October 10, 2012

Why People Eat Yak

I ate yak for the first time last week while on vacation in Colorado, and while you might expect it to “taste like chicken,” it didn’t. It tasted just like beef, which makes sense. Yaks are a shaggy-haired relative of the cow, an ox found in the Himalayan region of Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau and as far north as Mongolia and Russia.

Eating yak is such a foreign concept to Americans that it got me thinking: we eat the foods that make sense to us geographically. For Americans, protein usually means beef, pork, fish and chicken, things that other parts of the world might consider disgusting. (Pork is taboo to Jewish Israelis; cows are sacred to the Hindus.)  But, what we eat also has a lot to do with what is readily available. In the Himalayas, yak abounds; cows don’t.

Here are some of the animals people eat around the world. (Note: I am not endorsing eating these animals—I draw the line at the cow-like yak.)

  • Dog: Man’s best friend can be found in almost every culture, but while some people find eating dog abhorrent, it’s an extremely common source of protein in Asia and the South Pacific. Often, the practice has been born of necessity—dog was available when other meat sources weren’t.
  • Cat: Asian and South Pacific countries also eat cat. The practice is most common in China where dishes like “The Dragon and the Tiger,” and “Dragon-Tiger-Phoenix Soup” are prepared. “Tiger” is cat. (FYI: “dragon” is snake and “phoenix” is chicken.) Some areas eat cat out of necessity. In Australia, where feral cats have wiped out their normal prey, Aboriginal tribes now hunt and eat the cats.
  • Horse: People around the globe consume more than 4.7 million horses per year with the largest consumers being China, Mexico, Russia, Italy and Kazakhstan. Japan serves raw horse meat, Mongolians make horse sausage, and Belgium uses it in steak tartare. France even has butchers that do nothing but sell horse meat (boucherie chevaline).
  • Bugs: This is a general category that ranges from crickets to scorpions. In North and South Korea, silk worms are rolled in flour and bread crumbs, fried in palm oil and served in a sweet and sour sauce. In Cambodia, hungry diners chomp down on crispy spiders, something the populace developed a taste for out of desperation during the Khmer Rouge regime. Other bugs that people eat include termites, fly larvae, dragonflies, grubs, tarantulas, ants, and agave worms.
  • Rat: Like bugs, rats are plentiful and popular in Asian countries like China, North Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. But, it’s not just run-of-the-mill rats that are considered “good eats.” The Chinese also have developed a taste for nutria, a large river rat similar to the beaver, and South American countries like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, people dine on guinea pig.
  • Other: People eat what’s available, whether moral or legal. Elephant, gorilla, lizard, camel and more have all made their way to people’s plates.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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