To 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.
"Who drinks Kumys will live a century"
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 milk.
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 toit 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 migrations.
Kumys is man's blood, air is his mind
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.
A 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.
Unfortunately, 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 pasteurized kumys was developed allowing treatment all year round, and even export. A special facility has recently started for the production of pasteurized 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.
Travelers 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.