Ancient Recipe: Eezgii [Roasted Cheese Curd] (Mongolian, at least 14th century CE)

“And I tell you also, that when necessary [the Mongols] ride full ten days without food, and without lighting a fire; but piercing a vein of their horse, they drink his blood. They have likewise their milk dried into a species of paste, which, when about to use, they stir till it becomes liquid, and can be drunk.” ~ Marco Polo via Rustichello da Pisa, The Travels of Marco Polo, ca. 1300

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Disclaimer: I’m a white American dude who has never lived in a yurt or even been to Mongolia. Hey, I tried.

The quote above tells us a number of things about the Medieval Mongols of Kubilai Khan’s Golden Horde, the first of which is: they were pretty fucking tough.

It also hints at the centrality of milk and meat to the traditional Mongolian diet. The domestication of goats and sheep circa 6000 BCE enabled human beings to survive for the first time on the steppes of Central Asia, despite freezing temperatures (Mongolia is still home to Earth’s coldest capital city) and a lack of arable land. The domestication of the horse around 2,000 years later further eased this precarious existence in an inhospitable environment. Since animals were more valuable alive than dead on the steppe, meat was reserved for special occasions and long winters, with milk being the food of daily sustenance. It was made into butter, cream, yogurt, cheese and even booze, and dried into “instant” forms for long journeys as in the example above. UNESCO’s History of Civilizations of Central Asia states that cheese curd in various forms “had the same importance in the life of the Mongol population as bread has in the lives of farming peoples.”

By the time Marco Polo visited the Great Khan in the 14th century, a nomad’s wealth was measured in his animals: not only goat and sheep but horse, yak and two-humped camel, known as “the Five Jewels” (or, less poetically, the Five Snouts). In good times, Mongols lived off their herds, riding some of their living jewels and following the rest from pasture to pasture, eating milk and meat and sleeping in tents made from hide and felted hair. In hard times, a desperate Mongol could live off the horse he rode, falling back on wilderness survival tricks. The 11th-century Secret History of the Mongols, which tells of Genghis Khan’s humble beginnings, uses the future Khan’s boyhood reliance on hunted game to illustrate his family’s poverty. Later in the Khan’s life, when he led his armies on far-ranging campaigns, they brought livestock with them instead of supply trains. When conquering settled peoples, the Mongols intentionally destroyed farmland to return the land to its natural state, the better for grazing their animals.

In the centuries after the conquests of Genghis Khan, his royal descendants (“the Golden Womb”) would keep an opulent court influenced by the Chinese, the Persians and other peoples they had conquered. Yet even the cosmopolitan Mongol nobility never lost their carnivorous tastes. Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai drank the finest-quality airag (fermented horse milk) from a special herd of white mares, and dined on delicacies like baked strips of mutton fat and fried bull’s testicles, prepared with costly imported spices, wine, and vegetables.

Meanwhile, the Great Khan’s subjects in the Mongolian heartland continued to follow nearly the same lifestyle and diet as their ancestors. For many in Mongolia today, this ancient way of life continues. Modern nomads may use cell phones to check the weather and advertise homestays in their ger (yurt) on AirBnB, but they still scatter spoons of sacred milk on the wind in offering to Munkh Khukh Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky. And they still survive on the Five Jewels, creating a unique cuisine that varies widely in form and flavor, if not ingredients.

THE RECIPE

There are numerous varieties of Mongolian cheese, but none of them are aged in the manner of European cheeses. There are two practical reasons for this. 1) When you’re a nomad, you generally don’t feel like lugging around big wheels of aging cheese from camp to camp with you, and 2) lacking other food sources, you can’t afford to wait weeks or months to eat something that’s technically ready to eat, now.

Eezgii (ээзгий) is one such milk product. It’s traditionally made from the first milk of spring, richer and fattier than milk produced later in the year, and is further distinguished from other curd dishes by its being roasted. The application of heat caramelizes sugars in the cheese, turning it brown and giving it a unique flavor while also drying the outside for preservation. My version is adapted from this recipe, from a great website with instructions on how to make traditional Mongolian foods (even boodog, which I swear I will try one day; a whole animal cooked inside its own skin with hot rocks and a blowtorch).

Cheesemaking begins with curdling, separating boiling milk into solid curds and liquid whey. In most Western traditions this is accomplished by adding rennet, a complex of enzymes naturally found in the stomachs of animals. Other traditions curdle milk with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice, the method used to make the Indian fresh cheese paneer. Mongolian cheese is curdled with the acid in kefir, or sour yogurt. Go no further if you’re lactose intolerant; in this recipe, we will be combining two dairy products to start a chemical reaction that will produce a third dairy product. It doesn’t get more Mongolian than that.

