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, its Turkish name. Kumis is slightly alcoholic 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, it was ready to drink. Often a container was hung by the door to a ger, a Mongol tent, where visitors could give it a good punch as they walked by thus achieving the same effect. In industrial production today, the drink ferments at 27 degrees Celsius and is ready in about five hours.
Kumis is usually drunk chilled and it is traditionally sipped out of a small, handle-less, bowl or saucer known as a piyala. It is a common drink to serve visitors to a ger.
Kumis remains popular on the steppes of Central Asia to this day, but since mare’s milk is a comparatively rare commodity the drink is now usually made from cow’s milk. Yet the two products are not the same. Mare’s milk has more lactose and far more sugar than cow’s milk, but less fat and protein. Due to it’s high lactose content, drinking unfermented milk can give a lactose-intolerant person servere stomach pains. During the fermentation process, however, the lactose breaks down. To come closer to the original flavor, sugar and modified whey are often added in industrial production. The flavor of commercially sold kumis varies considerably from one product to the next. The Japanese drink known as “Calpis” is perhaps the most successful kumis version.
Milking a horse is more difficult than a cow and it yields far less. The 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, describes 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 on the tongue,” said Rubruck, “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 was prescribed the drink to help his nervous condition, and the athors Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov both tried the “kumis cure.” Chekhov gained considerably in weight during the treatment but his tuberculosis did not improve.
The Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is named after the paddle used to churn the mare’s milk during the process of fermentation.