Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yak Butter

Photo: Sasha Friedman

When I was a Chicago Girl Scout we went to a farm and made butter. We learned all about the process of milking the cow and then churning the butter. We were shown the old fashioned butter churner in order to better understand what our foremothers went through to make the yellow patties we, at the age of ten, took for granted on our dinner tables. And then we made our own butter.

Each Girl Scout got an empty Gerber baby food jar with a small amount of raw cow's milk inside. We were told to shake it until it became butter. The event stands out for me because I know I shook it and shook it and shook it. My arm became butter, but I kept shaking. I remember that I and other girls stopped several times to ask "Is this butter?" knowing that the sloopy slop inside the jar was not quite butter. We resumed our shaking.

Finally--and my memory is torn by the fact that you as a reader cannot possibly comprehend how long this seemed to take because it cannot be properly written as my ten year old self experienced it--my milk became soft, creamy colored butter. I opened my jar and put the butter on bread (or crackers?) and tasted. It was softer and creamier than any butter I had ever tasted, and I think I was, perhaps actually tasting butter for the very first time. This was no condiment, but rather the main event. This was my turkey on Thanksgiving.

Fast forward 20 years: I can't believe I am old enough to write what I just wrote--this is non-fiction. I like butter. I haven't substituted with margarine since I left my mother's house and, while I avoid butter in some instances, I do not shrimp on adding it to baked goods or corn on the cob. I like cheese, too. I don't know if there is a relation.

I recently traveled to Mongolia, and I knew I would have an opportunity to consume meat and dairy products, as these are staple menu items to the region. Our food was highly westernized, presumably due to the tourist industry's experience with, well, tourists. We had plenty of beef, but only once were we served goat meat barbecued in the traditional Mongolian art (and I am not referring to Mongolian Barbecue's art, which is more closely related to Japanese style Teppanyaki than anything traditionally Mongolian). We were given a taste of fermented mare's milk only after requesting it and we came across yak butter in the truest traveler's fashion possible. Aaah, yak butter.

Photo: Sasha Friedman

Yaks are officially among the most beautiful animals in the world in my book. In Mongolia they roam free through the forest and across the plains. Just look at their shiny, long coats. Passing them on the road we heard them ripping grass from the roots and munching it continuously. They do not low like cows do; they are rather quiet. They won't eat grains, only grass, and so their milk is guaranteed to be free-range. They are big and I was a little nervous to pass within 10 feet of them at the outset. After four days in their neighborhood, though, I became rather comfortable with their presence. They didn't seem to care one bit about mine.

It was by chance that I tasted yak butter, and it was not because I became so comfortable as to walk up and milk one of the roaming lady yaks myself, closing my winnings into a glass jar and shaking it forever and a day. We had gone horseback riding--this was included in our tour package--and the horse herder who guided us invited us back to his ger for tea. We met his two young boys, whose heads were clean shaven like their daddy's and who, at a stature half of my own, handled our horses like they were puppies, and his wife served us cow's milk tea, home baked bread (because that is all there is so far from town) and yak butter.

Aaah, yak butter.

Our tour guide explained to us that yak butter is made in a large pot over the stove. You warm the raw yak milk to a boil and, with a large wooden spoon, you stir, then lift the milk above the pot and allow it to fall back into itself. You do this again and again and again. Finally (long after your arm has fallen off if you choose to shake the pot like I shook my Gerber baby jar) the milk forms zillions of tiny bubbles and it becomes apparent that a thick layer of butter has developed on the surface of the milk. You take the milk off the stove and allow it to cool, usually overnight. When the milk has cooled sufficiently, you cut the butter free from the edges of the pot with a knife and lift it out. It usually folds itself in half and what you end up with is a plate full of yak butter about one and a half inches think. Thicker than cow's milk. Thicker than goat's milk. And oh so rich and delicious. The milk is pasteurized for drinking to boot!

The tea served to us was intriguing: milk with a bit of salt added made for a flavor entirely new to me. I would never have thought to add salt to my warm milk, but I add salt after buttering my corn on the cob, so why not?

The bread I could not eat, as I am allergic to gluten and didn't want a tummy ache on the last stretch of our journey on horseback.

A dinner plate was covered by the cake of yak butter and I took an amount equal to what one might put on a piece of bread in my fingers. I ate it straight. I have never put something so celestial in my mouth. The memory of my Girl Scout butter is faint, but the memory of yak butter in a nomad's ger in Mongolia remains ever strong. I hope the memory is at least as heavy as the yak butter itself, because it suggests that it will remain with me for at least as long as it takes for me to find more yak butter.

Most people I know are privileged enough to carry in their minds the list of "things I will do before I die". On my list for many years has been milk a cow, and it is still there, but added to the list is make yak butter. I by no means feel I have to milk the yak myself, but I have to make yak butter. Then I can share it with you and tell you a story that will stay with you at least as long as the taste of yak butter stays with you. And, if you're like me, that will be a long, long time.


  1. Thanks for the great post! We have made yak cheese and butter is still on our list. We have friends that live in China and don't typically describe yak butter as "celestial" but they are generally talking about yak butter tea. The cheeses we have made are close to "celestial" though. Again thanks for the great yak post.

  2. I would totally try it! Bet it would be tasty.

  3. what a lovely story. Thanks for sharing. Kathy