Atlas Obscura: Qurt – Long-lasting, Ancient Road Snack of Central Asian Nomads

Qurt at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. JACKIE ELLIS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Atlas Obscura has a recipe for qurt, a dried, dairy product, which when hardened can last for years without refrigeration, though a thirteenth century friar said it was “hard as iron slag.” The hardened qurt can be softened with water and mixed with jerky and flour to make a sort of stew. Here is Make the Ancient Road Snack of Central Asian Nomads.

ONE WINTER MORNING, PRISONERS AT the Akmola Labor Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland, part of the Soviet gulag system from the 1930s to 1950s, trudged to a nearby lake. As they began gathering reeds to heat their frigid barracks, children and elders from the neighboring community approached the shore. The kids hurled small, hard white balls toward the women, and the camp guards cackled: Their charges weren’t hated only in Moscow, but here in remote Kazakhstan as well, recalled Gertrude Platais, who had been arrested in 1938 and sent to serve her sentence there.

While it initially seemed like an insult, the villagers had the opposite intent. One of the prisoners tripped on the projectiles, got a whiff of milk, and suspected they were edible. Back in the barracks, Kazakh prisoners explained that it was qurt, a traditional dried dairy product that had sustained nomads across Central Asia for centuries. Long-lasting, easy to carry, and packed with protein and calcium, the balls—described as “precious stones” in a poem about the incident by Raisa Golubeva—provided a much-needed supplement to the sparse prison rations.

Qurt, also called qurut or kurt, derives from the word for “dry” in many Turkic languages and is made by straining fermented milk from a sheep, goat, cow, camel, or mare until it’s thick enough to be rolled into balls and dried in the sun. In a 13th-century report from the Mongol empire, the Flemish Franciscan missionary Friar William of Rubruck described the result as “hard as iron slag.” Different variations exist throughout Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, including the Persian kashk, Jordanian jameed, and Armenian chortan.

Kurdish women preparing the dried dairy balls in Turkey, where they're known as kashk.
Kurdish women preparing the dried dairy balls in Turkey, where they’re known as kashk. BABLEKAN/CC BY-SA 3.0

Qurt’s portable nature and long shelf life made it an ideal road food for Central Asia’s nomadic peoples. According to Kazakh historian Moldir Oskenbay—who likens the taste of qurt to “a dried and salted feta cheese”—it dates at least as far back as the seventh century B.C., when the Scythians roamed the Eurasian Steppe. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uzbek, and other groups of herders took along versions as they moved to graze their animals. “Qurt was a really good way for them to preserve yogurt so they could eat it while they traveled,” says Malika Sharipova, a food blogger from Uzbekistan who has written about making traditional Uzbek cuisine. Hardened qurt is also highly versatile: It lasts for years without refrigeration and can be eaten straight, dissolved in boiling water to create a beverage, or mixed into traditional soups and dishes like Tajik qurutob.

Qurt even gave nomads a strategic military advantage in the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. by allowing them to ditch cumbersome kitchen supply carts and travel light, Oskenbay explains in her paper “Fermented Dairy Products in Central Asia: Methods for Making Kazakh Qurt and Their Health Benefits.” Balls of qurt dissolved in water with flour and jerky made for quick camp dinners: “No need to search for fuel for the fire, or take time for cooking,” she writes.

Various flavors at the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Various flavors at the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. LBM1948/CC BY-SA 4.0

Centuries later, freeze-dried qurt nourished Soviet cosmonauts in space. Today, it’s still hailed as a source of longevity, said to improve digestion, ward off osteoporosis, and support the health of children as well as pregnant and lactating women. Kept in a dry place, it will remain edible for several years, and some say close to a decade. “It won’t spoil, but it will get really, really hard,” Sharipova says. (If exposed to humidity, however, it can become moldy.) While qurt is traditionally made at home in rural areas and bought by city-dwellers at markets, mass-produced versions are now available at grocery stores and online.

Central Asian markets like the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, showcase the vast array of qurt available: softer “new” qurt; rock-hard “stone” qurt, which may have been dried for years; light brown smoked qurt, which Sharipova recommends pairing with beer; qurt with red pepper, coriander, dill, mint, or basil; and shapes ranging from tiny spheres to apple-sized balls.

