Airag is considered by most Mongolians to be the national beverage of the country.
Many visitors may have heard of Airag before either as kumis or as what the drink is; fermented mares milk.
When people talk of the Mongolian love for horses, this isn't just because horses have always provided transport, a means of establishing the largest land empire in the history of man, or that horses look rather cute.
Horses have also provided Mongolians with an important food source in the form of Airag.
Airag is produced by milking horses. This is only possible during the summer months from July until late September.
Before drinking, the milk is fermented. This process can last from several hours up to a few days. Before fermentation mares, milk contains more lactose than normal cows milk. However, during the process, the lactose is converted into Lactose acid, ethanol and carbon dioxide.
Surprisingly, due to this, people who are lactose intolerant are also able to sample this nomadic delight.
These days, Airag can be produced in two ways; small scale and large scale.
Due to the growing demand for this national drink, large scale production takes place across the country.
There is a small problem. Milking horses is complicated. Their yield is a lot lower than that of dairy cows and modern milking methods are not possible on horses. Due to this, cows milk is used not just in Mongolia but other countries such as Kazakhstan.
People will drink the cow's milk version, but the real passion lays with the horse's milk.
Traditionally, Mongolians will start to teether their horses ready for milking in a day in the summer called the tiger day of summer. Followed by this, there will be a feast for fermenting mare's milk this will take place three days after tiger day.
If you miss this one, do not worry another feast will follow in the autumn to celebrate the end of milking.
The fermentation of mares milk aided by churning the milky liquid, this is done within a cowhide sack known as an Arhad, the same Arhad used for many years. Suspended from the roof of the ger dried yeast will be added to the mare's milk as its poured into the bag. The churning will accelerate the fermentation process; on average, the liquid will be churned up to 4000 times before drinking. The more times the Airag is churned, the better the batch will taste, with some airag mixed over several days. Suspended from the Ger roof next to the entrance it is polite for all who visit to add several mixes.
As the mare's milk is processed, it does emit a distinctive sweet smell said to be delicious by all who visit (this I would agree with). As a visitor to the country, many people want to try this nomadic treat. Some like it, many hate it. It is always good to remember that this unusual drink for visitors is so essential to real nomads. Out on the Mongolian steppe where water and other crucial sources of vitamins in one's diet are missing airag fills some of those gaps.
Not only will it quench one's thirst and satisfy one's hunger, but it also has other properties. Some of the purported properties do have science behind them; mars milk can improve Eczema and other skin conditions as well as aiding with the digestive system. It also has Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. As well as having a good dose of vitamin C and D it also help s to improve the immune system.
Others also believe that airag can be used to treat more severe illnesses related to the heart, lung, and stomach.
Most Mongolians that you meet will tell you that every Mongolia loves to drink airag (I have met a few who do not).
This Equine delight indeed does contain alcohol once fermented, although the amount is small up to 2%. Adults and children are permitted to drink airag, and most tend to drink extremely large amounts. Morning, evening and when guests visit are the prime times for Airag consumption.
An average bowl will hold from 1 – 1.5 litres of the liquid, and it is polite to finish.
If you have never tried airag or haven't sampled its delights in a while, do take care.
This innocent nomadic blend can have a laxative effect, especially if gulped down trying to keeping up with the Mongols.
We finish with the Airag song normally sung in tiger day at the start of the summers milking. This will be normally sung by the head of the family.
The reason to sing the milk-libation is the
Fortunate birth of the Dappled mare;
Your milk has yet to been Tasted by all,
Only your dappled foal Has tasted it;
Even if you hold out your fingers
It can fill your palm with stretched fingers;
If we put a vessel under a mare's udder
It can fill the cup up to its brim;
As an offering, We make this milk libation.