Despite having revolutionized medicine and healthcare, men don’t always take care of themselves all that well. We tend to rely on our natural constitution to pull us through hard work and debauchery alike. Nevertheless, a few precautions and good habits can help out a lot. So, I thought I’d share a little recent victory along those lines.
Fifteen years ago, while on a trip with my stepdad who was visiting me in China, where I lived at the time, we stopped in a pleasant little provincial town called Yinchuan. Its nice, tidy streets and quiet modesty were a refreshing change from the stinking, hectic and crowded streets of Beijing, as was the clear blue sky above, devoid of the whitish cloud of smoke that typically hangs over Beijing. As Yinchuan is in the Gobi Desert, it reminded me of a southwestern US town, a likeness that was reinforced by the presence of dusty Mongol cowboys stopping by the local saloon. One I remember particularly well was sporting a glorious mustache, a white silk shirt and shiny black riding boots. He had a swagger and panache that drew the attention of the local ladies.
As the capital of Ningxia, Yinchuan is an old Silk Road town that in former days was largely populated by Hui, who are ethnic Han people who converted to Islam over the years. It is also the ancient capital of the Western Xia kingdom, which developed a flowering civilization that held its own for centuries despite being sandwiched between the Mongols, Tibetans and Han Chinese. It is a very culturally diverse region, featuring Mongols, Turks, Chinese, Tibetans and even a few scattered Indo-Aryans of Persianate extraction. Although it is largely unknown in the West, cultural exchange along the silk road introduced a great deal of Persian influence in China proper, which can be seen even today in Chinese music, dress, religion and art.
As it was a hot day, I went to buy some refreshments at a nearby store, and noticed an interesting drink called “suan nai” in Mandarin, which translates to sour milk. I thought it might be a customary local drink, so I bought a bottle. It was primitively packaged, covered only with wax paper held on by a rubber band. The girl at the store provided me with a straw, which I was to punch through the paper so as to drink the chilled concoction.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised by the tart drink. True to its name, it was tangy and slightly sweetened, and turned out to be very refreshing. I didn’t know what it was called in English, so I simply assumed it was some form of thin yogurt, but it was much tastier than what I was accustomed to back home.
After I finally returned home, I looked in vain for a comparable product, but couldn’t find anything except the same old plain, thick yogurt that I never cared for much. Eventually, I gave up and forgot about it.
Years later, on my recent trip to the Baltic, I had the opportunity to sample a popular local drink known as “kefir.” Upon tasting it, I immediately remembered that sour milk I bought in Yinchuan. It was the same thing! What good fortune, I thought, to find the drink I’d given up on years ago, and so far from the Gobi Desert where I first became acquainted with it.
After coming back to Seattle once again, I was determined this time to find how to get the drink in the US. I found some in a local health food store, but it cost four times as much as milk and was of inferior quality. After diligently searching online, I discovered that all one needs to do to make kefir is obtain something called “kefir grains,” which can be ordered online. Soon enough I found some from a Polish-American woman who runs a goat farm and sells them online, and promptly placed an order.
Although it took me a week or so to get the ratio of milk to kefir grains and the fermentation time right, I figured it out in due course, and now I have a glass of the stuff every day. Not only is it enjoyable and cheap, but it’s had some pleasant health benefits as well.
Kefir grains are a gum-like substance that symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast exude, forming a matrix that protects and nourishes them. These microflora thrive in the presence of milk sugars, and within about 24 hours at room temperature they process milk, leaving it with a significantly higher vitamin and lower sugar content, along with a slight fizz and small amount of alcohol. In explaining to my children what it was, I called it “milk beer,” and that’s essentially what it comes down to.
Along with the vitamins come a number of other benefits. The bacteria, which are harmless to humans, compete with harmful microorganisms and aid in the digestive process. They boost immune function, reduce diabetes risk, and, as I’ve found, all but eliminate indigestion. For me, that’s been the most noticeable benefit. According to Baltic people, it’s also an effective hangover palliative. Ancient old men in the Caucasus – long known as a region with exceptional longevity – credit their long lives to daily doses of kefir.
However, there’s more to it than the mere health benefits. There is something rewarding about making one’s own food. In this day of the factory farm, processed foods and biological desert of pasteurized products, it’s encouraging to know that we can live and thrive without exterminating all the little critters who add to the raw ingredients. I have come to think of my little colony of kefir grains as a pet that I feed and who feeds me.
As a man in a profoundly strange, unnatural society, I find that engaging with nature even in such small, innocuous ways can go a long way to prevent the feeling of alienation from taking hold. And it seems that my body feels the same way.
And that is why I chose to share my little kefir story with the rest of you.