Beer pong. It’s a simple game of tossing pingpong balls into cups — a drinking game that involves beer and, hopefully, food. But what if your postgame snacks could be the balls? Mind blown, right?
Meet Uzbekistan kurt, small spheres of tangy, salty cheese. The cheese itself isn’t special — it’s made traditionally, from cow’s milk. But the balls are another story. They’re so condensed that you might not break through one even when biting into it. And the spheres are made to last for years (yes, years), and in hot temperatures.
Beer pairs well with kurt, cutting through its salty aftertaste, but the snack was not created as a bar food. Its story begins centuries ago. The climate in Central Asia is very hot and dry, and with 110 degrees Fahrenheit as a typical summer temperature, there is no chance of storing milk for any length of time. The way kurt is made, it won’t spoil. It was an essential staple for nomads, shepherds and Silk Road caravans, providing a long-lasting, healthy and high-calorie food for lengthy journeys. How long? Kurt can stay fresh for seven to eight years. And it’s versatile too. Popping a few balls into a soup, for example, gives the base a milky, velvety texture.
There are no secret ingredients — “just milk and salt,” says Kholida-opa, who has sold kurt for more than 20 years in Chorsu, the oldest market in Tashkent. Milk is left at room temperature until it is clabbered (soured or curdled). Over the course of two days, the clabber is filtered to separate the whey. Salt is added to the clabber, which is then rolled between wet palms into small spheres. The balls are left to dry in the sun for three to five days. That’s it — the kurt is ready to eat.
There are only two simple rules when making kurt, Kholida says: The more salt you add, the saltier it will be, and the longer you dry it, the harder it will be (and the harder the cheese, the longer it will last — but it will also be tougher to bite into). It also helps to start with fresh milk and to filter the clabber carefully.
Those unfamiliar with kurt might be skeptical because of its unusual look. But once you taste it, you just might find yourself addicted. And good news: It’s relatively cheap to buy (2 pounds cost around $5) and typically available at any market in Uzbekistan. Just look for the older Uzbek women selling kurt from stalls. You can order it plain, with pepper or basil, or smoked. For kids it’s a pocket-size snack to nibble on the go, while adults like to enjoy kurt with beer (note: Uzbeks do not play beer pong with it). You can also add kurt to a glass of soda for a cool, creamy drink or eat it with salads.
And whether you eat it or play with it (or both), it’s hard not to see the playful side of these versatile cheese balls. For one, there’s an urban legend about how kurt is made: that some kurt-makers roll the spheres in their … um … armpits. (However, there is no evidence to support this.) And the potentially extraterrestrial origin of kurt is explored in the YouTube video below.
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