– 1/2 a gallon of whole milk (Fresh, unpasteurized milk is the best, but grocery store milk works too.)
– 1/2 a cup kefir
(It can be hard to find a commercial yogurt sour enough to curdle milk. You can substitute full-fat yogurt and the juice of half a lemon. It’s not authentic, but it gets the job done, and you won’t taste the lemon in the end.)

  • In a large pot, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon to prevent it boiling over.
  • When the milk is boiling, add the kefir.
  • Continue stirring until the milk is thoroughly curdled. You should see white clumps (curds) separated from translucent yellow liquid (whey).
  • Remove from heat and strain out the curds. Save the whey! It’s full of nutrients and low in fat, and once it cools down, you can drink it or use it in tons of other ways.
  • Return your solid curds to the pot. Stir them carefully over low heat until all the excess moisture has been cooked out and they start to look crumbly and very slightly yellow.
  • Transfer the curds to a pan and bake at 300 degrees F for three hours. Remove and stir every half hour to prevent the curds from sticking to the pan.
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Parrot mug and panda mug look on in approval as the milk begins to boil.

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Shortly after adding the yogurt, we start to see some curdling.

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Curdled af. The yellow stuff is whey, the white is the curds.

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I’ve transferred the curds back to the pot and am now cooking out the excess moisture.

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Before baking.

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After three hours of baking, stirring, and general checking up, our eezgii is complete!

THE VERDICT

You wouldn’t necessarily know that eezgii was dairy at all. It resembles granola and has a crunchy texture and a lightly sweet, caramel-like flavor. The taste reminds me of brunost or mysost, a Scandinavian dairy product made from caramelized whey often called “brown cheese.” Having tasted aaruul (another form of dried curd) brought from Mongolia, the intensity of flavor and smell just doesn’t compare to what I was able to produce here. But my watered-down imitation nomad curd isn’t so bad, in the humble opinion of a non-nomad.

Eezgii doesn’t have to be refrigerated and will keep for a long time. Mongolians eat it as a snack, but I’ve also found it to be an interesting addition to other recipes. Try it in a sandwich or soup, or just pack some in your saddlebag to nibble on next time your tumen rides against the KhwarezmiansV out of X.

Ancient Recipe: Makgeolli (rice liquor) (Korean, at least 13th century CE)

“My friend, if you have some wine at home
be sure to invite me
When the flowers at my house bloom
I will call you
Let’s discuss ways of forgetting
The worries of one hundred years.”
~ Kim Yuk (1580 – 1658), translation from Korean Wines and Spirits (2014)

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 This misshapen, burn-scarred glass that I made in a glassblowing workshop held my last historical beverage, so I figured, why not this one too?

I’ve written before about Maangchi, my favorite YouTuber and source of information on Korean cuisine. I’m kind of a Maangchi superfan, to be honest. I’ve been making her recipes for years, was once featured on her website, went to her last fan meet-up, and got to be in a series of videos where she led me and some other Korean food fan(atic)s around a grocery store. One Maangchi recipe I had never tried until recently was for makgeolli (MAK-go-lee), a traditional Korean liquor made from rice. Like sake, which it resembles slightly, it’s often referred to as “rice wine” in English, which is a misnomer since it’s not technically wine at all. The process of creating it reminds me more of my Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian beers; a starter culture loaded with microbes that kickstart fermentation when combined with water and cooked grain. Also like those beers, makgeolli is filled with essential nutrients and has a fairly low alcohol content (around 6 – 8%), enabling it to be historically drank as a staple. The recipe is so simple that some form of makgeolli has likely been made in the Korean peninsula for millennia. I wanted to share my makgeolli, so I waited until I was having a party to make it. Because of the drink’s long history, I decided to write about it for this blog.

I don’t have too much experience making alcoholic beverages, but Maangchi makes everything look effortless, and her makgeolli sounded particularly simple if you have the right ingredients and equipment. All I needed was an electric dehydrator (bought half as a joke for my boyfriend last Christmas), rice, water, and nuruk. This last is a dried-out starter culture made from wheat and rice permeated with naturally-occurring airborne microbes. Just as makgeolli and sake share some similarities, nuruk is similar to the Japanese sake starter culture, koji. I actually bought a bag of nuruk several months ago, when I spotted it at the Korean grocery store I visited for Maangchi’s video shoot. You can generally find it at larger Korean stores or order it online, and the English label is usually something mysterious and scientific like “powdered enzyme amylase.” And by the way, here’s something I didn’t know until I bought nuruk for myself: it smells delicious! Like a sweet, fresh flour.

