“Yak Meat Served Here,” said the sign outside the Himalayan Yak restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens. It stopped me dead in my tracks. The last time I encountered this shaggy, heavily built bovid, I was a child holidaying in Kathmandu, Nepal.
My mother convinced me to ride this humble creature: “It’s just like the pony you ride at the park, only bigger.” I cried the entire time. (And no, it’s not like a horse, it’s more like a big bison with a hairy skirt.) Afterward, Mom used the yak butter to rescue my chapped lips, made me drink yak butter tea Po’ Cha, and even served it up fried for lunch — I was nine and traumatized.
Yak meat is now available for sale in New Jersey and Gyaltsen Gurung, the manager of the Himalayan Yak restaurant, places his order weeks in advance. I made a date to get over my fear of yak…and Gyaltsen assured me that a mouth-watering yak shaptak or stir fry would do the trick. Yak meat is priced similar to lamb, but is nutritionally much healthier and leaner. Delivered as promised, the shaptak was stir fried with onions, peppers, plenty of garlic and ginger, and sweetened with oyster sauce. Finished off with a robust red chili sauce, it had my taste buds climbing to dizzying Himalayan heights.
The Himalayas (meaning abode of snow) are pristine, spectacular, and awe-inspiring; living there humbles you. It inspires divinity and requires physical prowess. Life juxtaposes as perilous yet rousing, exposed and vulnerable to the fury of nature and the unfavorable ambiguity of politics (the sovereignty of Tibet has yet to be recognized). Yet despite that precarious uncertainty, the people are loving and hospitable.
The U.S. — and in particular New York City — is home to the largest Himalayan immigrant population outside of Nepal and Tibet, numbering about 20,000. Every July, Central Park hosts His Holiness the Dalai Lama, drawing a staggering crowd of admirers. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibet Art on Staten Island is a hidden gem and a favorite.
Now, for the food I devoured: Samayabajee is a traditional Nepalese platter consisting of several dishes, like crispy fried soybeans and chilies, beaten cracked rice, sautéed chicken or goat flavored with ginger, garlic and herbs, and pickled radish, and potatoes. Served cold, these recipes travel well, and have served as midday lunch or snacks for the working farmers on foothills of the steep mountains.
Momos, or Nepalese pot stickers, are made out of thin flour wrappers stuffed with ground spiced beef. Different from Chinese pork dumplings, the momos are served with a red chili sauce and sesame and cilantro chutneys, making it a uniquely flavorful concoction with a nod to the area’s regional neighbors — China and India.
Gyuma (blood sausage) is a hearty food designed for a Tibetan winter. Gyumas can be frozen for long periods and are stuffed with beef blood, which keeps them juicy and substantial with a buttery texture and delicate flavor — they are a homemade specialty of the Himalayan Yak restaurant.
There are plenty of restaurants serving Himalayan cuisine to choose from: I tried Phayul and Friends Café Corner in Queens, Café Tibet in Brooklyn, and Café Himalayan in the East Village.
Given NYC’s recent polar winters, I’ve now invested in a furry yak wool sweater. I found out that yak is naturally odor-free, and just like the Himalayan Mountains, a monumental survivor.