Mongolian food: airag

Across central Asia, dairy products of various kinds are made from the milk of divers animals. Sometimes fermented dairy products are made. If the fermentation is started with a grain base, the resulting drink is called kefir. But if the fermentation is started without a grain base, the result is a drink called kumis. Kumis is usually made from mare's milk, that is, horse's milk. In Mongolia, this kumis drink is called airag.

Here's a short intro to airag from DiscoverMongolia, written in a style reminiscent of Mongolians' rhythms:
Airag is Mongolian traditional drink. Rural people making summer time in it. 1000-3000 times bit it in cow' skin bag. (leader bag) Mongolian people used to airag in Naadam festival, wedding, New year and others. Some people can drink 2-3 letre one sit. Airag has included 7-8% of alcohol. So you will drink a lot of airag maybe you hang over. Airag is Mongolian respect and safely drink so you never to spit and drop it outside. During the Naadam and New year festival who win the wrestling competition people present him one big bowl airag... If you visit Mongolian family or wedding people give you one big bowl airag. Maybe you can't drink it just try sip it.

how to spell and say айраг

On this blog, I'm using the spelling "airag," because this is how the word is spelled other places on the web. In Mongolian, the word is айраг, and a-i-r-a-g is a literal transliteration from the Cyrillic. However, you may have noticed the word spelled differently in various sources. In Louisa Waugh's Hearing Birds Fly, she writes айраг as "arikh" if I remember correctly.

From hearing Mongolians speak, I would say "arikh" is probably a Latin spelling that's going to get the English speaker closer to the Mongolian pronunciation than "airag".

We have a tendency to want to pronounce "airag" like "EYE-rag". But the й in Mongolian is often very short, almost imperceptible. Technically, I guess it forms a diphthong, but it's a mild one: the Cyrillic a is pronounced more like Latin a in father than in cat; ай is maybe half-way between father and cat rather a heavy diphthong like "eye".

To say Cyrillic p roll your r's like in Spanish.

(If you can't roll your r's, say Cyrillic p like Japanese r/l sound. First, say "ra-ra-ra-ra-raaa," then "la-la-la-la-laaaa." Notice that when you say ra, your tongue doesn't touch anything, but when you say la, it touches the back of your teeth. Now say "la-la-la-la-laaa" again, but put your tongue at the edge of the soft part of the roof of your mouth, a little bit behind the "d" sound. Now try "ra-ra-ra-ra-raaaa" again, but instead of open-mouthed, put your tongue on that place in your mouth.)

Often in Mongolian, the last vowel between two consonants is very short, so the second Cyrillic a is like "rig" instead of "raaaaahg". Lastely, г is a hard g, but guttural so it almost sounds like k rather than "gaaah".

Finally, don't put strong emphasis on either syllable.

Put it all together: ah-r/l-k. I probably just made it a lot harder, didn't I?

making and drinking airag

There are several good websites about airag. MongolianFood.Info is probably the best:
The milk is filtered through a cloth, and poured into a large open leather sack (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 (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 fermented equally.

See Radio86 for more on rural production of airag. On drinking airag, see Mongolian Expeditions, which tells us to accept the bowl with both hands and not to drain it completely at the risk of insulting the host. More interesting photos by Jessica at EnglishCafe.

why Genghis Khan didn't have the runs

If you read about horse's milk, you'll notice that it has a very high lactose content. So you might be wondering, in the context of the "lack" of lactase persistence in inner Asia (see also), why Mongolians would drink horse's milk. After all, when you're riding across the steppe to conquer the world, you don't want to have to stop frequently for poopies.

Well, it turns out that fermenting mare's milk into airag changes the composition enough to keep it from having a laxative effect.

arikh and arkhi

When I was reading Hearing Birds Fly, I kept getting confused between arikh and arkhi. Arkhi is a liquor made by distilling airag. You might hear it referred to as "Mongolian vodka" (as opposed to "Russian vodka"), "milk vodka", "horses' vodka". None of these are real vodka, which is made from grain or potatoes. Louisa Waugh has a good description of a woman home-distilling airag to make arkhi. I won't go into it here, but you should read her book if you're interested in it.

what does it taste like?

When I was at the Tsagaan Sar celebration recently, several Mongolians were talking about airag and decided that the best way to describe it to a foreigner is "like a combination of buttermilk and champagne." Are you thinking "gross!?" I was at first, but I really like champagne, so I was intrigued.

According to the links available on the web, the closest thing you can probably buy in the store is kefir, although this will be non-alcoholic, and kefir has a grain base for fermentation. Also, the kefir I've had, being made from goat's milk, has a slightly gamey quality, and horse's milk is supposed to be sweet and mild.

Writing in the 13th century, Friar William described kumis thus: "It is pungent on the tongue like rapé wine when drunk, 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."

I can't find anything about rapé wine on the first 10 pages or so of Google hits, except that the dictionary says it is "a poor, thin wine made from the last dregs of pressed grapes." So it is thin? Hmmmmm. Keep that in mind while reading my description below of homemade fake airag.

Don't trust Wikipedia editors or Friar William? How about Julia Roberts? When she visits nomadic herders in their yurt in Nature's Horses, they greet her traditionally and offer her some airag to refresh her from her journey. Here's her reaction:

"Straightaway, I get my first clue as to the importance of the horse--this is horses' milk--it's fermented to make a drink called airag. I'm shocked by the first taste. It's like fizzy, warm... yogurt." Here's her first taste caught on video:

making fake airag in your home

Since the Mongolians I met at Tsagaan Sar told me airag tastes like a cross between buttermilk and champagne, I definitely wanted to try making this concoction at home.

I had no recipe, of course, so I decided to mix buttermilk and champagne in three different ratios. I started out filling three glasses with a little, half, and a lot of buttermilk.

Then I added champagne to fill each glass to the same volume.

As you would expect, the one with a little buttermilk and a lot of champagne was a sort of milky-clear substance, while the one with a lot of buttermilk and a little champagne basically just looked like buttermilk. There wasn't any curdling, which I thought there might be. ( Whenever I've put regular milk in booze, I get a little. Maybe there's something different about buttermilk?)

Anyhow, I know you're dying to know--how did they taste?

Well, there's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is "drinkable and interesting, but not something I would mix up for friends at a cocktail party."

The long answer starts with the fact that I've never liked buttermilk. But another, who loves buttermilk, tried Kate's and declared it bad. I, who like champagne, can safely declare the Cooks bad. So overall, I'm not sure the end product is a fair representation of anything since the ingredients weren't good. That said, you can see my preferences in the after photo above--adding a little buttermilk to champagne made really crappy champagne, while adding a little champagne to buttermilk made a surprisingly refreshing dairy drink.

The little champagne bubbles made a fine texture while the grape-y alcohol just took the edge off the sourness of the buttermilk and added a hint of sweet and some non-dairy fruitiness. It was a little more complex than fizzy warm yogurt.

My guess is that real airag is a little more like the half-half (above, middle) drink, based on the fact that it is supposed to have an alcohol content like beer. That half-half mix was drinkable, but not as refreshing as the high buttermilk:champagne ratio mix. (It could just be the cheap champagne, though. As you can see, I did little more than taste the Cooks before pouring it down the drain.)