The global history of kefir begins with Irina Sakharova, a 20-year-old Russian peasant woman who had already made a name for herself as a talented butter maker, having received a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. But her next assignment was unusual and full of adventure: she set off to the Caucasus on a mission to acquire kefir grains, a secret that the local residents guarded as a sacred treasure.
Irina arrived in Kislovodsk (USSR), where she was met by the Karachay prince Bek-Murza Baichorov. Instead of the expected simple exchange, Irina found herself at the center of unwanted attention and romantic courtship from the prince. However, impressed by her perseverance and dedication to the cause, he eventually gifted her the coveted kefir grains. This gesture not only opened the doors for mass production of kefir in Russia but also marked the beginning of a new era in the history of this unique product. Irina’s return to Moscow with the kefir grains laid the foundation for the widespread distribution of kefir, which soon became a favorite drink in many corners of the world.
According to legend, kefir grains were gifted to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah to help him maintain his health and strength. The Prophet, in turn, passed them on to the mountain tribes of the North Caucasus, teaching them the art of making kefir. These tribes kept the secret of kefir in the strictest confidence for a long time, considering it a source of health and longevity.
Some may be surprised to learn about “kefir grains,” as it sounds unusual. In fact, kefir grains are unique symbiotic cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria that look like small white or yellowish grains. They have nothing in common with coffee beans or other plant seeds. It is thanks to these grains that the fermentation process occurs, turning ordinary milk into kefir, enriching it with probiotics and beneficial microorganisms.
In traditional cultures of the Caucasus, kefir was not just considered a nutritious product; it played an important role in religious and medicinal practices. Its consumption was associated with physical health and spiritual purity. Kefir was used in various ceremonies and rituals, as well as a medicinal remedy for treating various ailments.
In different cultures, kefir took on various forms and names, but its fundamental properties and significance remained unchanged. In some countries, it became a symbol of a healthy lifestyle and longevity. For instance, in Bulgaria, where kefir is also very popular, it is often linked to the high life expectancy of the local population.
Thus, kefir is not only an important part of the diet in many cultures but also carries a deep cultural and historical context, reflecting its role in traditional societies and religious practices.
The process of making kefir is unique and differs from the creation of other dairy products. The basis for its preparation are kefir grains, which are a symbiosis of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts. These grains, resembling small white or yellowish lumps, are a living organism and a key component in the fermentation process.
In the first stage, kefir grains are placed in milk. Over approximately 24 hours at room temperature, the grains begin to actively work, converting milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, alcohol (in small amounts), and carbon dioxide. This process leads to the thickening of the milk and the formation of kefir’s characteristic taste and texture. After fermentation is complete, the grains are separated from the finished kefir and can be reused.
Nutritional Value and Composition of Kefir
Thanks to its unique composition and fermentation process, kefir is one of the most nutritious and beneficial dairy products.
Key nutrients in kefir
- Proteins: Kefir contains about 3-6 grams of protein per 100 grams of the product. These proteins are easily absorbed by the body and contain all the essential amino acids.
- Fats: The fat content of kefir varies depending on the milk used. In non-fat kefir, the fat content is less than 1 gram per 100 grams, in medium-fat kefir – from 1 to 2.5 grams, and in full-fat – 3.5 grams and above.
- Carbohydrates: Kefir contains from 4 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams of the product, most of which is lactose.
Kefir is rich in calcium, phosphorus, as well as B vitamins and vitamin D, making it an important product for maintaining bone health, the nervous system, and overall metabolism.
Kefir, while unique, has several counterparts among dairy products that are also popular in different cultures.
- Dairy products similar to kefir
- Yogurt: One of the closest alternatives to kefir. Yogurt is produced by fermenting milk with specific types of bacteria. It has a smoother texture and contains less alcohol compared to kefir.
- Ayran: A traditional Turkish drink made from yogurt and water. It is more liquid and less sour than kefir.
- Bifidokefir: Contains additional strains of bifidobacteria. Has similar probiotic properties to kefir.
Ayran not only quenches thirst and refreshes on a hot day but also harbors the secrets of longevity shared by generations of residents of the Caucasus and Central Asia. There is a belief that regular consumption of ayran contributes to health strengthening and life extension, thanks to its rich composition: probiotics in ayran support intestinal health, while minerals and vitamins strengthen the immune system.
