All Mongolian Recipes
The Food of the Nomads
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Fermented Mare's Milk
(often known by its Russian name "Kumys")
Airag is the traditional national beverage of Mongolia. The most important animal of the Mongols is the horse. Horses don't only serve as riding animals, the mare's milk also has a special status.
The milk is filtered through a cloth, and poured into a large open leather sack (Khukhuur), which is usually suspended next to the entrance of the yurt. Alternatively, a vat from larch wood (Gan), or in modern times plastic, can be used. Within this container, the milk gets stirred with a wooden masher (buluur).
The stirring needs to be repeated regularly over one or two days. Traditionally, anyone entering or leaving the yurt would do a few strokes. The fermentation process is caused by a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, similar to Kefir. The stirring makes sure that all parts of the milk are fermented equally.
Airag refreshens and sparkles softly on the tongue. It contains a small amount of carbon dioxide, and up to 2% of alcohol. The taste is slightly sour, but quite agreeable after getting used to it. The exact taste depends both of the characteristics of the pastures and the exact method of production. The beverage is a rich source of vitamins and minerals for the nomads.
Hospitality mandates to present a bowl of airag to each visitor. A Mongolian will normally empty it, but it is also acceptable to just take a sip and return the bowl. To reject the offer right away would be gravely impolite.
Mare's milk is usually not consumed raw, because it tends to have a strong laxative effect (that effect can also be applied for medical treatment). Instead, it almost always gets fermented into Airag.
Fermentation destroys the lactose in milk, converting it into lactic acid, ethanol, and carbon dioxide. This makes Airag acceptable for lactose intolerant people, which includes many Mongolians. Without fermentation, mare's milk contains significantly more lactose than milk from cows or yaks.