How to make kumis

Fermented mare’s milk, milk from female horses, is the traditional drink of choice for people on the steppes of Central Asia, including the Mongols. The Mongols call it airag but it is commonly known as “kumis” from kımız, its Turkish name. Kumis is a slightly alcoholic beverage, but not very much so — only 2-3 percent. Traditionally, the milk was fermented in bags made from horse-hide which were strapped to a saddle and jogged around in order to prevent coagulation. After a day on horseback, the milk was ready to drink. Or, in order to achieve the same effect, a container was hung by the door of a ger, a tent, where visitors could give it a good punch as they walked by. In industrial production today, the drink ferments at 27 degrees Celsius and it is ready in about five hours. The fermentation process is caused by a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, similar to kefir. The most popular kumis-like drink today is probably Japanese calpis.

Milking a horse is more difficult than a cow and it yields far less milk. Moreover, mares cannot be milked continuously but only during parts of the year, basically for a few months after the foals are born. A mare typically produces between 1,000 and 1,200 liters of milk during one season.

The Greek historian Herodotus, fifth century BCE, described mare-milking among the Scythians, and the friar William of Rubruck who visited the Mongols in the thirteenth-century gave an account of kumis drinking. “It is pungent,” he reported, “and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine.”

Kumis drinking caught on as a health fad in the decades before the First World War, in particular in Russia. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin and the authors Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov all tried the “kumis cure.” The Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is named after the paddle used to churn the mare’s milk during the process of fermentation.

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