Kefir has been consumed in the Caucasus Mountains for thousands of years, according to archeological evidence, and was considered a gift from God (Allah) by the Muslim people who lived there. It is said that the Prophet Mohammed personally blessed the kefir “grains,” but warned that if the grains or recipe were given away the beverage would lose its power. Families passed down their prized kefir grains (the microbial bodies that ferment the milk into kefir) to their children.
The kefir grains, which were considered a source of wealth, were carefully guarded and renowned in the ancient world for their health benefits. Some scholars believe that kefir grains were in fact the “manna” described in the Bible as being provided by God to feed the Israelites as they wandered the desert for forty years before Moses led them to the Promised Land. They also think that kefir is what that angels taught Abraham to make, which he credited for his long life and many children. Its name, kefir, may have come from the Turkish word “keyif” that means “good feeling” and got its name because traditionally, drinking kefir was associated with general well-being.
In the early 1900’s, the All-Russian Physicians’ Society who heard about this amazing elixer tried to obtain some kefir grains from a Caucasian prince, Bek-Mirza Barchorov. They sent over a beautiful female employee, Irina Sakharova, to beguile him to share. While her efforts were unsuccessful in getting him to give her the grains, he did propose marriage to her and kidnapped her when she tried to leave. She was eventually rescued and later threatened Prince Bek-Mirza with legal action. After refusing his offer of jewels in reparation, and to avoid further prosecution, he gave her kefir grains that were brought back to Russia. There, the probiotic kefir that was produced became widely used to treat tuberculosis (before the availability of antibiotics), digestive disorders, atherosclerosis and even cancer, with apparent success. Kefir became an extremely popular drink in Russia, and later throughout Europe, because of the excitement over its purported health benefits.
Though it is believed that kefir originated in the Caucasus Mountains, similar lactic acid fermented milk beverages are also cultivated elsewhere in the world. People in Tibet make a beverage known as “Tibetan Yogurt Mushroom” or “tara” that has very similar qualities to kefir. Other traditional fermented milk beverages are made in Taiwan, northern Europe, central Asia and Africa.