It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
FERMENTED MARE’S MILK (发酵的马奶, fāxiào de mǎ nǎi)
Tasted at: Nomad // B2F24, SML Centre, 618 Xujiahui Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu, Huangpu district (黄浦区徐家汇路618号日月光中心广场B2楼F24铺, 近瑞金二路). Tel: (0)21-6093-8486. Closest metro stop: Dapuqiao (打浦桥) line 9.
Snake bile liquor was our go-to beverage for Year of the Snake, and for Year of the Horse it’s all about the fermented mare’s milk (horse milk made alcoholic via fermentation). Albeit hard to come by this far south, we managed to scrounge up a bottle or two.
Fermented mare’s milk ‘condensed’
Airag in inner-Mongolia
Called airag in Mongolian, and kumis in Russian, fermented mare’s milk is enjoyed by people throughout the Eurasian steppes. We’ll focus specifically on the Mongolians, who make it by pouring fresh mare’s milk into a horse-hide bag called khukhuur, and hanging it on the outside of their yurt. Villagers then take turns stirring it vigorously it like butter with a wooden masher (buluur) so the milk ferments evenly. According to 19th-century orientalist Sir Henry Yule, everybody in the village, even foreigners, are allowed one ‘churn.’
During this 2-4 day process, the lactose is converted into lactic acid, ethanol and carbon dioxide, and it actually becomes palatable for the lactose intolerant aka most of us Asians (though Mongolians seem pretty immune). Mind you, horse milk contains 40% more lactose than cow’s milk.
The alcohol percentage generally stays within single digits, rarely hovering above 7-8%. Some like to add more booze to it, but this is taboo, like dumping Everclear in a good microbrew. The alcohol should come from the fermentation process alone.
The whole thing might evoke backwoods Appalachian moonshining, an image not helped by the final product’s curdy, yellow-white appearance (above left), but the culture is, in many respects, as rich as wine’s. Just as tipplers compare different regions’ grapes, airag aficionados distinguish between pasturelands, and harems of mares are nomadic vineyards, each producing a different variety of milk.
According to a 13th century account by Marco Polo, a special kind was produced by Batu Khan’s personal herd of 10,000 white horses and mares. Only the Khan was allowed to drink it.
‘Pissed’ like a race horse
Fermented mare’s milk in a bowl and a bottle
Let’s be honest, drinking airag in Shanghai can’t replicate sipping it in a yurt on the pastoral Mongolian steppes. The place to get it here, Nomad, is housed in the SML shopping center, practically inside a subway station, and features saddle-themed napkin holders and too much Genghis Khan memorabilia to count. It looks like the gift shop at a museum’s Mongol exhibit.
Fortunately the owner, Jerry Liu, is from inner-Mongolia, and the offerings reflect it, namely the fermented mare’s milk (马奶特饮, 28RMB per glass, 68RMB per bottle)。
The milk comes in a bottle rather than a leather sack, and lacks the clumps of solidified milk. It tasted tart, creamy, and fizzy, like hard lemonade spilled in greek yogurt, and without the characteristic barnyard funk I read about in many accounts. I suspect this rendition is to classic Mongolian airag what canned Tsingtao is to draught beer in Munich. The bottling process obviously sanitizes it quite a bit. Other than that, the drink’s refreshing and only mildly alcoholic at 3%. The tartness creeps up on you, however, so I wouldn’t advise chugging a bunch of bottles.
Horse milk wine
Our fermented milk experience was a bit tamer than we’d hoped, but the drink itself tasted quite decent. Not bad for Shanghai. Check it out.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Drunken hairy crab
See a complete list of our Dish of the Day series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].