Pong beer. It’s a simple game of throwing ping pong balls into cups – a drinking game that involves beer and, hopefully, food. But what if snacks could in a post-game game is being balls? Mind blown, right?
Meet the Uzbek kurt, small balls of salty, tangy cheese. The cheese itself is not special – it is traditionally made from cow’s milk. But the balls are another story. It is so intense that you may not even penetrate it when bitten by it. And the balls are made to last for years (yes, years), and at high temperatures.
The beer pairs well with the cort, and cuts its salty taste, but the snack wasn’t created as bar food. Its story began 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. How to make a kurt will not spoil. It was a staple for nomads, herders, and Silk Road caravans, providing long-lasting, healthy, high-calorie food for long journeys. How long? Kurt can stay fresh for seven to eight years. It is also very versatile. Popping a few balls in soup, for example, gives the base a velvety, milky texture.
There are no secret ingredients – “only milk and salt,” says Kholida Oba, who has sold the kurt for more than 20 years in Chorsu, the oldest market in Tashkent. Leave the milk at room temperature until it is chopped (sour or curdled). Over the course of two days, the clabber is filtered to separate the whey. Salt is added to the crusher, then rolled between wet palms into small balls. Leave the balls 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 kourt, says Khulida: The more salt you add, the saltier it will be, and the longer it dries, the harder it will be (and the harder the cheese, the longer it will last—but it will also be harder to bite into). It also helps to start with fresh milk and carefully filter the dogs.
Those unfamiliar with Kurt may be skeptical due to his unusual appearance. But once you taste it, you may find yourself addicted. The good news: It’s relatively cheap to buy (2 pounds costs about $5) and is usually available in any market in Uzbekistan. Only look for older Uzbek women selling kurtas from the stalls. You can order it plain, with pepper or basil, or smoked. For kids, it’s a pocket-sized snack that can be had on the go, while adults like to enjoy kurt with beer (note: Uzbeks don’t play pong pong with it). You can also add the Kurt to a glass of soda for a cold creamy drink or have it with salads.
And whether you eat them or play with them (or both), it’s hard not to see the fun side of these versatile cheese balls. For example, there is an urban legend about how kurts are made: that some kurt-makers roll balls in their… um… their armpits. (However, there is no evidence to support this.) And Kurt’s potentially extraterrestrial origin is explored in the YouTube video below.