Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fermented Camel Milk

Urumqi is roughly 4,000 km from Shanghai. The express train to Beijing takes 34 hours. It is literally the most landlocked city in the world. So it should come as no surprise that the culture in Urumqi is fairly different from the culture in Eastern China. In fact, by most cultural yardsticks, you would say that Urumqi is less of a "Chinese" city and more of a "Central Asian" city. The major presence of state-recognized non-Han ethnic minorities in Urumqi (particularly Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Hui peoples) bear witness to this fact. Street food aficionados will be pleased to know that the Central Asian influence on Urumqi's culture extends to the city's marvelous street food. Here is one striking example.

Less of a street food and more of a street drink, tuó năi is fermented camel milk. This unusual beverage—also called chal or shubat—was popularized in Central Asia and brought to Urumqi by the Kazakh people. Fermented camel milk is made by mixing fresh milk with a smaller sample of already fermented milk. More and more fresh milk is mixed in over three to four days and allowed to sour, at which point it is ready to serve. The drink is served ice cold (perfect for a hot day, I imagine). At a glance, you can see that this milk is frothy, thick, and brilliantly white. The first sip is a bit startling, as the fermentation has created a sparkling effervescence that bites at your tongue like carbonated water. It is sour and acidic, which only adds to the bite. There is a minor alcoholic taste to the milk, as well as very mild hints of citrus. You wouldn’t know it from the sound of it, but fermented camel milk is actually quite tasty and refreshing. Also, local lore claims that it has virus fighting abilities, so you’ve got going for you as well.

...which is nice.

The bottom line? For a delicious sample of Central Asian culture in China, you can’t go wrong with tuó năi.


Erynn Marie said...

I seriously wish this blog had existed and that I had found it 4 years ago before I went to China!
I commented on your post about the Mongolian Visa adventure, and have since been diving into more and more. My husband and I lived in Beijing and only travelled to a couple other cities (Yangshuo near Guilin, Xi'an, and Erlian), so our street food experience wasn't super varied, but we ate what we could. So many of our ex-pat friends shunned street food and seriously questioned our sanity when we told them how much we loved it--and I always felt bad for them. But I wish I had been braver. I tended to stick with "safe-looking" street foods, like noodles and breads. But OH, what I wouldn't give for a little bag of steamy jiaozi, or a hot spicy bowl of dao xiao mian!
I actually worked up the courage to ask the owners of a local bing shop in our neighborhood to teach me how to make a few things since I knew I'd miss them when I went back to the USA. They looked at me like I was crazy, but let me come by during a slow part of the day and taught me a thing or two. That's probably the best thing I brought back from China.
Anyway, I hope for continued success in your adventures.
Also, I just read that you have a wife and that she's "letting" you do this. That's some great teamwork. If it were me, I don't know if I could handle it--and I KNOW I'd be jealous I wasn't going with you!

Frank Kasell said...

I'm glad to hear that you are enjoying the information here. Hopefully the website here (and potentially the as-yet-unfinished book) will be a good resource for the street food there. Of the cities you mentioned, I would say that Beijing and Xi'an have the best street food (Xi'an edges out Beijing a little bit in my opinion, but that's debatable). What type of foods did you learn to make from your local vendor? Have you been able to replicate them here in the USA?

Also, yes: my wife has been incredibly supportive through this whole thing (both the three months in China and the seemingly interminable writing process). She's the best!

Post a Comment