Snugged along the Himalayas to the east of Nepal, the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is slightly larger than Switzerland and boasts incredible biodiversity. The subtropical forests in the south give way to towering, cool, moist mountain peaks in the north that are buried in snow during harsh winters. In the highlands, lush green pine and oak forests shelter barking deer, black-necked cranes, golden langurs, red pandas, masked deer, Himalayan brown bears, rhododendrons, giant rhubarb, and magnolias. Great expanses of grasslands carpet the alpine hillsides. In 1999, this isolated kingdom, whose monarch has pushed hard for forest preservation, received its first, supervised tourists and introduced television and the Internet to its people at King Jigme Jingye Wangchuk`s coronation ceremony.
Bhutan may be participating in the technology revolution, but not at the expense of some of its most enduring traditions. In the eastern highlands, travelers still see yak meat drying in the sun from roof cornices of the seminomadic Brokpa yak herders. Many Brokpa herders still depend on yaks for milk, cheese, meat, wool, leather, and draft power. Many herders continue to wear the traditional yak-leather boots and pishup (trousers), yak-wool kandams (wide belts) and red chubas (jackets), and the all-purpose gamashamo, a waterproof, dark-blue felt hat with drainage ports for heavy downpours.
In the spring and summer, the Brokpa collectively take their yak and sheep herds up the mountains as far as 16,000 feet to find grazing and forage. There they live in yak-hair tents or low rock houses with yak-hair roofs. Fall frosts bring the Bropka herders back down from the alpine meadows to the plains at 8,000 feet or so with their livestock and yak milk, durukho (fermented yak cheese), kargyong (yak sausage), and satchu (dried and/or smoked yak meat)—all highly prized delicacies that the Brokpa barter locally for red japonica rice (a coarse, wild, unmilled variety with a red bran), millet, and maize. Kargyong and satchu also play a role in Mang Kurum, the annual autumn yak dance festival honoring the animal that both inspires and maintains Brokpa culture by protecting their villages from famine and disaster. The festival incorporates shamanic rituals of exorcism as well as Buddhist religious rites, reflective of the Bropkas’ dualistic beliefs.
Specialized adaptations to low oxygen and extreme cold allow yaks to thrive in altitudes ranging from about 6,800 to 16,000 feet. Yak red blood cells are half the size of those in domestic cattle and three times as numerous. Moreover, they have very large lungs, all of which greatly increases the yak’s oxygen-carrying capacity and makes them well suited to the thin air of high altitudes. Besides their massive undercoats, yaks also have relatively few sweat glands, giving them extra insurance against losing heat. Each male yak produces roughly 560 pounds of meat. At lower altitudes that are too hot for yaks but still too cool for local domestic cattle, herders graze yak crosses with domestic cattle, making the most of underused range. Brokpa vocabulary has distinctive words that characterize the nature of these crosses and the percentage of yak in each animal.
Yak meat is not only flavorful and juicy without a greasy or gamey taste, but it’s also incredibly healthy. It’s notably lower in calories than beef and has fewer saturated fats, cholesterol, triglycerides, and palmitic acid. It’s also higher than beef in protein and stearic and oleic acids, which promote good health. The healthy qualities of the meat, moreover, persist in half-yak crosses with cattle.
Nomadic people without access to power who travel in widely varying climes need food that is both portable (light and compact) and doesn’t spoil at ambient temperatures. The high moisture and protein content of raw meat means it can quickly spoil, so the Brokpa have had to develop a unique method for curing and preserving yak meat. Modern-day backpackers have their freeze-dried dinners; the Brokpa have their satchu (basically, a yak jerky) and kargyong (smoked, dry sausages). Cured without chemicals like sodium nitrate or starter cultures, the meat lasts a year and requires no refrigeration. Satchu and kargyong are popular ingredients for curries and other dishes—and along with yak cheese form the prime currency for Brokpa to barter with their agricultural neighbors on the plains in the winter.
Satchu is made by marinating strips of meat in turmeric powder, oil, and salt, and then hanging them for 15 days on bamboo sticks in the open air or smoking the strips in clay-ovens for more than two weeks. Thus, even without refrigerators, the raw meat is preserved at the tribal homes of Bhutan, Whenever they want, the Brokpa can take out the manually-processed satchu to prepare a curry with garlic, chili, ginger and salt, or deep-fry satchu as a favorite side dish with home-made beverages.
Kargyong, the sausage, is one of the most popular yak products. The Brokpa use a stone mortar to grind yak meat, then chop it with a sharp-edged knife. They marinate the chopped meat in a paste of garlic, ginger, a pinch of salt and a little water, then stuff the mixture into yak intestines, tie off the ends, and boil the casings for about half an hour. The sausages then are smoked in a clay oven baked in the sun on a rooftop for 15 days, which completes the preservation. There is also a fermented variety of kargyong. The sausages are fried in the making of succulent curries and are often the delicacy of choice at marriage parties and other social ceremonies. Yak kargyong remains available only through bartering in the eastern highlands; a beef variety now is for sale in some of Bhutan’s urban markets.
So far, yak and the lower yak-hybrid pastures, though heavily grazed, have survived growing numbers of livestock. But Bhutan is a country in rapid transition that will challenge the Brokpa to maintain their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Fortunately, even with beef kargyong now an urban delicacy, the relative inaccessibility of the Brokpa tribes may save them and their cuisine. Hormel cannot improve on their product.
Freelance writer Biswajit Chakraborti interned at Cultural Survival during the spring of 2010.
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