I love yaks. I have many times admired their hulking, hairy majesty on the plains and hills of Western China, Tibet, and Nepal. Yaks are survivors – free-range animals manage to survive on some of the poorest pasture the world has to offer. Yaks are beautiful – from their natural flowing-haired glory of the wild to their domesticated cousins adorned by their humans with colorful blankets, saddles, or bells and ribbons on their tails or horns. Yaks command respect – you try staring down a line of cars on the Karakorum highway and see if they simply wait until you decide to move off the road. Not counting the successful modern Russian effort to domesticate foxes (as companion animals), yaks are also the last mammal to be domesticated by humans. This was accomplished about 4500 years ago by the Qiang on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Brave people, those Qiang.
Yaks were ‘discovered’ in a big way by westerners in the late 18th Century when British Captain, Samuel Turner admired them in Bhutan and sent a pair back to his cousin Warren Hastings in England. One of the bulls died, but the other survived to sire several calves with Hasting’s cows and was dubbed, The Yak of Tartary before he was painted by George Stubbs in 1791. Almost 100 years later, the first yak arrived in North America for exhibition at New York’s Central Park Zoo, and by the turn of the twentieth Century, the National Zoo in Washington DC had several healthy yak on display. In the next couple of decades, yaks moved from the curiosity and educational circuit to the agricultural chain and small herds were established in the American and Canadian west. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s farmers and researchers experimented with yak breeding and meat quality, until several thriving ranches in the US and Canada now sell yak meat to consumers who enjoy their sweet, flavorful meat.
In Asia, I have enjoyed yak meat in stir fries, stews, curries and kebabs and found it a delicious, lean and sweet meat. Depending on the cut and the age of the meat, yak can be tough and tenderizing or marinating is a must. One of my favorite recipes is a stew I had again last year in Tashkorgan in which Yak meat is paired with bell peppers, onions, lots of garlic and chilies, and cooked in a ginger and star-anise rich sauce. Served on a bed of rice, the dish is pretty because of the strips of multicolor peppers, savory, a bit hot, and delicately sweet all at the same time.
In contrast to the sweetness of the yak meat, yak dairy lends a sour blast to beverages and dishes that produces a delicious pucker. Yak butter or cream in tea is a survival standard throughout the Himalayas and Pamirs, and the cheese, sometimes made as a wind-blown-in bleu, lends a unique tanginess to meat, vegetable and even fruit dishes throughout the region. I have a mind-blowingly delicious recipe from Bhutan combining tomatillos or tamarillos (or any ‘tree tomato”) with yak cheese for a salad with a real zing – but I digress.
My favorite way to enjoy yak on the fly is with yak jerky. Available fresh at markets and bazaars and processed and packaged every Chinese airport shop I’ve ever been in, yak jerky comes in three general varieties, sweet, sweet and hot with lots of chilies, and sweet and tangy with Szechuan pepper. There are a lot of variations in between, usually found in markets, but these three are the ones I’ve encountered most frequently.
The beautiful, multilingual packaging has a handle for easy portability, a description of the contents, and a picture of a few Yaks in the pasture. Inside, there are smaller, identical packages filled with the most delicious sweet and hot jerky you’ve ever had. I know there are lots of jerky afficianados out there, so I am aware of the gravity of my pronouncement that this yak jerky is the best, but I stand by it.
I have spent countless hours trying to reconstruct the recipe for both sweet, and sweet and hot yak jerky and think I finally have gotten it right. I hope you think so too.
Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky
1, 2-3 lb top or bottom round roast
4 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
2 cups shaoxing wine
1 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 yellow (not sweet) onions, peeled and minced
6 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
¼ cup jaggery or cane sugar
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, roughly ground
1 tablespoon roasted peanuts, crushed
10 finger-hot chilies, crushed
Peel and juice of 1 orange, (dice peel)
Slice the meat crosswise in 1/8 – 1/4 inch slices. An excellent way to do this is to partially freeze the roast to make it firm and easy to cut. Trim the fat from the slices and pound lightly with the handle of the knife to thin out the meat. When slices are mildly translucent, slice again into strips for jerky and set aside.
In a non-reactive vessel, such as a plastic, glass, or ceramic bowl large enough to hold both marinade and meat, combine marinade ingredients. Place meat into marinade and make sure it is completely submerged. Cover bowl and let sit for at least 24 -48 hours in a cool or cold spot (not freezing). Check on the marinade and stir occasionally to make sure that the meat is evenly coated.
When meat is finished marinating, remove from the marinade and arrange on baking racks set into baking sheets with some space between the slices. If using a conventional oven to dehydrate the meat, line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil and preheat to 150 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you run out of baking sheets, the meat strips can be placed directly on the racks in the oven.
Place cookie sheets with meat strips in the oven and keep the oven door ajar with a wooden spoon or crushed can and cook for 2 hours. Flip strips and cook for another 2-3 hours or until done. The amount of cooking that it takes to dehydrate the meat will depend on the thickness of the slices, the amount of time marinated and the the innate moistness of the meat. To determine whether the jerky is done, take a piece or two out and let cool for 5-10 minutes then test the pliancy of the jerky. It should bend without snapping and not appear too red or raw on the inside. When the jerky is done, remove from oven and let cool – then enjoy! Store in a paper bag. Keeps for several months.
Yak is available online from a variety of ranches which will send the meat FedEx like Hoopers. There are other ranches that sell to farmer’s markets, but will do special orders for yak-by-mail like Grunniens. In case you can’t get yak to try the recipe, it works well with boar, beef or horse as well. (But the sweetness and unique flavor of yak is worth the trouble.) If you already own a dehydrater or a convection oven, please by all means use it to dry the meat. You’ll have to adapt the drying times accordingly. The marinade can also be used to flavor meat for stir fries and other dishes with delicious results!
I hope you enjoy trying yak meat, and think on their wonderful attributes while dining. Yaks are Kings of the Karakorum, Lords of Ladakh, and in Latin they are Bos mutus (wild yaks) or Bos grunniens (domesticated yaks). However you choose to name them, I just call them, “Boss”.
(Words and recipe reconstruction by Laura Kelley. Photo of Wild Tibetan yak by Kptan@Dreamstime; Photo of the Yak of Tartary by Stubbs from Google Images; Photo of Tibetan Drinking Yak Butter Tea by Rai-Mai@Flickr; Photo of Yak Jerky Package by Laura Kelley; Photo of Yak Jerky from Google images.)