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Kımız (Mare's Milk)

Priscilla Mary Işın

A drink of fermented mare's milk, kımız has a very ancient history among the Turks of Central Asia. Islam was probably responsible for its decline, since horsemeat and mare's milk were, while not actually forbidden, regarded as undesirable by the Arabs. It survived, however, among the non-Ottoman Turkish peoples of Central Asia.

Kımız was a drink of the privileged, and offering it to guests was a sign of great respect. This is probably due to the difficulty of making it, firstly because mares can only be milked for a short time each year after foaling, and secondly because the proportion of culture to fresh milk, one third, is so high. This posed problems of preserving large quantities of culture from one year to the next, especially since when dried, the culture often became unusable, and had to be kept in liquid form in sealed jars. Only men of rank had the means to do this, and the possession of kımız became a status symbol. In the 14th century Ibn Battuta was served kımız by Sultan Mehmed Ozbek Khan, who "listened for some time to a recitation of the Koran, and then gave an order, upon which kımız in elegant, light, wooden cups was brought to us. He gave me my cup with his own hand. Although I had never tasted it before, I could not refuse, but after tasting a little and it not being to my liking, I passed it to one of my company."

When the French diplomat, Baron de Tott was served kımız by the Khan of the Crimea in the late 18th century, he remarked, "If I had not been prejudiced against it, I would no doubt have found it pleasant."

The taste is reputed to resemble cornelian cherries, and if one considers that mare's milk has a relatively high sugar content, and that its culture is similar to that of yogurt, its flavour is probably similar to slightly sweetened yogurt. In composition mare's milk is closest to human milk, having a high albumin and lactic acid content, and being rich in the vitamins A, B and C.

Kımız has been proved to have powerful curative properties, particularly effective for digestive and heart complaints, and most of all for tuberculosis. Before the advent of more modern treatments, many sanatoriums in Russia fed patients with kımız, which was apparently also used in Britain and other European countries. The Scotsman Dr Congrew, who made studies of kımız in the Crimea in 1780, reported on its therapeutic qualities once back in Edinburgh. Further back in history among the Kazakh and Kirghiz Turks, there were physicians specialising in treatment with kımız.

To prepare, the culture must first be mixed with an equal quantity of fresh milk and left for 24 hours in a warm place. On the second day, twice the quantity of fresh milk is added, and again left for 3-4 days, for the bacteria to multiply. This is then mixed in the proportion of 1:3 with more fresh milk and poured into leather bags known as saba, which must be frequently shaken up by beating with a wooden stake. In 12-24 hours it is ready to drink.

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