Kyrgyzstan: Taste for a local delicacy

By Jim Eagles

Kyrgyz woman milking mares. Photo / Jim Eagles
Kyrgyz woman milking mares. Photo / Jim Eagles

As we pulled up at the Kyrgyz nomad camp I noticed that a young woman was milking the mares and started to get excited.

For several years I had been trying to get a taste of the fermented mare's milk - called kumyz here in Kyrgyzstan - beloved of the nomad people all across Central Asia.

Up until now I had missed out, mainly because kumyz is only available for a short time in spring, just after the mares have foaled.

But this was spring, and the row of mares at the camp was each accompanied by a very young foal, so was this going to be my lucky day?

I'm not sure why I was so keen to taste the stuff. Partly, I suppose, because I like trying different things. Partly, too, because I had read about kumyz being quaffed by Genghis Khan's victorious warriors. But also because I had been promised a drink in Mongolia a few years ago and it never arrived.

Trying not to count too many foals before they were born, I wandered over to watch the young woman at work on what might be stage one of the kumyz manufacturing process.

The family - I later discovered their name was Asanakulova - had about a dozen foals tied up in a line, so naturally enough their mothers were close by and available for milking.

When it was each mare's turn to be milked a young man, presumably the husband, would bring her foal to suckle and get the milk flowing. Then the foal would be removed, the young woman would squat down beside the mare, place a bucket underneath the teats, put one hand between the legs from the back and the other hand in from the side, and milk away. From each mare she took about a third of a bucket of rich, frothy milk.

Buckets of milk went inside their yurt - rectangular rather than the usual circle - where an older woman with an impressive sparkle of gold teeth was stirring a giant wooden container milk with a strangely shaped stick.

This stick, the shape of which has evolved over the centuries, is called a bishkek and one theory has it that that is how the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, got its name (another theory is that it evolved from the name given it by those great Silk Road traders the Sogdians, Peshagakh or "place beneath the mountains", when they founded the city).

It apparently takes about three days for the milk to ferment into kumyz but fortunately there was another bucket of it all set to go.

The woman with the gold teeth gave me a brimming bowl and I sipped. Hmm. An interesting taste but certainly not unpleasant. A slight sourness reminiscent of natural yoghurt, some smokiness which presumably came from the fire and a faint heat from the alcohol, though kumyz evidently has only 2-3 per cent. I sipped again.

Kumyz is supposed to be very good for stomach upsets, though a woman in our group who had been vomiting overnight could not be persuaded to try it. Ah well, I drank a bit more.

Fortunately most of our group decided to pass on the kumyz so I sneaked a second bowl. And I noticed our driver arranging for the rest to be poured into a bottle in exchange for a few notes.

Talking to the gold-toothed matriarch via our guide, I learned that the Asanakulovas are no longer truly nomadic. In Soviet times the Kyrgyz were forced to settle down, and the family now lives primarily in the village of Ottuk.

But when spring comes they still take their animals - this herd of horses and a flock of sheep - into the mountains to take advantage of the sweet alpine pastures and live for a short time as their ancestors did.

Well, almost ... just as we were about to leave the matriarch's mobile phone rang and she turned away apologetically to take the call.

- NZ Herald

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