The Mongolians are known to be a nomadic people, so the animals they mostly rely on are the horses. They provide their mean for transportation, as they move their settlements around, companionship, but also their food. So, airag is a fermented product made out of mare’s milk.
Due to the fact that horses are so important for Mongolians, it is only natural for airag to be considered the national beverage of the country. It is interesting to know that Mongolians rarely consume raw mare’s milk, not because it is bad, but mostly because it can act as a mild laxative. Thus, during fermentation, the lactose in the mare’s milk is destroyed, making airag a much better tolerated product by the digestive system of many Mongolians. But mare’s milk doesn’t just have a higher level of lactose, as it is richer in sugar as well, in comparison with cow’s milk or goat’s milk, so the products made out of this type of milk are slightly sweeter. This high sugar content makes airag slightly alcoholic as well, as this fermented milk beverage can have up to 2% alcohol content.
Back in the days, airag was made in leather bags that were hanged on the horse’s back. Due to the heat produced by the horse’s body as it was moving around, the milk in the leather pouch was soon fermented. Also, due to the same movement, the content was constantly mixed so that the final product with a soft and rather creamy one, very easy to drink. The same leather pouch was used for making batch after batch of airag, without washing it, as it played the role of a starter culture, due to the bacteria that remained on the walls of the bag. This fermented beverage is highly appreciated by Mongolians, as it is believed to make them stronger and healthier, so you will see these people consume the drink in high quantities, especially during summer. The truth is that the content of good bacteria contained by airag strengthens the immune system and promotes a great digestion, so the belief of the Mongolians that this beverage is good for them is very true.
These days, airag is prepared in wooden vats or plastic containers, although the process remained the same. After milk is taken from a mare, it is filtered with the help of a clean cheesecloth and poured in a container. The container is hanged, in most occasions, above the entrance of a yurt, which is a Mongolian traditional tent. Every day or two, the milk is stirred with the help of a wooden tool, similar to a masher. Also, it is accustomed that each person who enters or leaves the tent would give the container a few strokes as well, contributing to the mixing of the content so that it ferments evenly. Both bacteria and yeast are present in the fermentation process, so we can say that airag is similar to kefir. The result is a slightly sour milk-based beverage, a bit sparkly, and very refreshing. Airag can taste differently from one area in Mongolia to another, as the pastures where the mare’s graze and the making process can influence the final flavor of the product.
In case you are visiting Mongolia, it is worth knowing that it is a common practice for Mongolians to offer a bowl of airag to visitors, as a sign of hospitality. Do not refuse the bowl as it is considered a rude and impolite gesture, and the person that will offer you the bowl will feel offended. You have to drink from the bowl but it is not mandatory to finish the content, if you’re not too fond of the taste, so you can return the bowl but only after you taken at least a sip out of it. However, Mongolians will empty the bowl right away.