Over the years Mongolian nomads have developed a number of unique dairy products, which are made in traditional ways and include different types of yoghurt, cottage cheese, dried curds and fermented dairy products. Milk and cream are used to make a variety of beverages.
The dairy products of the herding sector are consumed domestically. Cows and mares are the main sources but ewes are sometimes milked for a few weeks after weaning. Lactations are short and cattle are usually dried off by October, when feed has become scarce. Much of the milk in the short season is processed to conserve it for later use.
Milk is used in several Mongolian rituals, including the ritual of tossing milk into the air or sprinkling it onto a person, animal, or object, as an offering to the spirits, a supplication, a blessing, or a protection.
Mongolian dairy products
From: Encyclopaedia of Mongolia and the Mongolian Empire.
Historical and ethnographic accounts show that Mongolian dairy products have generally been processed in identical ways from the 13th century to today, although the terminology differs somewhat from region to region. Mongols milk all five of the animals but they tend to put the milk to different uses. Thus, mare’s milk is generally fermented into Airag/Koumiss, sheep and goat’s milk is mostly used in tea or cheeses, while cow’s milk is used for all three purposes.
Zöökhii, or cream, is one of the simplest dairy products to make, being produced by letting the milk curdle in a warm place for six to eight hours and skimming the cream off the top. This cream is strained and churned to form “white oil” (tsagaan tos), which is then gently melted to separate the “yellow oil” (shar tos), or clarified butter. The residue from the separation of “white oil” is tsötsgii, a delicious cream eaten in recent times mixed with cane sugar and fried millet.
Once the cream is skimmed off, the rest of the milk may be poured into a kettle over a gentle flame
until it separates into curds and “yellow milk” (sharasü). The yellow milk is boiled and then mixed with culture and allowed to ferment, forming chagaa. The chagaa is then placed in sacks and the liquid squeezed out with a weight, forming a semisolid aarts. Dried in the sun, aarts becomes khuruud, a kind of rockhard cheese. This cultured cheese can be preserved indefinitely and was part of the regular rations of soldiers on campaigns. It is reconstituted for eating by placing it in hot water.
In the Middle Ages this was done by putting it in a skin and beating it, while in modern times it is often placed in tea. Today the aarts is frequently mixed with sugar and squeezed through a meat grinder to form wormlike pieces of sweet aaruul, a popular holiday and gift product. Another form of khuruud is made today without culture by pressing unfermented curds into moulds to make pieces of hard, round, dry curds used to decorate hospitality plates.
In the fall öröm rather than zöökhii is made. Öröm is a kind of coagulated foamy cream. By gently heating (to about 80°C) and ladling the milk, a foam is produced, which when the fire is weakened coagulates. By carefully adding new milk around the edges and reheating three to four times, a thick layer of öröm is formed, which after cooling overnight can be removed.
Cheeses (biyaslag) are made by adding fermented milk to foaming milk, heated over a gentle flame. The curdled milk is then strained through cloth, wrapped, and placed under a stone to remove the liquid. This procedure can also be followed with the milk left over from öröm. Culture is also added directly to milk (fresh or leftover from making öröm) to make yogurt (tarag).
Fermented, slightly alcoholic liquors are made from mare’s, cow’s, and camel’s milk. That from mare’s milk is the famous Airag/Koumiss (from Turkish qumiz), the drink of choice for Iner Asian men. This is produced by vigorously churning cultured milk. Airag has a natural tendency to separate into turbid white dregs and a potent clear liquid.
While today only plain Airag is usually drunk, in the empire period the clear liquid, called “black koumiss” (qara qumiz) in Turkish (all clear liquids are “black” to the Mongols), was the rulers’ preferred drink.
Today, instead, distilled milk liquors are made with home-distilling equipment set up over a kettle of boiling fermented milk.
The resulting liquor, called shimiin airag in Mongolia or saali-yin airagi in Inner Mongolia, is 10–12 % alcohol.
Double-fermented milk liquor, or arz, reaches 30 % alcohol.