What is Airag?
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. A glass of homemade Mongolian airag is said to bring health and vitality. Also known as kumis, it is made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare’s milk over the course of hours or days, often while stirring or churning (The physical agitation has similarities to making butter). During the fermentation, lactobacilli bacteria acidify the milk, and yeasts turn it into a carbonated and mildly alcoholic drink.
How Fermented Airag is Used…
Airag refreshes and sparkles softly on the tongue. It contains a small amount of carbon dioxide and a low amount of only 2% of alcohol. The taste is slightly sour, but quite agreeable after getting used to it. The exact taste depends on 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. 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.
Similar to Isgelen Tarag (Kefir), it is possible, but not as common, to distill Airag into Mongol Arkhi (milk liquor).
Strictly speaking, kumis is in its own category of alcoholic drinks because it is made neither from fruit nor from grain. Technically, it is closer to wine than to beer because the fermentation occurs directly from sugars, as in wine (usually from fruit), as opposed to from starches (usually from grain) converted to sugars by mashing, as in beer. But in terms of experience and traditional manner of consumption, it is much more comparable to beer.
It is even milder in alcoholic content than beer.
It is arguably the region’s beer equivalent.
Kumis is very light in body compared to most dairy drinks. It has a unique, slightly sour flavor with a bite from the mild alcoholic content. The exact flavor is greatly variable
between different producers.
Kumis is usually served cold or chilled. Traditionally it is sipped out of small, handle-less, bowl-shaped cups or saucers, called piyala.
How Airag is Made…
The milk is filtered through a cloth and then poured into a large open leather sack called a 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 or 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
Traditionally, this fermentation took place in horse-hide containers, which might be left on the top of a yurt and turned over on occasion, or strapped to a saddle and joggled around over the course of a day’s riding. Today, a wooden vat or plastic barrel may be used
in place of the leather container.
Enjoy and Happy Culturing!
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