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date: 12 December 2017


The Oxford Companion to Food
Helen SaberiHelen Saberi

koumiss or kumiss 

a drink of some, but varying, alcoholic content, prepared by fermenting mare’s milk. Its existence in an only slightly alcoholic form and its value as a ‘food’ combine to justify its inclusion in the present volume.

Koumiss is still a popular drink in C. Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and in Mongolia, where it is known as ayrag. It probably originated with the Turkic nomadic tribes who wandered throughout the steppes of C. Asia and China in ancient times. It was, and still is, considered to be strengthening and fattening.

Emerson (1908), who explores the subject with characteristic thoroughness, describes as follows how koumiss is made:

Take of mare’s milk, not cow’s, six parts and of warm water, one part, put this into a bag made from the skin of some animal in which there is a little sour cow’s milk or a piece of rennet from the stomach of a calf, colt or lamb. This will induce fermentation and soon a thick scum will rise to the top. When this has ceased gathering, the bag is shaken for some minutes and is then allowed to remain quiescent for several hours, when it is again stirred by a sort of churning motion. It is only necessary to do this three or four times in order to have the beverage complete and perfect.

Marco Polo was one of the early travellers in the Orient who remarked on koumiss. Another was William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar, who travelled across C. Asia in the 13th century and gave his own description of the making of koumiss, reporting that the churning went on sporadically for about three or four days, which is the length of time favoured by the Kazakh peoples who continue to make kumiss in Russian Turkestan in the 20th century. When William of Rubruck arrived at Karakoram, he was impressed to discover that a far-ranging French goldsmith had built for the Mongol prince, Mangu Khan, a silver fountain with four spouts which dispensed, respectively, koumiss, wine, mead, and rice wine, of which the first was the most honoured.

So far as China is concerned, people have tended to think of koumiss as a drink belonging to the north of the country (and Mongolia). Yet Chang (1977), writing of the Sung dynasty (960–1279), points out that ‘it was a well established item in the Sung diet: the emperor had a special office for its production, some restaurants specialised in serving it, and it occurs many times in the lists of banquet foods’.

The range of koumiss, as noted above, also extended westwards from China. Mountstuart Elphinstone (1839) has this to say about koumiss when describing the food of the Uzbeks.

The national beverage is kimmiz, an intoxicating liquor, well known to be prepared from mare’s milk. The milk is put in the afternoon into a skin, such as is used in India for holding water, and is allowed to remain till within two or three hours of day-break, when it is beaten and rolled about till morning at least; but the longer the better. The liquor thus made is of a whitish colour and a sourish taste: it is only to be had in plenty during the two last months of summer, and those who can afford it are generally drunk for the greater part of that period; but kimmiz is not sold, and those only can enjoy it who have mares enough to make it in the house.

Enough mares, in the right condition, were not always and everywhere available. The Kublai Khan had 10,000 pure white horses and mares at his disposal, and the milk of these mares was reserved for the royal family, so there was no shortage of koumiss in his palaces. But he was uniquely fortunate. Elsewhere, people might have to make do with a similar beverage made from sheep’s milk, or from camel’s milk or milk from the dri (see yak). A similar beverage made by Laplanders, called pima, is made from reindeer’s milk.

Helen Saberi

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