Monday, May 28, 2007

Yakety yak.



When you think of Peru, you think of llamas, Australia....the kangaroo, Egypt....the camel. So what comes to mind when you think of Tibet? Only one four legged creature is unique to this part of the world -- the yak!

So....exactly what is a yak? My friend Bob and I debated. Pig-like. Cow-like. Buffalo-like. Ox-like. Those were our guesses. So we turned to Google and here are some quick facts about yaks.

The yak (Bos grunniens) is a long-haired humped domestic bovine found in Tibet and throughout the Himalayan region of south central Asia, as well as in Mongolia.

Wild yaks are considered to be an endangered species. Domesticated yaks have existed in Tibet as far back as the first millennium, B.C. Today, domesticated yaks are kept primarily for their milk, fiber, and meat. They are also used as beasts of burden (with the ability to climb as high as 20,000 feet in altitude), transporting goods across mountain passes for local farmers and traders as well as in support of climbing and trekking expeditions.

And for the trivia lovers out there. Yaks make a unique grunting sound more like a pig than a cow earning them the nickname "Grunting Ox". Oh....and when they run, they throw their long tails up over their backs like flags.

So after we got the facts, I, the foodie wanted to know how yak is prepared especially after I read this entry in my Lonely Planet guide book on Tibet - under a section on Food & Drink titled, "Staples and Specialities".

"Also popular among nomads is dried yak (yaksha) or lamb meat. It is normally cut into strips and left to dry on tent lines and is pretty chewy stuff. Sometimes you will see bowls of little white lumps drying in the sun that even the flies leave alone - it is dried yak cheese and it's eaten as a sweet. For the first half-hour it is like having a small rock in your mouth, but eventually it starts to soften up and taste like old, dried yak cheese."

Not sounding appetizing....even for someone like me who eats pretty much everything!

Then a couple of pages later, there was a description of Yak-butter tea - the "classic" drink, if you will, of Tibet.

"Bö cha, literally Tibetan tea, is unlikely to be a highlight of your trip to Tibet. Made from yak butter mixed with salk, milk, soda, tea leaves and hot water all churned up in a wooden tube, the soupy mixture has more the consistency of bouillon than of tea (one traveller described it as 'a cross between brewed old socks and sump oil!'). When mixed with tsampa (roasted barley flour) and yak butter it becomes the staple meal of most Tibetans and you may well be offered it at monasteries, people's houses and even while waiting for the bus by the side of the road."

I don't know, I might actually lose weight on this trip - I'm seeing some dried soup mix and mints being backed into my pack!

A few days later, I went back to Google in search of yak recipes. There's got to be more to yak than crusty old cheese and butter. What about the meat? One site said it tasted like beef but leaner and softer in texture. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a good yak steak!

Then this posting from Chowhound came up. I got such a chuckle reading this, obviously, serious posting. Someone was really in yak pickle and needed advice. Forget what the answer is, I still have questions.

a. Who buys yak?
b. Who buys yak and has no idea what to do with it?
c. Where do you buy yak? I don't think they even sell it at Trader Joe's.
c. Yak for tacos. Why? Is beef not tasty enough?


Okay, the real question is will I try yak when I get to Tibet? The answer is "Yes"! I may never eat it again but I can't go all the way to Tibet and not at least try it. Wish me luck.