The Big Softies

By Rob Packer

I’m not normally one to pass up the chance to try something new, especially something related to food and drink. If I didn’t do this, I’d have never learnt to love the durian and wouldn’t have the occasional craving for congee with thousand-year eggs. And every time I go to my local supermarket in Kyrgyzstan, I’m impressed by the number of fridges full of drinks I’ve never seen before. So today, I decided to go on an adventure and see what I could find. The results were not pretty.

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The contents of your supermarket drink cabinet: bozo, tan, bio-kvas, dyushes and kvas

First up, Bozo. Rather than meaning a bozo, this is a wheat-based fermented drink and a bottle of it has been sitting in my fridge taunting me for a couple of weeks now. When I’m looking through the fridge, this bottle of chocolaty swamp water leers at me and I pick it up every now and again wondering just how thick the sediment at the bottom is. One of the first things I did was to shake the bottle to loosen the sediment: this is not what you do with bozo. It’s fermented and will spray the walls of your kitchen. The smell was sour, salty and doughy and the taste was a mixture of slightly sour milk and rye bread. This one was a maybe.

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Bozo, rich in carbohydrates and vitamins

Shakedown

Never, ever do this with a bottle of bozo!

Bozo in the glass

Bozo in the glass. All bubbly.

The next drink is something I don’t know the name of and can barely describe. The label says it’s called Tan, the Russian description is of a “refreshing soft drink” and the ingredients say it’s been fermented. The closest thing I could find on Wikipedia was a Middle-Eastern drink called tahn, which forwarded me to ayran. I know ayran from regular trips to my local Turkish restaurants when I lived in Dalston, London; this is not ayran. I opened the bottle and found the smell was a mixture of yoghurt, kefir and Parmesan. It’s probably one of the strongest tasting things I’ve ever drunk: very sour, very salty, very chalky with a very watery consistency. It was a liquid version of the dried yoghurt cubes that people here eat while drinking. And it was not good. And after the tan, I now realise it was difficult to taste other things.

Tan

Tan, oh dear!

A glass of tan

This is not milk

My third drink is sometimes called limonad in Russian, but I’m going to call it by its brand name, Dyushes. It is not like lemonade. I’d first seen this being carried round by groups of teenagers in Bishkek swigging out of the bottle. When you first have a look at a bottle of this, it looks like iced tea, and it has pictures of pears on the label. In terms of taste, it doesn’t have much in common with either, and has the very sweet and slightly sharp taste of Irn-Bru.

Dyushes

Dyushes, definitely not lemonade

Dyushes in a glass

Sticky and sweet

You can start to see a pattern when yet another fermented drink (from bread this time) Bio-Kvas is up next, and smells of a wooden cupboard that’s been locked for a long time. I always think of bio-kvas and real kvas‘ poorer cousins, but this one was mixed with honey and wasn’t as bad as other bio-kvas that I’ve had. The honey took away from its almost overpowering breadiness and made it actually kind of drinkable.

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Bio-Kvas. The bio part is very important: it means it won't be as good as Kvas.

Bio-Kvas in a glass

A glass of bio-kvas

Best of the bunch was standard, commercial kvas. It has some of the breadiness of bio-kvas mixed with what to me tastes like Doctor Pepper. It’s probably full of sugar and bad for you, but it’s what I’ve been brought up to expect from soft drinks. I like salty lassis or sour lemon drinks, but I’m quickly finding out that I don’t like overpowering salty and overpowering milky sour at the same time.

The winner

My winner for the evening: Russian kvas

Glass of kvas

For all its greatness, this is not the best kind of kvas. That's called monastyrsky kvas and I've only been able to find it sold from barrels on the street.

My curiosity is more than satisfied. I’m glad I tried them, and I’ll be going back to kvas, but probably not to the others quite so quickly. And I can politely decline tan next time if it’s ever offered.

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