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Raise a Toast to Liquor's Weird Cousin, The Milky Kumis

Kumis, what US President George Bush was offered in Mongolia as a manner of honouring him, is not the typical kind of drink you buy from the stores. It is made from milk, mares’ milk.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:June 2, 2017, 8:12 PM IST
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Raise a Toast to Liquor's Weird Cousin, The Milky Kumis
Kumis, what the President was offered as a manner of honouring him, is not the typical kind of drink you buy from the stores. (Photo Credit: www.lordsofthedrinks.com)
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News18 Tippling Point When George W Bush, visited Mongolia, becoming the first US President to make it to the country, he was accorded a warm and traditional Mongol welcome. They took the president to a yurt, a tent made of felt used by nomads, and offered him a glass of kumis.

History did not record clearly what Bush, a teetotal at the moment, did with the drink he was given.

Kumis, what the President was offered as a manner of honouring him, is not the typical kind of drink you buy from the stores. It is made from milk, mares’ milk.

It is liquid history.

The drink goes a long way back to a period when Christ had not yet arrived. As nomads wandered the Central Asian Steppes, they needed something that could sustain them against the intense heat. Horses came handy. Ancient Greek Historian Herodotus noted in his legendary work Histories about Scythians, a regional tribe, sustaining themselves on fermented milk of mares (take Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan, kumis refreshed a large part of history).

Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Mongolia, Siberia and Ukraine produce kumis for their own people.

As horse milk contains more sugar than milk from cows or goats, yeast cells merrily abandon themselves in the unpasteurised milk turning up the alcohol level in it by degrees.

Nomads of the region used to put the mares’ milk in a hide called a ‘saba’ and dangle it above their yurts. If you happen to be a neighbour or a passer-by, and see a bag of milk hanging from a door, stop! Etiquette requires you punch the bag a few times to agitate the liquid in it as you pass. Kumis is slowly in its making. Or for nomads they are, they sometimes tie the milk bag to the saddle of their horses. A day’s ride and rigorous hunting along the steppes would adequately agitate the liquid so that on the way back to their yurts they could dunk their tired souls in kumis.

Today, many regions like Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Mongolia, Siberia, Ukraine produce kumis for their own people. You’d be treated to kumis, poured into small ceramic bowls called piyalas if you visit Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia. Do appreciate the gesture. Mare’s milk is rare to come by due to the difficulties of procuring raw unpasteurised milk from a lactating horse.

But don’t think, kumis would get you stoned.

With a mere 3% percent alcohol content, the drink is more perky than kicky (the reason why there has always been attempt to fortify the drink with more potent liquids or to distill it to make ‘arkhi’).

You’d find the white-coloured drink a bit sour in your taste buds.

Because of its genesis from horse, the drink has always been associated with strength and vitality. In the 19th and 20th centuries, ‘Kumis cure’ resorts mushroomed in southern Russia offering cure to a wide variety of diseases.

In A Confession, Leo Tolstoy’s autobiographical essay, the writer finds some relief for the ailing artist in him: “I fell ill, mentally rather than physically, threw up everything, and went away to the buskers in the steppes, to breathe fresh air, drink kumis, and live a merely animal life.”

So here’s piyala of kumis to your health!

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)

| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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