered to raise my salary so I went back. Despite long working hours, you’ll at least get to fill your stomach and get tips while working at a restaurant. I could manage miscellaneous costs with the big tips I received. Later, my friend kept asking me to work at his restaurant. I accepted even though I knew it wasn’t really nice (to my old boss) because I needed money. I helped the restaurant thrive before returning to Mongolia. I lived in the USA for exactly 10 years and two months.
Mongolians eat buuz and khuushuur, which aren’t light food, on a daily basis. Are there recipes for making lighter food using meat? Is it possible to use it to establish a fast food chain?
Fast food chains like KFC, Pizza Hut and Burger King conduct extensive research of the market before opening a branch in Mongolia. According to the research, people usually ate khuushuur and buuz. We must use these food to compete against foreign fast food chains. It’s clear that buuz and khuushuur can’t become light food. We need just a little bit of effort. We could add color to the flour batter and add ingredients essential to the body.
I tried experimenting before. I minced meat for khuushuur by hand and added sheep tail fat, cheese and other ingredients. It improved the taste and became easier to digest. There’s nothing stopping us from coming up with a light meal recipe for Mongolians which uses meat. Mongolian chefs have already started paying attention to this area.
Light breakfast have been developed for Japanese, French and American people and people are raising the topic of creating breakfast specifically for Mongolians. Apparently, Mongolians have over 180 types of tea based on geographical regions. Teas should also be made specifically for one’s taste and health. I attended the Word Green Tea Conference in October 2016. Japanese people make the finest green tea. They annually award the best green tea makers. I tasted green tea made by a seven-time tea champion. It was wonderful. Taste and quality of tea can differ depending on harvest and region. There’s even a tea worth 120,000 JPY per 100 grams. Mongolia has opportunities to create our own tea culture in a similar fashion.
Can you share some of your goals for the future?
I joined MAMC with the hope to help in developing the Mongolian food industry and services. Now, we have established an Integrated Union of Mongolian Food Industries and Services, which has over 20 member associations. Our target is to increase the professional values of the food service industry and identify development goals. We also plan to introduce international standards to the Mongolian food industry, enhance the skills of chefs, and further develop the Mongolian culinary.