The author's homemade qurt.
The author’s homemade qurt. SUSIE ARMITAGE FOR GASTRO OBSCURA

“People are getting crazy and creative about making different kinds of qurt,” she says. “You can play with the texture, you can play with the taste … you can make it less salty, you can make it really salty.” Sharipova prefers the classic white variety and doesn’t like it to get too hard, so she keeps it in a paper bag in the fridge.

You can make your own qurt at home, the way it’s done in Central Asian villages. However, it’s a multiday process and if you don’t have access to the sunny, dry weather of the Eurasian Steppe, you’ll need to employ a few hacks to “cheat nature,” as Max Malkiel—a home cook born in Tajikistan who now lives in Germany and posts recipe videos on YouTube—puts it.

Homemade Qurt

Adapted from recipes by Malika Sharipova, Max Malkiel, and “Recipes from an Uzbek”

Note: Methods and terms for the various dairy products below may vary by culture and location.

Ingredients
2 liters of whole or low-fat milk
6 tablespoons of plain Greek yogurt
Salt to taste
Dried herbs and spices to taste (optional)

The finished suzma should have a nice, spreadable consistency.
The finished suzma should have a nice, spreadable consistency. SUSIE ARMITAGE FOR GASTRO OBSCURA

Step 1

To make qurt, first you need to make suzma, a creamy drained yogurt with a spreadable consistency. To make suzma, you need to make qatiq, a natural (and also delicious) drinkable yogurt. If you’d like to speed up the process, and you can find suzma for purchase in your area, you can also start there and skip to Step 3. (If you don’t have a Central Asian bazaar at your disposal, you may be able to buy suzma at a Central Asian shop like Brooklyn’s Tashkent Supermarket. Some recipes also describe how to make qurt from tvorog, a farmer’s cheese widely available at Russian grocery stores; I did not test this, but if you go this route, you’ll also want to start with Step 3 and ensure that your cheese is well drained before attempting to roll it.)

To make the qatiq, heat the milk in a pot to about 122° F (50° C). (If using unpasteurized milk, boil it first, then let it cool to this temperature.) If you don’t have a thermometer, turn the heat off when the milk is noticeably warm, but you can stand to hold your finger in it for 10 seconds without discomfort. Then stir in the yogurt. At this point, the contents of your pot will still be milky in consistency. Pour the mixture into glass jars and wrap them with towels to keep them warm; Sharipova suggests using three thick ones. (I wrapped my jars in dish towels, topped with hand towels, then covered them with a large bath towel and a blanket.) Leave the wrapped jars in a warm place and let them ferment for eight hours. Then enjoy a glass of creamy qatiq; it will be a drinkable but noticeably thicker liquid.

To turn into suzma, the qatiq must drain for about eight hours.
To turn into suzma, the qatiq must drain for about eight hours. SUSIE ARMITAGE FOR GASTRO OBSCURA

Step 2

Now, it’s time to turn your qatiq into suzma. First, add salt to taste. Then carefully pour your qatiq into a flour sack towel. I found it easiest to do this by laying the cloth over a colander first. Secure the top of the towel with a rubber band and hang it over a bowl or your sink to drain. You can also use a cheesecloth, but make sure it’s not too gauzy. The qatiq should drip steadily as it drains, but you don’t want it to gush through all at once. Leave it for about eight hours as the whey separates.

Step 3

Now we have suzma; set some aside to eat on bread or as a dip for vegetables. If you’ve purchased your suzma, it may be thick enough to begin rolling into qurt (Step 4). However, if you made your own, you may need to let it drain in the cloth for another few days to reach the optimal consistency. (I learned the hard way by trying to roll suzma that wasn’t thick enough and wound up with sticky, yogurt-covered hands.)

There is no exact timeline, but Sharipova says the suzma is ready to be rolled when you can stand a spoon in it. Mine took about two days to get there.

Step 4

Once your suzma is nice and thick, add salt to taste and any additions, like ground red pepper or dried herbs. Roll it into balls, keeping in mind that smaller ones will dry quicker. (Mine were about the size of small to medium gumballs.)

Step 5

Put your qurt balls on a wooden cutting board, cover them with a clean dish towel, and leave them in a warm, sunny place to dry for several days, depending on how hard you’d like them to be.

