Yak are an important source of meat for the herdsmen and their families, but the meat is also sold. Even in areas and countries where religious taboos inhibit the slaughter of the animals, the meat is eaten, but professional butchers, rather than the owners of the animals, do the slaughtering. In Nepal, for example, as Joshi (1982) explained, for the situation in Nepal, ordinary cattle are protected by law, but the legal code is unclear in relation to yak.
Larrick and Burck (1986) made a similar point when writing about specific places in Tibet. Animals that die accidentally are quite commonly eaten, even where killing is not the norm.
Many yak are slaughtered every year and this is normally done when the animals are in their best condition, before the onset of winter. Some of the meat is consumed fresh and much else is frozen in nature's own "deep freeze" and stored that way. Meat is also dried and keeps longer than when frozen.
The herders and their families eat meat mostly for the four to five months following slaughter. Yak are not slaughtered deliberately in spring or early summer because they are in poor condition and very lean at that time - though a few yak may die or be killed as casualties. Meat is therefore rarely eaten by herdsmen from April to July, although dried yak meat is still available.
Over recent years, the Chinese Government has built a number of small meatpacking and storage plants in the cold pastoral regions. This has allowed more slaughtering of yak at the best time and has also extended the storage season for frozen yak meat and meat products, including some retail cuts of meat. Most of this is supplied to cities.
Commercial slaughterhouses taking in yak also exist in Mongolia and some other countries, including North America where it serves the relatively new and still small yak-meat industry.
Fresh yak meat
The quality of yak "beef" is at its best in the autumn because of the good condition of the animals at that time. The method of butchering and eating by the herdsmen is quite simple. The carcass is cut into large cubes then boiled in fresh water for a few minutes. The meat is eaten with salt and with the help of a Tibetan knife. Milk tea is taken at the same time. When guests are present, the meal is more elaborate: Boiled rib-meat from the yak as well as from sheep is served and will be put on a plate and the meat eaten with the hand. There may be a steamed bun stuffed with chopped yak meat to which salt, condiments and fat have been added. The casing of the bun is thin, as the flour mixture has not been fermented. Thawed, frozen yak meat has the same flavour as fresh.
Prior to winter, the herdsmen living in the uplands cut yak meat into long narrow strips (approximately 4 - 5 cm wide and 30 cm long) and dry these suspended from woven-hair ropes. Drying takes only a few days. The air-dried meat will keep for one or two years either hung in a tent or stored in hide bags - this is a longer storage period than for the naturally frozen meat.
The air-dried meat is very dry indeed and has a distinctive flavour. Some of this dried meat is eaten as it is, only cutting or tearing the strips into smaller pieces; and milk-tea is drunk as an accompaniment. When cooking the dried meat, there are two main methods. One is to roast it by burying the meat in the stove, fuelled by yak dung, until the meat smells fragrant. It is then taken out, cleaned and cut into pieces. The other method is to soak the dried meat for several hours and then boil it in water. Salt and condiments are not usually added.
There is also smoked "bacon-beef" which is similar to air-dried beef, but the fresh meat strips are first salted in a container for one or two days and then hung over the stove in the herdsman's tent to smoke. This again can be eaten either raw or cooked. The smoked meat is a product of the warm and rainy season and is made from the meat cut by the herdsmen from yak that have died of old age or from disease or have been killed by wolves.
Corned beef is salted "bacon-beef", which is very popular in the yak raising areas of Yunnan province, China. Frozen meat strips are rubbed for one or two minutes. When the meat becomes soft, salt and condiments are added. The meat is rubbed until it becomes wet and it is then transferred to a jar, which is sealed with paper or cloth. After 18 - 21 days, the salted meat is taken from the jar and dried in the air for about seven days. The best corned beef is reddish in colour, savoury and tasty, and after boiling, steaming or frying, it can be eaten with zanba and accompanied by milk tea.
In Qinghai and Sichuan provinces of China, beef jerky is mainly produced in the meat-processing plants. There are two kinds of beef jerky - spiced and curry. The fresh meat is boiled in water for one to four hours, depending on its tenderness. When cooled, it is cut into thick slices 1.5 cm long, 1 cm wide and 0.5 cm, which are put into a pot and sautéed for three hours to remove some water from the tissue. Spices (Table 10.2) are placed between the meat slices, which are then covered with water and left to simmer for about three hours. The slices are taken out and hung to drip-dry for four hours, then dried at 65oC for six to eight hours. This product is known as "spiced jerky". "Curry jerky" is made by mixing the spiced jerky with curry powder. These products can be eaten directly or after additional cooking, frying or boiling.
Beef jelly is a relatively new product in pastoral areas and welcomed by yak herders, particularly children and old people. It is made from the liquid that remains after boiling the meat to produce jerky. The liquid is mixed with a yeast infusion and heated to 35° - 40°C in a pot. The fat is separated from the mixture by a milk separator to leave about 1 percent fat and 3 - 4 percent total solids. The mixture is then reduced by boiling to a jelly containing about 25 - 30 percent of total solids. One percent salt, 0.05 percent monosodium glutamate, 0.025 percent beef essence and 0.001 percent preservative are added. After further mixing, the jelly is sealed in a bottle. If the colloid of Chinese caterpillar fungus is added to the jelly, it becomes more nutritious and valuable.