UZBEKISTAN: Qurt and shur-donak

I ordered in two very distinctive snacks from Privet Store on Ebay, a Russian-based supplier who sells snacks from Uzbekistan, as well as other former Soviet countries. Very fast shipping, and given the contents, I’m actually surprised it wasn’t held up by Canadian customs.

Qurt (also known as Kashk) is a salted and fermented cheese that’s rolled into balls and dried. It has a super long shelf life – it can be stored for years. It has a long history as a portable food for nomadic people, warriors, and travellers across Central Asia.

The cheese balls are pungent, like limburger cheese or stinky tofu. The texture is like chalk, it’s salty with blue cheese notes and a kind of barnyard flavour – the taste grows on you. If you like strong cheese, this is for you. Qurt can be eaten straight or it can be crumbled into dishes for texture and flavour. (I wonder how adding a bit to mac and cheese would go?)

Qurt (left) and shur-donak

Shur-donak is probably the wildest thing I’ve tried so far with this site. It’s apricot kernels, salted and roasted in ashes. That all sounds pretty nice, except that apricot kernels have a chemical that converts to cyanide when eaten. Yes. Cyanide.

Now, your body can process a small amount of cyanide, so eating one or two apricot kernels will not kill you, but the general suggested adult daily limit for apricot kernels is very low – both the EU and Health Canada don’t recommend eating more than 3. Around 50 kernels is has reportedly caused fatalities, with serious effects from fewer than that, and there is no safe amount for children. Perversely, the cyanide compound in apricot kernels has been marketed as “Vitamin B17” at health food stores, though here in Canada, that marketing is illegal and there are limits to concentrations for apricot kernels sold in stores here.

That being said, shur-donak has been eaten for centuries in Uzbekistan without people keeling over in the streets – so I’m going to have just one kernel. If I stop posting, you’ll know what happened.

The outer hull is a bit hard to crack, but the inside kernel is nicely salty, with the texture of an almond and a smokey roasted flavour. The white coating of ash gets everywhere. It was actually really delicious – I wonder if there’s a way to replicate this snack without the risk of, you know, cyanide poisoning.

Addendum: I’m still alive, and further research, including asking r/uzbekistan, seems to imply shur-donak is largely eaten with impunity – or at least in moderation. There are mentions that soaking then cooking can lower the danger in apricot kernels (shur-donak is soaked in brine then roasted), and that some varieties of apricot are naturally low in the cyanide compounds, but I’m going to go slow on these just in case.

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