Doing Fieldwork on Fermented Foods in the World

(Mar.22-Sep.24, 2022, Nagoya University Museum)

Part 4. Fermented foods as refreshments

Fermented foods can serve as staple foods or as side dishes to compliment the staple, playing a role for humanity as a source of nutrition. Japan, however, has seen a boom in fermented foods in recent years as a means of boosting immune strength. In Mongolia as well, airag, which is produced by fermenting mare’s milk, is enjoyed for its health benefits. Eating and drinking fermented products in itself is enjoyable, provides a means of communication, boosts relaxation effects, and is anticipated to achieve health benefits. Thus, their use as refreshments beyond the goal of obtaining nutrients is being seen in various places worldwide.

Chapter 9. Mongolian fermented mare's milk "Airag"

Airag is a beverage prepared by fermenting mare’s milk. It is also called “banyushu” in Japanese, meaning “mare’s milk liquor,” but it is a refreshing carbonated drink with an alcohol content of a few percent or less. In the Mongolian steppes where nomadism continues to exist, it is loved by both young and old, men and women, and it plays an essential role in all kinds of ceremonies. In summer, there are even people who say that if they just have airag, they don’t need to eat.

■ Home-made airag remaining only in Mongolia’s steppes

According to a nationwide survey on airag production conditions that was conducted using the meteorological network in 2012, there were regional differences, but in the central region where production was most active, the people would make it by milking the mares five to seven times a day during the summer season, churning the milk for several hours with a stick and then letting it sit overnight, thus devoting lots of human energy to making airag at home. Also, the expert “N” family in the Mogod district of Bulgan Province, who were surveyed separately in 2013, milked the mares every one or two hours from early morning to afternoon, then they added a little airag that had been produced the previous day as a starter and churned it for several hours, enjoying their breaks from this just drinking airag. This was how each day was spent for this collaborative effort requiring human power—it is amazing how central a role airag plays in nomadic life during summer.

Although there are regional differences, why is it that airag is still actively produced at home only in Mongolia? Of the five types of livestock that have been raised in large numbers in Mongolia, cattle, goats, and sheep can be raised in relatively small land areas, but when herds of horses and camels are kept, they require wide expanses of land with plenty of grasses, water, and minerals. Therefore, as people settle down and stop living a nomadic lifestyle, they are less likely to keep herds of horses or camels, and it becomes difficult for them to obtain livestock products, starting with airag. In the Mongolian steppes, nomadism continues in regions away from the cities, where these natural conditions exist even now. In this sense, it would be fair to call airag produced in the steppes a symbol of nomadism.

■ Before airag production methods in various localities disappear

During the summer milking season, the expert “N” family would tether the foals in front of the ger during the day so that their dams would come snuggling up to them, and the family would milk the mares that had gathered thusly several times a day. The foals and their dams would be released and allowed to roam the grasslands from evening until morning, implementing “day-trip” grazing excursions in a sense. The horse herds used for airag production were confined only during the day for part of the summer, and the mares and foals were always together. There was a distinctive and labor-intensive milking method, too, in which during milking, an assistant to the person doing the milking would keep the foal by its dam’s side.

As it sounds like a good practice of livestock welfare that has begun gaining attention in recent years, it is said that to get good milk, it is necessary to have a healthy relationship between mother and offspring, but nomadic peoples have long known this and it goes without saying to them.

After converting to a market economy in 1990, Mongolia came under the influence of globalization, resulting in various changes occurring and concerns about the continuation of nomadism beginning to emerge. Even the production of airag can be affected, for example, by a change in the containers used. It is an urgent task to protect airag production methods, product quality, and the microorganisms essential for its fermentation that have been passed down in an unbroken chain in Mongolia.