What Is Chal?

Megan Shoop

Chal is a traditional beverage from Kazakhstan and Turkey made from fermented camels’ milk. Native Kazakhs believe it to be highly nutritious and even medicinal. Though somewhat perishable, chal remains unspoiled longer in the desert heat than fresh milk, making it a staple for traveling herders. Taste descriptions range from sour to cooling and clean.

Chal, a traditional drink from Kazakhstan a Turkey, is made of fermented camel milk.
Chal, a traditional drink from Kazakhstan a Turkey, is made of fermented camel milk.

Sometimes also called shubat, chal is an important source of calcium and probiotic nutrients. Kazakhs and Turks prefer camels’ milk to cows’ milk because camels’ milk is thicker and richer. It contains a very high concentration of fats and amino acids, as well as a variety of A, B, and C vitamins. The calcium content in camels’ milk is also very high, making it an almost perfectly balanced food source.

Chal is a staple for traveling herders.
Chal is a staple for traveling herders.

Hospitality to strangers is a requirement in Kazakh and Turkish culture, with every visitor receiving a cup of tea or a small meal. Hosts sometimes add a little chal to tea for flavor, though it is more often drunk without tea. Natives believe it to be beneficial to digestion, which isn’t a far stretch. Fermented camels’ milk contains bacteria specific to fermented milk products that help break down food as it passes through one's system. Yogurt and kefir milk, which also developed in the Middle East, contain similar bacteria.

Those wishing to make chal at home may face a challenge. Camels' milk is rare as a commercial item and highly perishable. Home cooks that manage to obtain fresh camels’ milk can make their own chal relatively simply. The first step is bringing the milk to a gentle boil, then letting it cool to about 98°F (about 37°C). Heating the milk kills unsafe bacteria and later allows probiotic bacteria to thrive.

When the milk has cooled to the proper temperature, a little previously fermented milk is added. The soured milk contains bacteria that will multiply in the fresh milk, causing it to curdle within 24 to 48 hours. After this point, the milk can be referred to as chal and it will not spoil or become infected with harmful bacteria. In the absence of true chal, home cooks might use a little kefir or even a small dollop of Greek yogurt as a starter, but native Turks and Kazakhs always use chal.

Flavor descriptions regarding this fermented beverage vary greatly. Some describe it as sour, like unsweetened yogurt. Others find it clean-tasting and very cooling to the body, which would be another reason for Middle Easterners to value it. Those unused to the flavor may find it to be an acquired taste.

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