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Turkish Drinking Traditions

Süleyman Kazmaz

The Turkish word içki comes from the verb içmek to drink, and means “drink” in the sense of alcoholic drinks. In addition the word, and its older Ottoman counterpart, işret, carry the connotations of friendship, conversation, etiquette; in other words, coming together as friends. It is for such reasons that alcohol has become such a basic part of life. But there are other sides to the issue as well.

The second characteristic of alcohol is that it is an extension of a societal need – eating and drinking together and conversation is a continual desire of humankind, and thus the içki sofrası, literally the drink table/meal, is the practical manifestation of this tendency. An indispensable and sought-after element in such gatherings is people who are good at pleasant conversation, because they add color with their presence, their stories and anecdotes. This is because drinking gatherings provide an atmosphere of comfort and friendship, and allows a person indirectly to express his feelings and find peace.

The “drinking meal” is different than other meals as it consists of meze – small servings of dishes made especially to accompany alcohol, and other special dishes.

The oldest Turkish fermented drink is kımız, also known as kumiss, which extends back to the time of the Huns. One could safely say that kumiss is a drink that has been present in all the Turkish tribes since the Huns, and its production, consumption and effects constitute a culture in themselves.

Kumiss is made from mare’s milk. Mare’s milk is superior to cow’s milk in some aspects; it is low in fat and high in sugar, and thus ferments and becomes alcoholic easily. Cow’s milk on the other hand is low in sugar and high in fat, and thus is not so easy to turn into alcohol.

Certain qualities are sought in the mares which will be milked for kumiss. They must not be used as pack animals; they must have been raised in the meadows in the open air; and in order to produce plentiful milk, should have produced at least two colts. In addition, the milk is taken two months after the colt is born, and the mare to be milked must be kept clean, in an area with pure air, be groomed frequently, fed at regular intervals. Its salt should not be neglected, and it must receive plenty of fresh drinking water.

There are other points to be considered as well

The milk is at its best during the months of June and July, because it is during these months that the meadows have nutritious, fragrant herbs high in sugar content. A particular herb known as kimiz otu (kumiss herb), which people enjoy as well, grows at this time. Certain plants known as akkuyruk, acırık and akdiken are very nutritious to the animals.

The milking is done twice a day; first before sunrise when the mare has gone at least two hours without feeding her colt, and again as the sun is setting. The milk is passed through a clean sieve.

The starter is extremely important in the making of kumiss. This starter is acquired in different ways in different Turkic tribes. The Bashkurts make it from cow’s milk, the natives of Fergana skim cow’s milk and cause it to ferment with the addition of an aromatic plant. But these methods are used only when there is no other starter available. The Kirghiz dry kumiss to use as starter. Every Kirghiz home has dried kumiss starter stored in clean sacks.

Kumiss may also be made from camel’s milk. But mare’s milk must be added to the camel’s milk; the kumiss that is produced from such milk is called kımran or kumran.

There are various type of kumiss. The Kipchaks recognizes three basic types:

Savmal kımız – Fresh kumiss: This type is made as described above, and obtained after the second shaking.
Erek kımız: This is a combination of kara kımız (see below) with savmal kımız, above.
Kara kımız – “black” kumiss: This strongest variety of kumiss is also known as old kumiss. It is called “black” kumiss not for its color but for its quality, for it is strong enough to cause intoxication. Savmal kumiss is drunk by women, children and the elderly; erek kumiss by the middle aged and less strong men; and kara kumiss by strong young men. Guests are served erek kumiss.

Kumiss has varying effects when drunk. Those who drink it for the first time detect a slightly astringent flavor and a light scent of alcohol. After a few drinks, this flavor becomes more pleasant. Generally the effects of kumiss are associated with bravery and vitality, so much so that there is a saying, “those who grow up drinking kumiss never do ill towards each other.” Drinking a little releases one from worries and bad temper, drinking a lot will bring a pleasant sleep and dreams, and a feeling of refreshment and strength upon awakening. A main characteristic of kumiss is that it is drunk without any accompanying food. In addition, kumiss has many nutritious elements and for this reason is said to be beneficial against diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, as well as nervous ailments.

There are several traditions originating with kumiss. The most notable of these is the kumis festivals. These festivals are celebrated differently in each Turkic group. Around the area of Fergana, the Kipchak, Kirghiz and Kazakhs hold week long kumiss festivals in late May. The celebration includes a competition for the best kumiss, horse races, heroic epic singing, stories and fairy tales, and minstrels playing the kopuz. The ceremonies are held at night around fires. People send kumiss to their loved ones and families go to drink kumiss together.

The Yakuts begin their celebrations, which are held in late May or June and last ten days, by sprinkling kumiss onto the fields and meadows. The celebrations include horse races and other entertainment.

The various similar kumiss celebrations throughout the Turkic world go back to the Huns. But it is not certain whether the Huns’ celebrations included kumiss or not. There is a Kumiss literature with epics, poems and riddles about kumiss. Here is a riddle:

It makes the girls and boys kiss,
It gives endless health
From among so many young men
It takes many to their destinations.
What is it?
A kumiss bowl.

Kumiss is also mentioned in the Manas Epic. One of the epic’s heroes, Er Manas, says:

I saw the skewers over the fire
I had a beautiful dream
May she give us meat
May she not forget the kumiss.

Above I mentioned that kumiss is drunk unaccompanied. But in the quatrain from the Manas epic, we see that later people ate meat with kumiss, thus a “meze” was added to the drinking meal. In time, another change took place, and rakı entered the lives of the Turks. Rakı is mentioned in several different places in the Manas epic. In the first, kumiss and rakı are mentioned together. The hero Közkaman says:

Tie up the young mares
And make plenty of strong kumiss
Prepare lots of powerful rakı.

In many parts of the legend we see only rakı being drunk. It speaks thus of the vessel for rakı and how it was served:

Put in lots of rakı,
Put it into a gold cup
And serve it to him with deference

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