As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen did a lot of things to irritate Kazakhs, but nothing (ahem) pissed them off more than his crack about their fondness for horse urine wine. That's not just because Kazakhs don't drink equine piddle, but because they do drink a lot of kumis, a fermented yogurt drink made from mare's milk that dates back to antiquity, is prized all over central Asia and Russia, and is pretty much the national drink of Kazakhstan, with deep cultural significance and alleged medical benefits. Chekhov and Tolstoy were big fans.
But fermented mare's milk yogurt, as you might imagine, is a bit more rare in these parts, so I was surprised to find it while rooting around Mundelein's great Russian Alef Sausage & Deli, which I wrote about for last week's suburban retail food guide.
Not only did I find Russian-produced kumis, but also its close cousin, shubat (or chal), made from fermented camel milk, and "goat tann," made from . . . you know. At least I assumed these 16.9 ounce bottles contained real mare, camel and goat milk until I asked Friend of the Food Chain Tatiana Abramova to translate the labeling. She was immediately skeptical of the grandiose claims of antibacterial properties and other nutritive benefits: "Kumis is akin to a fragrant drink from the heavenly river . . . This noble drink breathes life and heals the ailing body." ~ 16th century author Iben Ruzbekhan.
"I lived through one too many food scandals in Moscow," Abramova told me in an e-mail. Reinforcing her suspicion was the wording: each of these drinks is "based on" the milk of its animal totem. Casting further doubt, the Wiki entry for kumis asserts that industrial-scale production of kumis generally uses cow's milk fortified to approximate the composition of horse milk.
OK, maybe not the real thing, but how do they taste?
Identical, it turns out. Each bottle exhaled a bit when cracked open and the thin liquid effervesced in the glass. It smells a bit barnyardy, but no worse than a good strong goat cheese. The taste itself is like fizzy sour yogurt, and I could discern no difference in flavor among the kumis, shubat, or goat tann. In fact, the nutritional stats on the back—the only labeling in English—are identical but for the fat and carb content in the goat tann, which is just 1% lower than the other two. It's lighter in appearance as well.
A less charitable description of these drinks might be "carbonated sour milk." But I like the name from a 1917 medical study, which dubbed kumis "milk champagne."