In the traditional food system of the Kyrgyz, among the products available to the general population were milk and dairy products. Dairy food among the Kyrgyz was very diverse, similar to that of the peoples of wider Central Asia, Altai, and South Siberia. The Kyrgyz used sheep, cow, and mare’s milk, and to a lesser extent that of goats and camels. The people of the inner Tien Shan, Alai, and Pamir mountainous areas also used yak milk, notable for its high fat content. The Kyrgyz made limited use of whole milk—it was given to children, and indeed is still given to children, mixed with various types of cottage cheese, sometimes for medicinal and nutritional purposes.
Skies over Manzhyly-Ata, Issyk-Kul Lake © Zhyldyz Kazieva
Milk was usually filtered immediately after milking. All types of milk, with the exception of mare’s, were subjected to heat treatment. The Kyrgyz also made ayran (a typically yogurt-based drink) from raw milk, especially in hot weather, with a small amount of water added to it before drinking. This type of ayran is popular in many places. By further processing, suzma (yogurt cheese) and kurut (sour cheese) were obtained from ayran. The first was mainly used daily as a drink—chalap—while the second was stored in large quantities for future consumption in the winter.
Kurut was eaten dry or mashed and diluted in warm water. Suzma was also kept for future use. For this, after additional salting, the suzma was poured into leather skins, known as chanachi. Usually, suzma was prepared in late autumn when the sun was not as strong, meaning the kurut did not dry out as quickly. In winter, suzma in a wineskin froze and did not lose its taste. Sometimes such a suzma was called suzma katyk. This was used as an additional ingredient to add flavor and nutrients to hot dishes such as kesme kozhe, zharma kozhe and uzme (from dough) kozhe.
Of the solid dairy products, the most notable was of course kurut. It was prepared from cow, sheep, goat, and yak milk. The technology for obtaining it is the same for all groups of Kyrgyz. They make kurut from squeezed and pressed curd mass obtained by straining ayran in a special bag, pouring it into a large pot, adding salt, then mixing thoroughly and evenly. From the resulting curd mass, small balls are made and dried on a special device—a mat made of reeds, woven with special strong threads. After drying, the balls are collected in a special bag and stored throughout the winter and spring.
The Kyrgyz have two varieties of kurut: kainatkan kurut and tuzdalgan kurut. The only difference is that in the first method the kurut is obtained by boiling the curd mass, while in the second it is not boiled. Kurut was sometimes stored for years, and even then did not lose its taste. Rich, prosperous livestock farms had the opportunity to store kurut for future use in large quantities. This made it possible to spend the winter without concern of food shortages, even in years when very dry summers resulted in a reduced harvest, known colloquially as ‘years of jute’, or in years when they lost more livestock than usual.
Kurut is highly resistant to sudden changes in temperature. Moreover, it can be safely stored without a refrigerator, without worrying about the quality of the product. In fact, properly prepared cheese can be kept safely for eight years; the dryness and stiffness of the kurut is directly dependent on time. The ideal way to store kurut is in canvas bags that are hung in a dark and well-ventilated area.
Kyrgyz dishes on a table © Zhyldyz Kazieva
Since ancient times, milk and dairy products have been a symbol of purity for the Kyrgyz; for the people of the high mountains, the white color is a symbol of purity of thoughts, deeds, and attitude toward nature—harmony of unity with nature. And the transfer of knowledge about milk and related products is indicative of the transfer of age-old knowledge about and respect for nature. Traditionally, the Kyrgyz did not sell milk to others. It was also considered bad to show white milk to the face of the moon when it was full, and milk was not passed to neighbors in the evening, a tradition that is still preserved in some rural areas. There was also a belief that kurut should be dried in the sun in order to receive its heat and light energy. And like the sun, people should treat each other equally and tolerantly.
The Kyrgyz put kurut on the table as a special treat for the family, such as you might give sweets to children or guests. This demonstrates the extent to which kurut is woven into the fabric of daily life in Kyrgyzstan. Like kimchi in Korea, it is used in so many dishes in so many ways.
Kurut is a symbol of the high mountains, the energy of a pure spring and the sun. It is pure white, like the Ala-Too mountains. For the Kyrgyz, kurut is the taste of childhood and represents the transmission of age-old traditions from our ancestors.