I'd always thought of yaks as pack animals, but it turns out the meat of the Tibetan cousin of cows is delicious, and it's now available in Alaska. I picked up a pound of ground yak this month at the Wednesday Center Market in the Mall at Sears.
The meat, at least in ground form, has no wild or exotic taste whatsoever. If anything, it tastes more like cow than cow. It's leaner than all but the most fat-free cuts of beef or bison, and that's made it something of a "thing" in Lower 48 restaurants catering to health-conscious consumers.
A few Alaska farmers are raising the big, hairy, horned and oddly cute species, including Anita Hill of Sunny Hill Ranch near Willow, who raised the meat I bought.
Hill and her husband Steve moved up from Homer in 2010, looking for enough land to make their yak ranch dreams come true. They wound up with 320 acres that is presently home to 25 yaks and some other critters.
"Yaks are easy keepers in Alaska," Hill said. "They browse like moose, they stay off fences, they don't make a lot of noise, they're cold-weather resistant, they eat snow over water and they're a clean animal. They raise their tails when they do their business."
The animals mature to the size of beef cattle, 1,500 pounds for a bull, half that for a cow, but they take twice as long to get to market size. On the other hand, Hill said, they eat about half of what a beef cow would consume.
There are wild yaks, "but ours are very domesticated," Hill said. "They're spoiled."
In addition to meat, the yaks produce a lot of hair suitable for spinning. Unlike a musk-ox, you can shave them and their long guard hairs will grow back. But Hill said she combs out the hair and passes it on to local spinners.
The yak meat I bought was packaged at Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage Company in Palmer and inspected by the USDA. But inspection has been an issue. The government decided recently that it would no longer inspect the meat; never mind that, genetically speaking, yak burger is essentially identical to hamburger, except fat-free, or nearly so. Ranchers in the Lower 48 contacted their congressmen and at this time, Hill said, the USDA is backtracking on yaks.
Meanwhile the Hills are hoping to double their herd over the next few years.
I paid $20 for one pound, which is pretty spendy compared to store-bought cow burger -- though maybe not for very much longer, the way prices are spiking. At least it's cheaper than king crab in the shell. And with minimum fat to cook off, it comes out of the skillet about as heavy as it went in. In fact, Hill recommends that you use a little vegetable oil to keep the meat from sticking to the pan. I used bacon grease for the recipe below.
I didn't try the yak steak and would probably go for it rare if I did. Lean meat can sometimes get chewy when overcooked. But a wine-and-oil marinade might resolve that and I have a hunch that this stuff will take a marinade very well.
Sunny Hill's yak joins a roster of high quality Alaska pork, poultry and beef regularly available at Center Market. But for non-meat eaters -- or those who can't bear to eat something as cute as a yak -- vendors have plenty of Alaska grown vegetables on hand, including multiple varieties of potatoes. And Alaska Vegan & Gluten Free will debut a new roasted blueberry and banana puree topped with quinoa. Their regular menu includes veggie delicacies like roasted beets and sweet potato soup, lemon garlic hemp seed salad dressing and frozen balls of bread dough with a side of vegan Parmesan cheese; turn it into a quick hot loaf or dinner rolls or bake a fresh pizza.
Also at Center Market, Sweet Caribou will have their cupcakes and brownies and your choice of five macarons. "Two stand above the rest," James Strong advises. "The heavenly passionfruit macaron and the decadent white chocolate raspberry. Both will likely run out by 1 p.m."
Strong also says this will be Sweet Caribou's last week there for a while as he plans to leave for Paris shortly. Bon voyage et bon appetit.
I usually reserve this recipe for gamey or stressed meat, like a pack of ptarmigan found in the back of the freezer two years after it went in ("ptarmigan ptaquitos".) Given the utterly non-gamey flavor of yak and the fresh quality available here, you may want to add additional spices. It turns one pound of meat into 15-30 taquitos, depending on whether you use large or small tortillas, and has proved a hit at parties.
1 pound ground yak meat
1 medium onion
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon garlic
1 tablepoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
Chop and saute onions in vegetable oil or bacon grease. Add yak and brown. Drain the tomatoes and add them along with the spices. Simmer 15 minutes or until the meat is cooked. Spoon into either corn or flour tortillas and roll into the cigar-like taquito shape. Warm the tortillas for half a minute in the microwave to keep them soft while rolling. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes until brown. Serve with salsa, ranch dressing or sour cream.
There will be no left-overs.