In keeping with yesterday’s entry on the Anthropology of Drink, I’d like to share with you the Top 3 strangest “local” drinks I’ve consumed on my travels. It’s a rogue list of tipples sure to turn even the most determined of stomachs — although I remain convinced that a few of them truly are an acquired taste…
1) Airag (Mongolia) – At the top of my list is that old Mongolian staple, fermented mare’s milk. Yes, that’s right, milk from a horse. I first encountered this one back in 2002 while pounding across the steppes in a Russian jeep with two Swedish girls and a driver called Degii. We were camped in a quiet valley scattered with white puffs of sheep. I was scribbling my notes as the sun slanted low in the sky, when it occurred to me to toast the waning of the day. I pulled a half bottle of Ghengis Khan vodka from my pack, and we offered Degii a drink. In accordance with custom, he offered us a swig from his flask in return. It was the first time we’d really broken the ice on that trip, and the floodgates opened–in more ways than one.
We ended up around a roaring campfire trading stories in the cryptic language of gestures we’d devised. When the two flasks had been drained, Degii stumbled off into the forest. We’d nearly given him up for lost when, half an hour later, we heard crashing and muttered swearing from the bushes. He stumbled back into the light of our fire covered in tangled branches, with another fresh vodka bottle clutched in his fist. To this day I still don’t know where he got it, or whether he had a strategic cache out there.
When I crawled out of my tent the next morning, my eyes bunched tight against the merciless sun, Degii was sitting on a tree stump staring at the ground. He looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes and slowly shook his head.
We piled into the jeep and Degii made straight for the first ger (nomad’s tent) on the horizon. Arkhangai province is known for the quality of its airag, and according to him it was just the thing to fix us up.
“Mongolian man drink too much….. goooood!” he said, meaning mare’s milk was the cure for all that ailed us.
We stepped inside the ger and shuffled to the left, taking a seat on the guest side. These nomads were an unfriendly-looking bunch. Three rough looking men in filthy robes sat staring at us and picking their teeth. Degii asked for airag, which they poured from a goatskin hanging on the wall. He passed the cup to me.
It tasted like fizzy, watery yogurt–with floating globules of fat and a few hairs thrown in. I choked down a big gulp and made to pass the bowl on to the Swedes, but Degii insisted I finish it all. This I did, but not without some trembling and a light sheen of clammy sweat across my brow. Thanks to fermentation and a mild alcoholic effect, it did prove to be an effective hair of the dog, despite the unpleasant aftertaste.
It was at that moment, as I was passing the cup, that I looked up and noticed one of the herdsmen was wearing a cheap baseball cap with English lettering. Across the front was written “Do I make you horny?”
No. No sir, you do not.
2) Rakija (Serbia) – Next up is homemade apricot moonshine from Serbia. This was actually pretty nice stuff. I place it on my list not for the taste (which was quite pleasant), but for the effect. This will make you bring back things you never knew you stole.
My good friends from Slovenia were kind enough to take me along one weekend on a visit to family friends in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia. I found myself seated around a table in the backyard, toasting each new arrival from a clear unlabeled bottle of very pleasant homemade brandy distilled from the fruit of the tree we were gathered beneath.
As the night wore on, my new friend Vladimir and I polished off one liter of this fragrant nectar. And then it was time to go out. He was unable to get up from the table without assistance. Someone offered me a helping hand, but I replied that I was fine. I met their obvious skepticism by walking carefully in a straight line, one foot in front of the other. From then on they referred to me as “The Irish” for my apparent drinking ability (I didn’t tell them I’d just spent a week in Croatia and had already built some tolerance for this particular spirit.)
Later that weekend we went to a local farmyard to see how rakija was made. At the previous year’s outing, Vladimir told me, “We drank so much we couldn’t remember who had a moustache and who didn’t.” It was that sort of night. But that’s another story…
That’s the bottle they sent home with me in the photo, complete with a handwritten label bearing their name and country of origin, to speed my transit through Canadian Customs.
3) Red Wine (China) – Finally, we come to the absolute worst wine I’ve ever had the misfortune of pouring down my gullet. I was staying in a run down rooming house in Lhasa, Tibet when I encountered this one. In keeping with our goal of trying every suspicious-looking local drink that crossed our path, the Swedes had picked up a bottle of Great Wall brand red wine. Imagine the sickly sweet slither of red cough syrup with an edge. It tasted like medicine, but you know it isn’t good for you.
Once opened we were honour-bound to finish it. And it wasn’t easy. I sincerely wouldn’t wish that swill on anyone.
4) Snake Wine (North Korea) – Honorable mention goes to this unique and rather intimidating local delicacy. Forget the puny tequila worm. This bottle has an inch-thick snake coiled up inside. It’s the drink that bites back.
Those are a few of my more interesting run-ins with odd local specialties. What are the strangest, worst or most potent drinks you’ve encountered in your travels? Please share them with us below.