If warm and sunny is not in the cards where you live, you can use Max Malkiel’s method. (I discovered his advice after my first batch of qurt started to grow mold as it dried.) Set your oven on the lowest possible temperature—he uses 50° C, which is approximately 122° F—and place your qurt inside on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper for an hour. Do not preheat the oven first.

Your qurt should now be a bit rubbery. Dry the balls with a hair dryer on full power for about 10 minutes. Set aside to dry further at room temperature. Repeat the oven and hair dryer steps three days in a row. For harder qurt, leave to dry for a few more days at room temperature.

Enjoy your qurt and go slowly. A little bit of the salty stuff goes a long way! Store in a breathable cloth bag in a dry place or in a paper bag in the fridge.

Capital Press: Agriculture is fighting for survival in Washington state

The following is a commentary published in the Capital Press, written by Pam Lewison of the Washington Policy Center – Agriculture is fighting for survival in Washington state

Some moments lend themselves to hyperbole. That amazing fishing trip from seven years ago; the winning free throw at a high school basketball game; the marriage proposal when time stood still.

Or 2020, when Washington agriculture was fighting for its life after a court ruling forced the dairy sector to begin paying time-and-a-half and left the specter of retroactive pay lingering in the background like an unwanted flu just before vacation.

In our state, we are waging a war about how best to determine what “just” compensation looks like in the wake of the Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy court decision of November 2020. The dairy sector has its answer from the courts: dairy producers must pay time-and-a-half for any hours worked after 40. The rest of the agricultural community will have to wait and see what comes of the legislative session to determine how to move forward on the question of what constitutes a “work-week” in agriculture.

The ruling, however, left open the possibility of payment of more wages for past work. To be clear, the plaintiffs in the case were paid in full for their work. Any “back pay” would be applying the current law — time-and-a-half rules — to work done in the past. Specifically, it would be imposing a retroactive punishment against the DeRuyter Brothers Dairy for following the law at the time.

A bill in Olympia, SSB 5172, would make farmers pay again for work done three years ago, with 12% annual interest added on as a punishment. Any funds that could not be distributed to former employees by employers would be placed in an escrow account for six years while the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries attempted to locate the individuals involved in the claims. This is not a fix.

The original language of SSB 5172 — “the legislature intends to limit the retroactive effect of court decisions concerning overtime wage claims by delineating factors that establish inequitable results. When considering whether to award retroactive pay in a cause of action seeking overtime pay … the court is prohibited from making such an award when the award would create a substantially inequitable result” — acted as a protective mechanism for all overtime exempt employers; effectively banning lawsuits seeking retroactive payments. That is a fix. A fix for all overtime exempt employers, not just agricultural employers, because it wouldn’t punish employers for following the law.

As lawsuits pile up — more than 30 at last count — the rest of the agricultural community must entertain the very real possibility of paying time-and-a-half just as the dairy sector is doing now.

The prospect of retroactive pay creates an urgent existential crisis for the dairy sector in Washington state. Conservative estimates for the economic effect on the industry suggest it would cost our dairy producers $2 billion should nothing be done to stop this egregious injustice.

There is no more symbiotic relationship than the one between agricultural employers and their employees. It is based upon both parties working in harmony. Without farmworkers, farms would cease to be the cost-effective, efficient marvels they are in today’s economy. Without farms, farmworkers would cease to find themselves with reliable work at wages well above the state’s minimum wage.

Odd-numbered years are 105-day legislative marathons in Washington state. The long session is the saving grace for agriculture this time around. There is still time to negotiate, still time to make our voices and stories heard.

It is not the natural habit of farmers to discuss their business with the public. That is, in part, what got us into this mess in the first place. But it is absolutely essential that we put our habits aside and fight for our employees and our businesses by telling the truth about what we do.

Farmers and ranchers and their employees are a family, a community, and in this moment, when we need each other the most, we must make our voices heard and tell our individual and collective stories to anyone who will listen.

WA Policy Center: WA State Supreme Court Rules Dairy Overtime Exemption Is Unconstitutional

From the Washington Policy Center, Dairy workers could face layoffs after State Supreme Court ruling on overtime pay – court petitioned for reconsideration.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled the overtime exemption for dairy workers was unconstitutional Nov. 5. Since then, it has been a scramble for dairy farmers and their employees to figure out what to do in the aftermath of a decision that could cost dairy farms up to $120 million for following what was the law at the time.

