If you read my recent post and were inspired to start making your own real kefir, don’t put your kefir grains in the freezer just yet—I’ve got another recipe for you! Well, don’t set your expectations too high, as there are only so many things you can do with those grains. In fact, there’s only one: kefir. But you can use something other than cow’s milk. Such as goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or… camel’s milk.
Fermented camel’s milk isn’t just the absurd whim of some idle Western blogger. It’s a “thing” in Central Asia, more distinctive to the region than any other cultured dairy product. In Kazakhstan, it’s called shubat, and you can simply buy it at supermarkets throughout the country. (It’s also available in Turkmenistan, where it’s called chal.) If we’re to believe the labels, in addition to its rich vitamin content (A, B, C), shubat‘s curative virtues are almost too good to be true: “Effective means of treating digestive tract diseases, tuberculosis, diabetes, and peptic ulcer”; “Normalizes the liver’s metabolic process”; “Recommended to strengthen immune system”; “Recommended for daily consumption”. Combine that with the health benefits of vodka, and you should live another good hundred years.
Needless to say, I added generous amounts of shubat to my diet during my trip to Kazakhstan. In case you’re considering doing the same, let me give you a few words of advice:
- Homemade shubat is sometimes available in restaurants. It’s usually only mildly fermented, and therefore neither too fizzy nor too acidic. It’s thicker than milk but thinner than cow’s milk kefir (more on this later), and it boasts a rich dairy taste. Highly recommended.
- Store-bought shubat is usually much more fermented, as it tends to have been standing in its bottle for quite some time. It can be almost like a soda, thin but very fizzy and tangy. This is great in some regards, and I really love the taste and texture, but there’s a major flip side. Whenever I drank it, I almost invariably had to visit the nearest bathroom repeatedly for the next few hours (which didn’t happen with the homemade versions). It’s a good thing that large Kazakh cities have clean, readily available bathrooms (in many large stores and malls, and even sometimes at markets), but your dire need might still besmirch your vacation. It’s a trade-off: with great shubat comes great responsibility.
- And, for the commercial stuff, make sure you check the best-by date! Manufacturers tend to indicate a two-month shelf life, which is a bit generous. As the expiration date nears, be extra careful when opening the bottle if you don’t want to get splashed. And make sure you have a toilet available at all times, as I suspect the stuff gets even harder to digest.
By now, you must be sold, right?! You want to try shubat and make your own. There’s one problem, though: you probably don’t have a pet camel in your backyard. Don’t panic. You can buy camel’s milk.
Desert Farms sells a few different camel’s milk products, and you can either buy them online or find them in a store near you. It’s expensive, but think about all the health benefits. There are even rumors that imported shubat can be bought in some Russian grocery stores in the US, although the actual composition still needs to be verified. Maybe something to look for next time I’m in Brighton Beach…
So what does camel’s milk taste like? The raw milk is thinner than whole cow’s milk, much more like skim milk. But it has a much stronger taste, a more pronounced “milk” taste for lack of a better term — neither grassy nor creamy. It contains less fat than its bovine counterpart, and slightly more lactose and protein. It’s very good just plain. Desert Farms also makes kefir, but I don’t like it very much. I couldn’t get them to explain how they make it, but it’s definitely different from Kazakh shubat: a tiny bit sweet and not very tangy, not fizzy at all, and without that subtle but distinctive camel’s milk taste.
Therefore, the only reliable solution remains to make your own. The result is pretty close to what I’ve had in Kazakh restaurants, thinner than cow’s milk kefir, with sourness and fizziness levels that can be controlled by adding milk powder (Desert Farms sells camel’s milk powder, but cow’s will do fine), and that special shubat taste. You could probably make it more similar to the Kazakh store-bought variety by storing it in a closed plastic bottle, if you wish. Just don’t hold me responsible if the bottle explodes or if you find yourself going to the bathroom every 5 minutes after drinking it.
Yields about 500 g
8 g nonfat milk powder
500 g raw camel’s milk
activated kefir grains
- In a cup, mix the milk powder into 1/4 of the camel’s milk using a fork. Transfer to a plastic quart container, then add the rest of the milk and the kefir grains. Cover the container with a clean kitchen towel, and let sit at room temperature for about 24 hours (depending on the temperature in your kitchen, and a few other factors; this tends to take longer than cow’s milk kefir). Gently stir with the fork once in a while, maybe every 4 hours.
- Since shubat doesn’t thicken very much, it can be hard to assess when it’s ready. Proceed to the next step when the milk just starts separating, with a thin layer of clear liquid forming at the bottom of the container.
- Strain the shubat through a sieve, then cover, shake vigorously, and refrigerate. The shubat can be kept for a few days.
- Retrieve the kefir grains from the sieve, and immediately start a new batch (see previous post). If you’ve been using your grains in cow’s milk, the first batch or two of shubat might not work — just discard and start over. I think the shubat got a bit thicker after a few rounds, but just very slightly. (I also tried adding a bit of cream in the beginning, but again it made only a negligible difference.)