To the uninitiated, kurt doesn’t exactly look like cheese. But these small, hard white balls are actually pocket-sized dairy snacks that have been enjoyed by Central Asian herders since the Middle Ages.
Along with kumis, a beverage made from fermented mare’s milk, and airan, a diluted yogurt drink, kurt is one of many fermented dairy products that nomadic herders developed for long seasons on the road. Families take soured milk—which can come from a cow, sheep, goat, camel, or mare—and transform it into a long-lasting snack by straining the liquid into soft curds, shaping those into small balls or disks, and leaving them in the sun to harden.
Nomads have long looked to these salty, little calcium bombs to sate both hunger and thirst on the steppes and in the desert. They are as versatile as they are portable. Cooks can crumble kurt into soups, stews, and salads, or dissolve a piece into water or kumis. They also make savory bar snacks, to be enjoyed alongside a beer or dunked right into the brew itself.
Kurt is best savored in small doses. First-timers will want to start with a tiny nibble, as the intense salty flavor can be a shock for those not used to it. (Some Kazakhs joke that kurt gets its saltiness from being rubbed under a person’s armpits!)
Need to Know
You can find it sold at bazaars across Central Asia. Hardened kurt remains edible for years, so it makes a fun travel souvenir. Just be sure to keep your kurt in a canvas or paper bag, not a plastic one. Similar sun-dried dairy snacks can be also found in parts of Russia, Turkey, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.