Spirit of the Airag
The most important animal for the Mongols is the horse. According to historians, the Mongolian horse played an important role in Genghis Khan‘s military campaign throughout Asia and parts of Europe (also see The Horses of Bulgan 1). But for Mongolians, horses do not only serve as riding animals. They are an important source of meat especially among the ethnic Kazakhs of Bayan-Ölgii aimag (province), one of the coldest regions of Mongolia. Horse meat is preferred especially during the extremely cold Mongolian winters because it is low in cholesterol and is believed to help keep the body warm.
When I first visited Bayan-Olgii in 2005, the welcome dinner prepared by our Kazakh host was a pile of meat from a whole horse which we partook with the whole family. The meat pile included horsemeat sausages called kazy, considered a regional delicacy in Mongolia, which I found delectable. The feast, of course, was accompanied by vodka shots which they said also helped the stomach to digest the meat.
The Mongolian horse is also the source of my favorite, the airag or fermented mare’s milk. Often known by its Russian name “kumis” and containing around 2% alcohol, the airag also holds an important position in Mongolia tradition. Mongolian hospitality requires the host to present a bowl of airag to each visitor. Mongolians normally empty the bowl, but it is also acceptable to just take a sip and return the bowl. It is considered gravely impolite to reject the offer outright.
Aside from Bayan-Olgii, large herds of horses can also be found in other northern and central provinces of Mongolia. Bulgan is the most notable horse-herder among the northern provinces and holds the claim to being the producer of the best airag in Mongolia (although this claim is being contested by a province in central Mongolia). It was also in Bulgan where I became a personal witness to the famed “airag hospitality”. Every office and ger we visited had at least a bucket full of airag ready for us and I drank at least a bowl each time I was offered not only out of courtesy but also because I seemed to like it. I tried to take note of the differences among the airags I tasted to be able to judge at the end of the trip which one was the best.
The best part of it was the opportunity to photograph not only the amazing scenery as can be seen in the accompanying photo sets about Bulgan but also the horse herders in action as they gathered milk and processed them into an airag. Inspite of my stomach rapidly getting bloated from heavy drinking of airag, I was able to collect several photos from different suoms (towns), which I combined to put together the airag story in this post.
At the end of the trip, I choose the airag prepared by a simple lakeside ger camp out in the steppe as the best. It was not too sour and it struck me with a hint of sweetness and a soft sparkle on the tongue. My Mongolian colleagues immediately agreed when I announced my judgement and, in recognition of my promotion to a bonafide airag connoisseur, they rewarded me with a gallon of my winning choice. Back in Ulaanbaatar, the choice airag accompanied me over sleepless nights as I scrambled to catch up with my work.