In one of the villages lost among the mountain peaks of the Caucasus, local residents tell the story of a centenarian elder who started each day with a bowl of ayran. He claimed that this simple drink was the key to his health, energy, and longevity. The elder shared the secret with every traveler, asserting that ayran is not just a drink, but an elixir of life that helps maintain mental clarity and bodily lightness even in old age.
- Kefir and yogurt both contain probiotics, but kefir usually has a greater variety of bacteria and yeasts.
- Unlike kefir, ayran has a lower calorie and fat content since it is diluted with water.
- Bifidokefir may be more beneficial for intestinal health due to the presence of additional probiotic cultures.
Kefir Around the World
Kefir is popular in many countries worldwide, but each culture has its unique variations of this product.
- Popularity of kefir in different countries Eastern Europe and Russia: In these regions, kefir is deeply ingrained in the daily diet and cultural practices. It is not uncommon to find kefir consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, appreciated for its digestive benefits and refreshing taste. Russian and Eastern European kefir tends to be thicker and more sour than versions found in other parts of the world, reflecting traditional preparation methods that have been passed down through generations. Supermarkets and local markets alike offer a wide variety of kefir, from plain to flavored, catering to all age groups. North America and Western Europe: The rise of kefir in these regions can be attributed to the growing trend towards gut health and probiotic foods. As consumers become more health-conscious, kefir is celebrated for its ability to improve digestion, boost immunity, and even potentially reduce anxiety and improve bone health. In these markets, kefir is often marketed as a more potent probiotic alternative to yogurt, appealing to those looking for functional foods that offer health benefits beyond basic nutrition. The variety of kefir available is expanding, with flavors ranging from classic to innovative, such as coconut, berry, and even caffeine-infused, making it a versatile option for health-focused consumers.
- National variations of kefir and similar products
- Kumis: A traditional drink of the Central Asian nomads, made from mare’s milk. It differs from kefir with a higher alcohol content and a unique taste.
- Lassi: A popular drink in India based on yogurt, often served with spices or fruits.
- Kefir in Scandinavia: In some Scandinavian countries, variations of kefir are produced with the addition of various flavorings.
One of the most vivid examples of kumis mentioned in literature can be found in the works of Leo Tolstoy. In his “The Cossacks,” kumis is mentioned as a drink that unites the heroes, symbolizing their attachment to traditions and ancestral land. Tolstoy admiringly describes how the main characters enjoy the taste of kumis under the open sky, emphasizing its role in creating a unique atmosphere of friendship and unity with nature.
- 1 cup plain yogurt (full fat for richer taste)
- 2 cups cold water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
- Fresh mint leaves (optional, for garnish)
- Combine Ingredients: In a large mixing bowl, add 1 cup of plain yogurt. To the yogurt, add 2 cups of cold water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. The salt is to taste, so you may adjust it according to your preference.
- Mix: Use a whisk or a blender to mix the ingredients thoroughly. If you’re using a whisk, beat the mixture until it becomes smooth and the yogurt is fully dissolved into the water. For a frothier texture, blending for a few seconds in a blender is recommended.
- Taste and Adjust: Taste the ayran and adjust the salt if necessary. If the mixture is too thick for your liking, you can add a bit more water to achieve your desired consistency.
- Chill: Although optional, chilling the ayran in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before serving can enhance its refreshing quality.
- Serve: Pour the ayran into glasses. If desired, garnish with fresh mint leaves for an extra burst of freshness.
- Enjoy: Enjoy this refreshing drink as a cooling accompaniment to meals or as a wholesome refreshment at any time of the day.
Remember, the key to a good ayran is the balance between the tanginess of the yogurt and the saltiness. Adjusting these to your taste will make the perfect ayran for you. Enjoy your homemade ayran!
Some YouTube videos discuss the benefits of kefir for longevity and health:
- The Truth About Kefir Finally Explained – this video explores the benefits of yogurt and kefir, highlighting their roles as gut cleaners rich in proteins and nutrients. It suggests that kefir, in particular, may have additional health benefits.
MIRACLE HEALING OF MILK KEFIR…GREATEST PROBIOTICS FOR THE GUT – this video discusses kefir’s impact on health and longevity. It mentions how kefir can help eliminate unhealthy food cravings by making the body more nourished and balanced.
Podcast Episode 171: 7 Ways To Use Your Extra Kefir Grains – in this video the speaker shares personal experiences with the health benefits received from kefir and offers great information on utilizing extra kefir grains.
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