Saturday, June 21, 2008

Kumuz Again?

One of the great things about traveling is trying new foods. And I'd be the first to admit that I'm pretty adventurous. I've had fried grasshoppers in Mexico (they taste like peanuts). I've eaten all sorts of revolting tentacles and internal organs in China. I ate a horse penis in Guatemala. But Kumuz is on an entirely different level.

According to the travel guides, Kumuz is a drink made from fermented horse milk. According to oe blogger, it is "The most revolting thing I have ever tasted". All I can say is that the idea of milking a horse grosses me out, and allowing the milk to go sour doesn't add to the appeal. To add to the horror, we met a Vet just before we left who warned us about horrible diseases we could catch from dairy products. National drink or not, I resolved to avoid it at all costs.

"It's Kumuz", said our driver excitedly as the expectant lady handed me an enormous bowl of white liquid. I stared in horror, trying to find a way out. There was none. The entire family was looking at me expectantly. I was an honored guest and it would be horribly rude to refuse. I shuddered in horror, a false grin on my face. I tentatively sipped the liquid. It had the consistency of water and was sour like yogurt. A little bit of grease floated on the surface. It was incredibly strange and disgusting. I had another sip. Smoky aftertaste. Another sip. I finished it. I hoped I wouldn't be ill.

That night before dinner we got to watch the horses being milked. A dozen baby horses were tied to a rope so that they couldn't lift their heads. The mares stood stoicly next to them, waiting. One by one, the baby horses were brought to their mothers to feed for a few seconds. Then they were tied up again, and the men (alway the men) milked the horse into a not very clean looking plastic bucket. The whole process looked very unsanitary.

An hour later, as dinner was ending I was handed a large bowl of white liquid. "Kumuz" said our guide happily. I tried to find somebody to give it to, but they were too fast with the bowls. There was no escape. I tried to smile as everyone looked at me. I looked at the bowl. A couple of horse hairs floated in it. There was also some straw and something I couldn't recognize. It fizzed slightly. Sour. Smoky. Weird.

Kumuz is an obsession here. Everyone loves it. The capital of Kyrgyzstan is named "Bishkek" because a Bishkek is the stick used to stir the Kumuz. It's like naming Ottawa "Hockey Puck". Whenever anyone goes into the countryside they stop at the yurts to get Kumuz. Whenever you hike past a yurt you are offered Kumuz. Whenever you are waiting for something people tell you to just "drink some Kumuz". It's crazy.

In the corner of the yurt was a large object made of dark leather. It was blackened and oily looking on the outside and smelled of smoke. The leather had been sewn together to make a waterproof container. It looked organic. A stick stuck out of the top. It was the Kumuz container. The final link in the Kumuz chain. The container which is never cleaned or emptied. You just keep adding more milk. I could easily imagine the years of milk slime on the inside of the leather. No wonder they stir it so much.

Strangely, that was my Kumuz turning point. I had seen the horses milked, the dirty buckets, the organic debris in the milk, and now the leather container in which the Kumuz was fermented. And still I could not refuse the Kumuz which was given to me. It was strong. Sour. Smoky. Weird. Strangely addicting.

As I write this I can almost taste the Kumuz. I can imagine the smell. The sourness. The watery texture. There is nothing like it. Sour. Smoky. Weird. I hope they have some in the next Yurt we visit.


Jane Pulford said...

In Mongolia it was introduced to me as 'airag' - it IS an acquired taste! :P Jane.

mashenka@dc said...

Taco, this is an oddly compelling post. Either kumuz is truly repellently addictive like durian, or you are developing the writing prowess of a Stephen King on your travels!