As previously discussed, the negative effects of this court decision will be felt most sharply by dairy workers themselves as their employers grapple with the potential costs of overtime pay moving forward, including layoffs and a reduction of hours.

The intervenors in the case, the Washington State Dairy Federation and the Washington Farm Bureau, have indicated they are petitioning the court for a reconsideration of their 5-4 ruling. The reconsideration puts the judgment on hold until that request is settled by the court.

However, dairy farmers are being advised to begin paying their employees overtime pay immediately.

Dairy farmers have been in an economic downturn for at least five years. This year was supposed to be a bright spot in an otherwise bleak market. However, with the onset of COVID restrictions and restaurant and school closures, milk prices have remained poor.

Now, dairy farmers must weigh one of three options: restrict all shifts to 40 hours or less, let some of their employees go, or cut the pay of their employees to offset the cost of paying time-and-a-half when their schedules eclipse 40 hours a week.

Dairy farmers have been advised by agriculture groups the fairest approach is to allow their employees to work their full schedule – approximately 55 hours a week on average – at an adjusted base rate. By maintaining the full work schedule, adjusting base hourly wages down (but not below the state minimum wage), and paying overtime at time-and-a-half, dairy employees will end up making slightly more money over the long-term.

The larger question mark for both dairy farmers, and the larger agricultural community, is the potential for retroactive compensation for dairy employees. Retroactive compensation opens dairy farmers up to be required to issue backpay to their employees for up to three years.

The key point of the retroactive compensation question is that it would punish dairy farmers for following the state’s constitution. The new figures for what retroactive compensation would look like in dollars is approximately $120 million, if assessed for three years, according to the Washington Dairy Federation. You can hear more from the Washington Dairy Federation here.

The bottom line is dairy workers and dairy farmers are put at risk by this lawsuit. Dairy farmers are being asked to make late-in-the-year budget shifts to cover the cost of overtime pay and, as a result, some dairy employees may find themselves looking for work as the holidays begin.

Medium: What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage

Will Oremus has written an article at Medium.com on What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage, pointing out that it has little to do with so-called hoarding. The fact is that people actually are using more toilet paper at home. There are similar problems with dairy products. With everyone staying at home and mostly eating at home, consumption of milk, butter, eggs, etc. is higher at home, now.

round the world, in countries afflicted with the coronavirus, stores are sold out of toilet paper. There have been shortages in Hong Kong, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. And we all know who to blame: hoarders and panic-buyers.

Well, not so fast.

Story after story explains the toilet paper outages as a sort of fluke of consumer irrationality. Unlike hand sanitizer, N95 masks, or hospital ventilators, they note, toilet paper serves no special function in a pandemic. Toilet paper manufacturers are cranking out the same supply as always. And it’s not like people are using the bathroom more often, right?

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar summed up the paradox in a March 13 New York Times story: “Toilet paper is not an effective way to prevent getting the coronavirus, but they’re selling out.” The president of a paper manufacturer offered the consensus explanation: “You are not using more of it. You are just filling up your closet with it.”

Faced with this mystifying phenomenon, media outlets have turned to psychologists to explain why people are cramming their shelves with a household good that has nothing to do with the pandemic. Read the coverage and you’ll encounter all sorts of fascinating concepts, from “zero risk bias” to “anticipatory anxiety.” It’s “driven by fear” and a “herd mentality,” the BBC scolded. The libertarian Mises Institute took the opportunity to blame anti-gouging laws. The Atlantic published a short documentary harking back to the great toilet paper scare of 1973, which was driven by misinformation.

Most outlets agreed that the spike in demand would be short-lived, subsiding as soon as the hoarders were satiated.

No doubt there’s been some panic-buying, particularly once photos of empty store shelves began circulating on social media. There have also been a handful of documented cases of true hoarding. But you don’t need to assume that most consumers are greedy or irrational to understand how coronavirus would spur a surge in demand. And you can stop wondering where in the world people are storing all that Quilted Northern.

