You may have heard yak talk before. In the low-cholesterol rage of the ’80s and ’90s, yaks dotted exotic game ranches west of the Mississippi and appeared alongside bison on “heart-healthy” burger menus. The yak’s big breakout moment happened at Denver’s National Western Stock Show in the late ’90s, when its reputation as an easy, more docile alternative to bison spread like prairie brush fire—then was promptly extinguished. Now, business is booming again.
"There’s definitely been a growth spurt in the past five years and a dispersion geographically,” Jim Watson, president of the International Yak Association, said in an interview with Modern Farmer, noting that yaks now roam outside the Western states in places such as New York, Vermont, and Texas. Anshu Pathak, owner of the California-based Exotic Meat Market, has also noticed an uptick. “Since last year, [yak meat sales have] gone up 30 percent,” he told Yahoo Food. "Interest in exotic meats has always been there, but now people are becoming more conscious of it."
The shaggy-haired bovine, which has been lumbering around for 5,000 years, has for centuries played an integral role in the diet of the Himalayan region, where survival on the high, cold plateau depends on the yak’s fat and protein. The animal’s long, cashmere-like hair is used for wool, its back for transport, and the milk or butter of a dri, a female yak, in the traditional savory tea po cha. In an area where Buddhism flourishes, a practical cultural reason partly accounts for the foothold of the yak as a food source. “The karmic load of killing one rabbit and one yak are the same: one life,” Ganden Thurman, executive director of New York’s Tibet House, told The New York Times. “But you can feed a lot more people with a yak.”
Consciousness might be the reason the yak trend sticks this time. Yaks are efficient eaters that require less food than either cattle or bison, and they are largely grass-fed (though some farmers finish their yaks on grain). ''They only eat about a third of what a cow eats and can forage for food without damaging the environment,'' Tom Worrell, owner of New Mexico’s Latir Ranch, told The New York Times’ Melissa Clark in 2003. At that time, yak farmers were betting on the animal overtaking bison, but that’s still far from a reality: Today the National Bison Association estimates the U.S. herd at 220,000, compared with the 7,500 yaks raised in North America. Still, our food landscape has changed radically, with issues of environmental food politics and sustainability playing a much more vital role in the way we shop and eat. Consumers are likely more willing to pay $10 for a pound of ground yak for weeknight five-alarm chili than they were more than a decade ago.
But most of us don’t eat for ethics or health alone. How does it taste? Fans of the yak’s red meat call its flavor delicate, sweet, and juicy. Like bison, they say, but better. Yak has twice the protein and half the fat of skinless chicken breast; its meat is lean but rich.
In Tibetan restaurants, look for yak fillings in the plump, half-moon-shaped dumplings called momo. Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine in Los Angeles serves a yak chili with fresh ginger, garlic, and onion. You can still find the yak between a bun on menus with robust offerings of alternative burgers, such as New York’s Barking Dog Cafe. Perhaps most telling of all is the buzz on social media, where self-proclaimed “culinary adventurers” praise dishes such as yak meat curry and rice-and-potato porridge with spring onions and yak. If yak is now #foodporn, then it’s back in a big way—and it might stick around this time.
Look for yak at specialty butcher stores and food co-ops, or order it online through sources such as DelYaks, Grunniens Yak Ranch, and Turkey Hill Yaks.