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


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.


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.

Parrot mug and panda mug look on in approval as the milk begins to boil.


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


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


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


Before baking.


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


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: Kamakh Rijal (Countertop Cheese) (Arab & Persian, ca. 10th century CE)

There are several varieties of this, but all follow the same recipe, only differing in ingredients. First, take a large, dry pumpkin-shell…put in 5 ratls* of sour milk, 10 ratls of fresh milk, and 1 1/2 ratls of fine-brayed salt, and stir. Cover, and leave for some days in the hot sun. This is first made in June, at the beginning of the mid-summer. Each morning add 3 ratls of fresh milk, and stir morning and evening. Add milk as the liquid lessens, until the beginning of August…cover until the beginning of October: then remove from the sun until set, and serve. ~ from Kitab-al Tabikh (The Book of Dishes), 10th century

IMG_3370Before I leave for a vacation that will likely delay my next blog post, I’m excited to share a long-term project I’ve been working on: kamakh rijal, a kind of spreadable cheese from the Medieval Islamic world that’s incredibly easy to make. All you need is milk, yogurt, salt, and the courage to eat a dairy product that’s been sitting at room temperature for more than a month. My stomach feels fine, thanks.

Originally a Persian recipe, kamakh rijal is found in many Medieval Arab cookbooks, including the earliest known Arabic-language cookbook, the 10th-century Book of Dishes. Despite its former popularity, the unique method of cheese production has been largely forgotten in modern times. The modern-day expert on kamakh rijal and rediscoverer of the technique is food historian Charles Perry. He has written about it several times, including for the premiere issue of the fermentation magazine Cured and the book Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali (2009). This is the same book that gave me a recipe for a Roman-influenced chicken dish which I recently wrote about for Sarah Lohman’s blog, Four Pounds Flour.

In typical cheesemaking, milk is curdled to separate solid curds from liquid whey. Any remaining moisture is pressed out of the curds to protect the good bacteria that transforms them into cheese. In kamakh rijal, it is the salt and the pre-existing good bacteria in the yogurt that ensure fermentation and keep off bad microbes. There is no curdling or pressing involved, so the end product is a semisolid. We would call it spreadable cheese; 10th-century Persians called it “something eaten by licking“, the literal translation of kamakh rijal. I used cow’s milk, but I would be curious to try with sheep or goat’s milk, both of which would have been readily available in the Medieval Islamic world.

Below is my kamakh rijal journal, written over the course of six weeks. Following the instructions of Perry and The Book of Dishes, the cheese is edible after six weeks, but it’s actually meant to age for 14-16 weeks total. Mine isn’t going anywhere just yet, so stay tuned for a part 2.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

I bought a quart of whole milk and a container of the most ultra-probiotic, microorganism-rich yogurt I could find (Russian kefir). Sharing a Brooklyn studio apartment with another person as I do, it’s not always easy to find sufficient space for these kind of projects. Perry’s recipe in Cured says to mix 1 cup yogurt, 5 cups milk and 3 tablespoons kosher salt. My only available glass container wasn’t quite big enough, so I had to do some eye-watering math to shrink the recipe by one-fifth.

After my calculations I ended up with a milk/yogurt/salt mixture that completely filled up the container, and I was just barely able to fit the container like a puzzle piece into the back of my extremely crowded counter-top. Taking this as a good sign, I covered the container with cheesecloth. For the next week I will stir and taste the mixture daily, and top it off with more milk (Perry suggests canned evaporated milk) as it dries out. At this stage, it tastes like salty milk.

Friday, May 5th (1 week in)IMG_3141

My boyfriend has started to complain about the smell in the apartment, which he notices as soon as he walks in and I don’t notice unless I’m right next to the bowl (what does that say about me?) But it’s definitely a cheese smell and not the smell of milk gone bad; the salt in the mixture sees to that. By the end of a full week, the kamakh rijal is starting to look a little yellowish and is definitely thicker, with an even texture. When I stir with a chopstick, it comes out coated. The flavor is increasingly tangy, more like yogurt than cheese but definitely approaching cheesiness. Exciting!

Friday, May 13th (2 weeks)IMG_3227

This week I topped off the mixture with a can of evaporated milk per the recipe instructions. Evaporated milk is more yellowish than fresh milk, and the kamakh rijal is now definitely a pale whitish yellow, the color that Benjamin Moore would call “eggshell.” Although it was liquid last week, it’s now so thick a chopstick can stand upright in it (see image). It’s also started to taste like yeast. On the one hand, my boyfriend has stopped complaining about the smell. On the other hand, now I’m starting to notice it.

Friday, May 19th (3 weeks)IMG_3245

Up close, the kamakh rijal smells kind of like feet. But hey, it’s cheese, that’s a good thing, right? A thin layer spread on a cracker with a slice of tomato is quite good. It is even thicker than last week; I added a new can of evaporated milk to top it off but I noticed that the milk does not mix evenly into the kamakh rijal as readily as it did before, just sits on top. Kind of looks like curds floating in the milk now.

Monday, May 29th (4 weeks + 3 days)IMG_3314

Couldn’t check on the kamakh rijal until Monday. It’s gone solid again, and while the texture is still a bit lumpy, it spreads nicely on a piece of bread, like soft butter. The taste appears to have neutralized. It’s still tangy but not yeasty anymore, and for the first time I’m reminded of cheddar cheese. My boyfriend surprised me by asking to taste it (direct quote: “you haven’t gotten the shits yet, so it’s probably fine, right?”) Then he surprised me further by saying he actually liked it. Like the taste, the smell appears to have peaked a week or two ago and is now mellowing out.

Added some more evaporated milk. The outer edges of the glass container have developed a pretty gnarly yellow crust. Blegh.

Tuesday, June 6th (5 weeks + 4 days)IMG_3336

I’ve been a little lax in adding fresh milk, and the kamakh rijal has undergone yet more changes. It’s so thick now that if you stir it or stick a knife into it, it will not regain its original shape. The outer surface is drying out and starting to look like a crusty lunar landscape, if the moon really was made out of cheese. I try to be careful about the dry parts when tasting, but the occasional little crumb gets mixed into the smooth majority of the cheese. Gross. If I were serving it to another person, I would scrape off the entire top quarter-inch where it’s dried out to avoid the gritty texture.

Friday, June 9th (6 weeks)IMG_3367

By this point I couldn’t stand looking at the yellow crust around the edge of the container anymore, so I broke it off. That plus the addition of more milk revived the mixture. It’s smoother and softer again now, and overall looks much more…..edible. I was expecting the taste to get stronger and stronger over time, but I’m fascinated by how it peaked and then started to get weaker. I wonder if that represents one type of microbe taking over another (bacteria vs. fungus?)

The kamakh rijal having reached its minimum age for cheesiness, I have a few different options. The recipe quoted above suggests adding mint, garlic and the anise-like spice nigella before allowing it to age further, which sounds like a delicious combination. Another recipe calls for dried rose petals, which intrigues me; I don’t like rose-flavored desserts, but I’ve never tried a savory preparation. I plan to let it age another six weeks before dividing it up into parts and trying both the rose and nigella/garlic/mint versions.

IMG_3340When I was visiting Paris, I ate a meal (okay, several meals) that consisted entirely of wine, bread and cheese. With this in mind, I spread some of my six-week-old kamakh rijal on bread and poured myself a glass of red wine. Not only did it go together well, it felt like a scene from a medieval Persian poem. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and Thou“; I always thought Omar Khayyam was talking to a lover, but maybe he was just addressing the spreadable cheese. VIII out of X.

* One 10th-century ratl equals 406.25 grams, or .90 of a pound.