There’s another, entirely logical explanation for why stores have run out of toilet paper — one that has gone oddly overlooked in the vast majority of media coverage. It has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with supply chains. It helps to explain why stores are still having trouble keeping it in stock, weeks after they started limiting how many a customer could purchase.

In short, the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets: commercial and consumer. The pandemic has shifted the lion’s share of demand to the latter. People actually do need to buy significantly more toilet paper during the pandemic — not because they’re making more trips to the bathroom, but because they’re making more of them at home. With some 75% of the U.S. population under stay-at-home orders, Americans are no longer using the restrooms at their workplace, in schools, at restaurants, at hotels, or in airports.

Georgia-Pacific, a leading toilet paper manufacturer based in Atlanta, estimates that the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual if all of its members are staying home around the clock…(continues)

Click here to read the entire article at Medium.com

Here is a video of a dairy farmer of Wagner Farms, talking about dairy item shortages and supply chains.

Reuters: U.S. Dairy Farmers Dump Milk as Pandemic Upends Food Markets

From Reuters news service comes a story that hits our region with a good number of dairies, U.S. dairy farmers dump milk as pandemic upends food markets

Dairy farmer Jason Leedle felt his stomach churn when he got the call on Tuesday evening.

“We need you to start dumping your milk,” said his contact from Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the largest U.S. dairy cooperative.

Despite strong demand for basic foods like dairy products amid the coronavirus pandemic, the milk supply chain has seen a host of disruptions that are preventing dairy farmers from getting their products to market.

Mass closures of restaurants and schools have forced a sudden shift from those wholesale food-service markets to retail grocery stores, creating logistical and packaging nightmares for plants processing milk, butter and cheese. Trucking companies that haul dairy products are scrambling to get enough drivers as some who fear the virus have stopped working. And sales to major dairy export markets have dried up as the food-service sector largely shuts down globally.

The dairy industry’s woes signal broader problems in the global food supply chain, according to farmers, agricultural economists and food distributors. The dairy business got hit harder and earlier than other agricultural commodities because the products are highly perishable – milk can’t be frozen, like meat, or stuck in a silo, like grain.

Other food sectors, however, are also seeing disruptions worldwide as travel restrictions are limiting the workforce needed to plant, harvest and distribute fruits and vegetables, and a shortage of refrigerated containers and truck drivers have slowed the shipment of staples such as meat and grains in some places…

Click here to read the entire story at Reuters.

KIMA: Winter Storm Kills 1600 Dairy Cows in Region

From KIMA news. Stories of hardships caused by the recent storm continue to come:

YAKIMA, Wash.– Farmers have been devastated across the Yakima Valley, as strong winds of up to 80 miles per hour, and cold conditions have killed about 1,600 cows according to the Yakima Valley Dairy Farmers Association.

Yakima Valley Dairy Farmers are continuing to prepare as more snow is expected to hit the Valley, they’re adding extra bedding to insulate areas for cows to lay in, adding extra feed, and thawing water troughs with hot water.

“Without our employees, there’s no way we, or our cows could survive this storm,” Alyssa Haak , a dairy farmer in Prosser said. “To shield our cows from the wind we stacked straw bales to create a windbreak for our cows. I give a lot of credit to our milk truck drivers, too. Without their bravery, we wouldn’t be able to get our milk off the farm.”

Another farmer in Grandview says he’s been working around the clock to make sure his cows are being protected from the elements.

“These have been the worst few days of my life,” he said. “We’re just devastated. I don’t think we’ve ever been hit with weather like this.”

With severe winter weather continuing to occur in in eastern Washington throughout the next week, dairy farmers are assessing their current losses and preparing for the next round of snow and wind.

Farmers say that they are working together to help each other through these tough times.

Markus Rollinger, a Sunnyside dairy farmer stated, “Saturday was brutal. We put in a 36-hour day, but we’ve been fortunate. I’ve spent a lot of time helping my fellow dairy farmers and supporting what they’re going through,” Markus says. “My brother and I are trying to keep roads plowed for our employees and the milk trucks.”

Governor Inslee has declared a state of emergency for the state of Washington, which the farmers are hoping will lead to further assistance.

The dairy farmers say that they continue to cope with these conditions and over the next few days will be touch and go as they assess the damage and losses to their farm.