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Nuruk, or makgeolli starter culture.

Maangchi’s site has the full recipe I followed, along with some interesting facts about the beverage itself, which she even had analyzed by a lab for its nutritional properties. Essentially, all one has to do is cook rice, dehydrate it by machine or sunlight until it’s a hard, crunchy mass, mix with water and nuruk and let it sit for eight or nine days. Stir and strain, and you’ve got yourself a milky beverage that smells like exactly what it is (rice and hooch), but tastes soft, fruity, and lightly sweet, like a very gentle sake. Which is fine by me, because I don’t like sake much except for the whitish unfiltered kind, the variety most similar to makgeolli.

I followed Maangchi’s recipe closely, with one exception. Since I don’t have an onggi (a Korean earthenware crock), I brewed my rice liquor in a plastic bucket with a lid: specifically, this one. I put an old t-shirt under the lid and didn’t close it all the way to allow for air circulation. Others have brewed makgeolli in glass, but I can attest that it works just fine in BPA food-grade plastic.

For simplicity and clarity, no one can top Maangchi’s explanation of how to make makgeolli, so I won’t bother to repeat her entire recipe here. However, I would like to delve into the history of the beverage, which is closely intertwined with the history of Korea itself.

Long before the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South, and well before a single unified Korea, there were the Three Kingdoms: Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo, also called Goryeo. Goryeo (the origin of the English word “Korea”) was the largest of the three, and united the Three Kingdoms under its rule in the year 918 CE. It is from post-unification Goryeo that we have the earliest literary reference to makgeolli. The drink is described along with many other liquors in a text called Jewangun-gi (“The Poetic [or Rhyming] Records of Emperors and Kings”), written around 1287 CE. There, it is referred to as ihwaju (pear blossom liquor), not because it contained pear blossoms, but because it was made in early spring, when pear trees are in bloom.

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Golden cheongju after 5 days fermentation.

Contemporary with the first native mentions of makgeolli, a Chinese text on Goryeo describes the process by which Koreans (Goreyans?) could make three different kinds of liquor from one batch. As the rice/nuruk mixure ferments, grayish sediment sinks to the bottom of the container and a clear golden liquid rises to the top. This liquid could be skimmed off and served as cheongju, “clear liquor”. Cheongju could be distilled to make the stronger, colorless soju (“burned liquor”, a reference to the heat of distillation), which remains the most-popular Korean alcohol today. As for all that sediment in the bottom of the pot, it was strained, watered down and drank as makgeolli. One could also strain and dilute the liquid for makgeolli without separating out the cheongju, which is what Maangchi does in her recipe.

The many names for makgeolli tell us much about the way it was produced and consumed in the days of the Three Kingdoms. Makgeolli itself can be translated as “roughly strained”. Another name, takju, means “murky liquor”, directly contrasting it with cheongju. The Chinese history notes that the Goryeo upper classes preferred cheongju and soju, while the common people drank their rice wine murky, and yet another name of makgeolli explicitly states its connection with the lower classes: nongju, meaning “farmer liquor.” As with ancient barley beers, the nutrition and probiotics in makgeolli would have given farmers ample refreshment during a hard day’s work, especially useful in spring planting season when the drink was made.

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Roughly straining the roughly-strained.

Altogether, primary sources from Goryeo record over 350 different varieties of liquor. With countless local variations in technique and ingredients, makgeolli, cheongju and soju were part of a vibrant tradition of Korean home-brewing that almost went extinct in the 20th century during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910-1945). The Liquor Tax Law and direct suppressions of native Korean cultural practices imposed by the Japanese led to indigenous Korean liquors being overshadowed by imported foreign products. Today, there has been a resurgence of traditional Korean brewing traditions, and even makgeolli, once seen as the “roughly-strained” drink of peasant farmers, is enjoying newfound popularity. Nowadays you can find it bottled in stores and mixed into cocktails. You can also do what I did: make it yourself in a plastic bucket and serve it at a tea party.

Maangchi mentions that “homemade makgeolli is thicker, less sweet, and more filling than store sold makgeolli“, and she’s definitely right. I feel slightly silly using the word “mouthfeel”, but that’s the word that came to mind when I tasted my makgeolli. The mouthfeel was completely different than the bottled ones I’ve tasted in restaurants. Silky and full-feeling like soy milk, and lightly sweet.

Traditionally, Korean liquors are served with jeon, which is an entire diverse genre of crispy, savory pancakes. It’s a combination I highly recommend. X out of X.