I hold the cup filled with the strange white beverage up to my lips, but before I can take a sip the pungent aroma of the cocktail makes me seize up. Seizing the day sometimes tastes horrible – but I proceed, and the salty-sour liquid shoves its way down my throat. Its flavor is a mixture of plain yogurt, sour milk, day-old beer, and rubbing alcohol. This is the beverage that fueled the rise of the largest empire that the world has ever known: the Mongols drank fermented mare’s milk.
Pass the Cup
“I have a friend who drinks 30-40 liters every day,” my host Nemo explains. “He’s a monk.” The cup makes its way around the table in the ger, the traditional round tent used by nomadic tribes in Mongolia since time immemorial. Many people pass on the caustic cocktail, but the ones who don’t provide us all with entertainment as their faces contort, their eyes close, and their arms shove the cup away.
Called airag in Mongolia and kumis in nearby countries, fermented mare’s milk -as in Mongolian horse milk — has played an important role in the cultures and cuisines of the Central Asian steppes for centuries. It was a staple of the Mongols diet under the expansive empire of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the fierce warrior and forward-thinking leader who established Mongolia as the largest contiguous empire in the history of the planet.
An Empire Fueled by Airag
While the West has historically painted Genghis Khan as a brutal conqueror – which he was – it is also true that he was a visionary whose political policies were vastly more progressive than his contemporary counterparts in East Asia and Europe. Genghis Khan granted universal religious freedom to his subjects, abolished torture, and terminated feudal systems that favored the aristocracy in favor of a merit-based structure. And he drank oceans of fermented horse milk.
Nomadic tribes of the area have long relied on meat and dairy as their main food groups because that is all they had. Vegetarians and especially vegans traveling today in Mongolia will have finite eating options outside of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The local cuisine is a reminder that specialized diets are a luxury that many people in the world cannot afford.
How to Make Airag
Traditionally, every ger had a large cow-skin bag containing airag hanging by the front door. With 2-3% alcohol content, the cocktail is made from fermented mare’s milk mixed with ferment from the year before. Stirred occasionally with a large paddle over the course of several days, the liquid ferments into airag.
The Culture of Culture
Airag has long been considered a superfood cure-all in Central Asia, a panacea for chronic disease and a rich source of vitamins and minerals. It is similar to kefir, but it is produced using a liquid starter culture (kefir uses a grain starter) and higher-sugar mare’s milk (vs. kefir’s cow or goat’s milk). If you love kefir but wish it had an alcoholic kick, you’ll probably like airag.
Customs of hospitality dictate that a bowl of airag is presented to every visitor to the ger. Mongolians would empty the cup, and Genghis Khan could probably empty the bag. One sip was enough for me!
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