No trip to Mongolia or Central Asia is complete without trying fermented horse milk – called “Airag” (Айраг). I first heard of this exotic intoxicant from my former Uzbek girlfriend who explained that the milk is, “carbonated – like beer.”
Years later, I finally had a chance to try it. I was traveling with my Russian friend Igor and a Mongolian girl that we met while hitchhiking in Siberia. The Mongol girl invited us to stay with her relatives in remote north-west Mongolia.
Her relatives were true nomads, completely subsisting from their goats, sheep, and horses. If not for their Chinese motorbike, the scene was indistinguishable from the days of Genghis Khan. While staying in their ger (yurt), we were offered the fabled drink.
What does it taste like?
The taste was immediately familiar – it was the exact taste of my own vomit. Another way of describing it would be a mixture of Bud Light beer and whole milk. I had to will myself to swallow every gulp. My Siberian friend, however, loved it and drank it like water. Of course, Mongolians do the same.
Does it really get you drunk?
Yes, but you have to consume A LOT. We’re talking about 2 liters. It has about half the alcohol content of beer. I forced myself to drink a single liter and it gave me a jovial/silly buzz.
While I feared I would get sick due to the vile taste, I suffered no ill effects or hangover. After drinking, I felt full and comfortable. Later, I slept deeply and woke up refreshed the next morning.
For more efficient intoxication, you should opt for Mongol Arkhi, also known as “Mongolian Vodka” or milk liquor. It is produced by distilling the alcohol out of the fermented milk. The resulting liquid is clear, and more reminiscent of wine than vodka. It retains the airag taste, albeit a bit milder. It is served with a piece of hard milk curd floating on top.
We drank this as well.
How it’s made
The fresh mare’s milk is put into a leather bag called a Khukhuur. They hang this by their front door and give it a stir every time they enter or exit the ger. The fermentation process takes about two days while bacteria and yeast breaks down the lactose and produces alcohol.
You can milk horses?
I couldn’t recall ever seeing a mare with milkable udders like you see on cows, so I posed this question to my Mongol friend. She said that their nipples are small and require a lot of hand strength to milk. “Only men can do it or women that are highly skilled.”
The reason that horse milk never caught on in the West is because it is much higher in lactose than cow milk and is intolerable by most people. Fermenting it breaks down the lactose, but we never bothered in the West since we already had plenty of alcoholic drinks for our needs.
Further interest in Mongolian cuisine?
This site has great information on how to make Mongolian food: https://www.mongolfood.info/
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