February 8, 2011

Airag - fermented mare's milk

Most travelers to Mongolia inevitably get to know the exotic drink called ‘Airag’ which is simply fermented mares (horse) milk. Airag has been consumed by Mongolians for the past 5000 years and is still the most commonly liked beverage. In order to produce Airag, horse milk is fermented till it turns into a sour fizzy drink, yet with a slightly sweet taste and slightly alcoholic. It is made & drunk in summer, from early July through late October. And wherever Mongolians grazed their animals, wherever they traveled for war or migration, Airag has been the most common drink consumed daily and for celebratory occasions.  Over centuries, Airag related rituals evolved into a rich array of traditions that are still strictly maintained by Mongolian herders.  There are games played while drinking Airag. Especially during parties, people have fun playing so-called “finger guessing” which is a combination of singing, arithmetic and outwitting each other psychologically. Songs and jokes are also exchanged while having Airag. Those showing up late for and those who break the usually strict rules of a wedding party are invariably punished with large bowlfuls of Airag to be drunk at once.  Combination of Airag drinking with such games and fun can result in incredible amounts of it consumed by partiers. Although it sounds incredible it is not unusual to drink 5-10 liters of it in a matter of one to two hours. A special 0.5-5 liter bowls known locally as ‘khul’ are used for serving Airag to wedding and other celebration guests.  Although found virtually anywhere in the country Airag produced in the central Mongolian provinces of Arkhangai, Uvurkhangai, Bulgan and Dundgovi is known for its best quality. A visitor stepping into a herder ger sees a large skin sack hanging a yard or so from the door frame to its left, a position that has not changed for millennia. 

This is ‘khokhoor’ or the Airag vessel made of cow hide and in which the much loved drink is fermented and stored at the same time. Interestingly enough, the section of the Mongolian ger where ‘khokhoor’ is invariably placed has the precise microclimate required for its proper fermentation and storage.  Steppe culture is one of unparalleled hospitality. Guests are served bowlfuls of Airag accepted with both hands. Guest is then supposed to drink over a half of its content and to return the bowl to be replenished. If he empties the bowl, it is considered a breach of hospitality laws equal to questioning host’s welfare. Simplistically, it is equal to saying to the host: “You do not have enough Airag to fill me up”. It may sound odd, but that’s what the rules are. If the bowl is emptied, however, the host reserves the right to punish his guest by offering endless amounts of bowlfuls, which, in general, is taken as fun by both hosts and guests.  Wherever they go Mongolians drink Airag. On long journeys, ‘khokhoors’ of different sizes are carried by horses, camels or yaks. It is traditionally considered a luxury beverage. That is why it was one of the 4 drinks that poured from the 4 dragon shaped taps of the silver tree fountain, a renowned sculpture crafted by a Parisian artisan Giom de Bushe in the courtyard of khan’s palace in medieval capital of the Mongol Empire – Karakorum. In Europe Airag is better known as koumiss and the word is acquired from the nomadic tribes of Turkic origin that traveled the length of Asia all the way to the Caspian and the Mediterranean. 
As the envoy of the French monarch Louis IX, Giom de Roubruk, who visited the imperial capital of Karakorum in 1253 wrote in his book “Visiting the Eastern World”: “In summer season Tartars make only Airag. They always place their Airag sack in the west side of their ger close to the door. In a nobleman’s ger, right next to Airag stand musicians holding many musical instruments we do not have at home. When the master starts drinking Airag a servant loudly says: “Ga” and signs the musicians to play. At this time, clapping their hands, male audience starts dancing in front of the master and the females in front of the mistress. When the master finishes drinking everybody takes his seat and enjoys Airag.”  Airag has extremely good digestion improving and cleansing properties. Since ages white mare milk is widely used for curing liver and gall-bladder malfunctions. It also boosts stamina and its nutritious qualities allow people spend days consuming only Airag. Diabetes & common flu can also be prevented by Airag. What is interesting, raw horse milk has proven cosmetic properties.  Since the collapse of communism there has been a great urban migration. Thousands of herders settled in the capital of Ulaanbaatar which is now holding almost a third of the country’s total population. 
Here during summer months one may observe a contrasting sight: many Mongolian gers with a sign in Cyrillic saying “Airag” on their outside pop up in the streets. If you walk in one of those you will see people drinking Airag for about 0.3 US$ a half a liter bowl. This is meant to be a profitable business, though seasonal, as people and especially former countryside dwellers can quench their thirst for the favorite drink here. You will see a similar sight when traveling along the major roads: Airag gers or tents are erected by the road side and girls and boys will stand or run alongside your vehicle offering Airag in plastic water bottles. In winter time one can buy Airag in major stores but at a relatively high price, although the optimal way of canning or bottling it has not yet been discovered. 

Selling Airag in Ulaanbaatar city.

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Anonymous said...

not fermented horse milk, mare

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