The horse has always been the most important animal for the Mongolian people, from the days when Genghis Khan led his horse warriors on a mission of conquest to today's nomadic families traveling across the rolling green steppe. In addition to providing a means of transportation, horses are a primary source of food. While families occasionally eat horse meat, the milk of the Mongolian horse is practically a food group all on its own.
Airag, the traditional beverage of Mongolia, is made by fermenting the milk of mares in an open leather sack or plastic container. After the milk has been left out, it gradually transforms from a basic yogurt-like beverage to an acidic and very sour beverage with an alcohol content comparable to wine. The fat and protein content of airag make it the perfect beverage for nomads living in a harsh climate where average winter temperatures dip well below freezing.
Mongolians are known for their warm hospitality, and as soon as you step into the white circular ger, or traditional Mongolian tent, you'll probably be offered a cup of airag in welcome. Despite the language and cultural barriers between a westerner and a Mongolian nomad, you quickly build a sense of camaraderie while sipping the sour liquid while sitting around the floor of the ger. Depending on the season, visitors in a nomad's home may get to sample the variety of snacks also made from the same mare's milk, including cheese and fried milk curds.
Airag is particularly popular come festival time, especially during the summer Nadaam festival. Downing a cup of airag when it's presented to you will not only impress your Mongolian hosts, but will assure you get poured another cup. Whether during a festival or out in the steppe, it's common to spend an evening passing around a cup of airag and swapping stories.
The best time of year to taste traditional fermented mare's milk in Mongolia is during the summer months from May to September when the weather is warm and mild. The Mongolian summer festival takes place in early July, and if you find yourself in the capital city or one of the smaller provincial capitals, the airag is sure to be flowing.
While you can visit the Mongolian steppe in the winter (and winter tourism is on the rise), temperatures are extremely cold and tour operators are much more limited than during the peak summer season.
Odds n' Ends
When you're invited into a Mongolian home and offered airag (or any other beverage), it is considered rude to turn it down. If you don't want to drink it, either touch your lips to the cup or dip your finger in the beverage and flick it toward the ceiling as an offering to the sky, then pass the cup back to the person who passed it to you. Should you down the contents in one swig, you'll quickly earn respect and a second helping, so be warned.
Never hold a cup or glass by the rim. Instead, hold it by the base in the palm of your hands. If you accidentally spill airag, milk, or another beverage, dip your finger in it and press it to your forehead.
When you enter a ger, avoid stepping on the threshold. Move around the ger in a clockwise direction. Women should avoid sitting with their legs crossed when inside a traditional ger.
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