I had my first encounter with kymyz this weekend. For those unfamiliar with Kyrgyzstan’s culture of eccentric beverages, kymyz is fermented mare’s milk. This is one of those Kyrgyz foods that I had hyped up a lot in my mind — when people asked what the food is like here, I often responded flatly, “How tasty does alcoholic mare’s milk and sheep-face noodles sound?” After a few less-than-ideal encounters with other fermented dairy products in this country, I thought about pretending to have an allergy to kymyz to avoid trying it.
But I can’t miss out something so important to Kyrgyz culture, now can I?
And this is how I found myself in a sparsely-furnished yurt in the mountains about thirty minutes outside of Jalal-Abad City, looking into a glass of fresh kymyz, chunks of god-knows-what floating at the top. I knew exactly where this batch came from; Gulmira Eje, who lives in this yurt in the summer, had just returned from milking the horses and went back to churning milk in a goat-skin sack. I sipped politely at the stuff, which is at once sour and sweet and thick and bitter and cold, while my fellow volunteer Nicole sat chugging the stuff like a champ.
Since this first sip, documented above, I’ve had a few more glasses of kymyz — I’m determined to like the stuff, and like it soon. My family’s fridge is stocked with 6 or so recycled Coke bottles that have been filled with home-brewed kymyz, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll disappear from the dinner table anytime soon.
In an effort to distract my hosts from the fact that I had abandoned my cup of kymyz, I asked Gulmira Eje to show me just exactly how this whole operation works. Pictured below is the goat-skin sack and the large wooden stick, called a bishkek, that are used to mature the kymyz. Sound familiar? That’s right — kymyz is so important to Kyrgyzstan that they named their capital city after the stick used to beat kymyz from crazy, hyper-lactose milk into slightly alcoholic submission.
Anyway, you beat the milk just so — a sort of up/down, all-around, left-to-right motion — for a while. “How long, like a few hours? A day? Many days?” I tried asking, but they just shrugged and told me it was right when it was right. The Internet tells me that it only takes a few hours to get kymyz to its drinkable state. Beating the milk with a bishkek or, more traditionally, galloping around on a horse that has some of the milk-filled bags strapped on the saddle, basically enables the process of fermentation. If you don’t stir it enough, the milk curdles and spoils (and no one wants that to happen to the kymyz).
I asked if I could try my hand at the bishkek and excitedly tried to mimic Gulmira Eje’s motions and to produce the sounds of kymyz sloshing against the goat-skin bag. Let me just say, it’s a lot harder than it looks to handle a bishkek.
Needless to say, I’m not planning on quitting my day job.
So here I find myself in a tiny yurt, sitting on the ground and eating from a fly-infested plastic tablecloth, drinking fermented mare’s milk that I have literally watched the alcohol be beaten into…and I can’t help but think of my mother, who works in the food processing industry in the United States, halfway between regulatory agents and individuals who want to share their culinary creations with the world. In our travels together, she’s marveled at cats that walk on tables at restaurants, birds that fly into cafes, meat that was cooked between two slabs of rock. Next to these moments though, that would be sure to get a place shut down in the States, the container of instant coffee has a HACCP sticker on the front, indicating that there’s some level of meticulous inspection, even in the small corners of Bosnia or Kyrgyzstan.
A culture of over-regulation permeates the food and restaurant industry in the U.S., but these rules are not invariably successful. Food should be cooked for the exact specified time at the exact specified temperature, in kitchens that are exactly as clean as the regulatory handbook states. And yet, despite all these rules, the CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans (or about 48 million people) still get sick each year from a food-borne illness. Granted, I don’t have data about food-borne illness in this country (and I’m not sure it exists at all) and so can’t make sweeping claims about how this place doesn’t have regulations and does just fine. But, I can say from personal experience that I’ve suffered from food poisoning in the United States more often than I have in my travels around the world — my stomach has needed time to adjust to different meats, different water, different ingredients, but in Kyrgyzstan I have yet to struggle with diarrhea or vomiting that come with food poisoning.
Send a little prayer or happy vibe into the universe (whatever fits your spiritual boat) that it stays that way.