some people it is just fermented mare's milk, but to the Kyrgyz it is a
symbol of their nationhood a gift from god from which they derive
energy and inner strength.
Today, variations are also made from camel's milk
and cow's milk but to the Kyrgyz, true Kumys is always made from mare's
In fact, Kumys is found in a number of different
societies, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where horses
play a major role in the traditional lifestyle of the people. Some say
that the name is derived from that of an ancient tribe: the Kumanes or
Komans. According to the Roman historian Herodotus, it was known to the
ancient Scythians, and Hippocrates knew of it, referring to it as a
drink "of longevity, joy and mental maturity". Many modern
encyclopaedias, however, claim that it originated in Mongolia and to
have permeated throughout the region along with various population
It also seems to have had a symbolic, or
ceremonial role in rituals - Babur mentions how Kumys was sprinkled at
standards before the massed Mongol army.
recipe appeared in America in the Inglenook cookbook in 1906. The
traditional way of making kumys is for mare's milk to be stored in
animal skins (a "chinach"), which has been cleaned and smoked over a
fire of pine branches to give the drink a special smell and taste. One
third of the previous day's milk is mixed with new milk and allowed to
ferment in the warmth of the yurt. It is then churned, beaten with a
wooden stick (a "bishkek" from which the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic
takes its name) and it becomes mildly alcoholic (about 2% proof) before
turning into lactic acid.
Special leather bottles ("kookor") with a long
neck rising from a wide base, and two horns spreading out to the sides,
are used for storing and serving this national drink. The kookor is a
traditional motif of the Kyrgyz and is seen in many examples of art and
craftwork and even as roadside ornaments.
Kumys has long been considered to have medicinal
qualities. Even as far back as the 16th century it was extolled for its
curative properties. In the 1840's, Russian doctors discovered that
kumys was especially effective in treating tuberculosis, anaemia,
chronic lung diseases and gynaecological and skin diseases even
indigestion. Some 16 special sanatoria were established which treated
patients with lots of fresh air, exercise and kumyz. They served a
number of famous people including members of the imperial family, Lev
Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Maxim Gorky, and even a minor British Member of
Parliament (who made the journey to Central Asia especially to undergo
the treatment). It is also used as an antiseptic.
Often described as "an acquired taste", it is
bitter and milky unless sweetened with sugar or honey.
traditional kumys can be stored for only up to three days, so
production is limited to the milking period of mares. To solve this
problem, a method of producing pasteurised kumys was developed allowing
treatment all year round, and even export. A special facility has
recently started for the production of pasteurised kumys in the Naryn
region. It is now possible to buy Kumys in the cities in plastic
bottles or packs. It is also sold from the roadside throughout the
country in the summer but it is said that, for best Kumys, it should be
purchased fresh, direct from herders in the mountains in the more
remote mountain regions such as around Son-Kul.
Travellers who visit a remote yurt in a mountain
pasture ("jailoo") will often be invited in and offered a bowl of the
liquid and refusing a drink of kumys can cause offence, although an
appeal to an upset stomach will usually be accepted.