On an otherwise lackluster (my little brother would characterize it as "revolting") culinary experience in Yunnan recently, I had the pleasure of discovering the delights and disgusts of yak flesh.
Yak is sold in three types of venues in Yunnan: the yak store, the department store, and the restaurant. The most obvious venue is the abundance of yak meat stores in the ancient towns of Lijiang and Dali. Catering to the adventurous backpacker and overly-curious mainland tourists, these stores carried various cuts of the yak that were marinated in different types of chilli and soy sauces. It stank up the street. The hygiene of the slabs of meat swimming behind the plastic shelves were in question.
There was no refrigeration.
My mother, ever the zealous guardian of my family's health, forebade us to eat it. This changed after two hours after walking around traversing our fifth ancient town with the exact same sequence of stores that had colonized the architecture. Ancient "curios," followed by exotic ethnic minority "curios," followed by jade "curios," followed by Mao "curios," followed by more traditionally Chinese "curios," ad infinitum.
Fresh yak meat from a store is served cold, like roast beef. After picking the cuts we wanted, the butcher chopped it into slices and threw the contents into a dirty plastic bag. Out of apathy no one cared.
My brother thought it was okay. He was just happy to finally have some meat in his diet. For probably economic reasons the Yunnanese were not generous with meat in their dishes. We felt like we went hungry for days and our only salvation with our ration of two Godiva chocolate bars we bought on whim at the now-seemingly luxurious Hong Kong airport. My mother and father also thought it was nothing special. I found that more of the meat got stuck in my teeth than went into my belly.
In the state-owned department stores of local food products and sourvenirs, yak meat comes in two forms. In its dried form, yak is like a jerky, but more to be gummed vigorously and not swallowed. The second is cooked and vacuum-sealed. The latter is one of the most disgusting form of preserving meat for sale I have ever seen. I saw it once in Hainan with its famous steamed chickens, cooked whole in a plastic bag. Think of it as a spin on sous vide, only in this iteration I was a skeptic, and thought it rather like slow-rotting. The lack of expiration date on the packaging was suspicious. It looked as appetizing as the manure on farms on the bus ride over. After learning that we would spend some time at the store for the lack of things to do, my brother and I invented a game whereby we searched the store for the most gut-wrenching food product possible. Both the winner and the runner-up scored with some form of packaged yak.
The best yak was found in a restaurant of some ethnic minority I have since forgotten. The dish is called by some non-Han name. It was fried yak on a bed of fried greens and herbs. It was one of the most delicious dishes I had on my entire trip (which, by the way, was still not saying that much). It was not battered, but crunchy enough on the outside to give it a delightful mask to the chewiness of the coarse meat. The fried greens and herbs were utterly whimsical, recalling an American Nouveau flourish than the dirty paths of the Chinese countryside.
At the end of the trip we drove up to the beautiful Yalong mountains, where I saw two real, breathing, moving yaks that you could pay 50 kuai to ride into the middle of the crystal clear river for a picture at the foot of those magnificent, snowy peaks. The Chinese name for yak is "furry cow," which aptly describes their cuddly appearance and dumb demeanor. A far cry from the spitting sounds of the English word, "yak," which more aptly describes their place in the culinary pantheon.
They weren't such terrible animals after all. --Jenny Suen