Richard P Palmieri. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Despite recent interest in domesticated animals in general and bovines in particular, there has been little systematic study of yak. Nevertheless, enough is known to warrant a closer consideration of the role these cattle play in the culture, diet, and ecology of the several peoples who exploit them in some of the harshest and most difficult environments of Asia.
Taxonomy, Description, and Habitat
Yak are members of the subfamily of cattle Bovinae. Although the genetic relationships among its members are not precisely understood, Herwart Bohlken (1958: 167-8, 1958-60: 113-202) argues that yak belong to the genus Bos and subgenus Poëphagus. Moreover, Bohlken draws a further distinction between wild yak, Bos [Poëphagus] mutusPrzhelval’skii (1883), and domesticated yak, Bos [Poëphagus] grunniens Linnaeus (1766). Although wild and domesticated yak are interfertile, domesticated yak can be crossed with a variety of other cattle, including common cattle (Bos taurus), and zebu (Bos indicus) to produce hybrids of various types.
Both wild and domesticated yak are massively built, with barrel-shaped bodies carried on legs that are quite short but solid. Although yak have no humps (as zebus do), they do have a dorsal ridgelike prominence that adds to their massive appearance. From this prominence, a short heavy neck slopes downward, ending in a large head with a broad, flat forehead, large eyes, and small ears.
Probably the most conspicuous features of the yak, however, are its horns and hair. The horns are large, dark, and double-curved. That is, they emerge horizontally from either side of the head, curve and extend first upward, then backward. The hair is coarse and shaggy and covers the animal’s body almost entirely. The hair is abundant and is generally 4 or more inches in length. Fringing the chest, lower shoulders, sides, flanks, and thighs of the yak is even longer hair, which almost reaches the ground. The tail, too, is entirely covered by long hair, giving it a pronounced bushy appearance.
Wild yak are characteristically black or dark brown, occasionally with lighter colors on the forehead and along the back. Domesticated yak, in contrast, are much more variable in color. They range from black to white, and even piebalds are common.
Large numbers of wild yak once roamed over much of Tibet and the high Himalayas, though they have decreased in numbers and range. Today, only small herds occur, and only in certain restricted and inhospitable places, including small portions of the great mountain ranges of Inner Asia (the Tien Shan, Kunlun Shan, Pamirs, Karakorum) and the most remote areas of the Greater Himalayas. They are also found in small numbers in the dry Changtang, a vast, virtually uninhabited plateau that sweeps across northern Tibet in a great arc, extending from the Tibet-India border in the west to the Koko Nor region in the east.
In the better watered areas of the Changtang, small herds of wild yak give way to the large herds of domesticated yak managed by pastoralists. Domesticated yak also thrive in the more moist regions of Mongolia and central Asia and in the deep river valleys and small plains of southern and eastern Tibet, as well as along the high, south-facing flank of the Himalayas. Here, temperatures are higher, rainfall is much greater and more predictable, and vegetation is more abundant. These are regions occupied by farming folk, who are far more numerous than the pastoral nomads of the plateaus.
Yak in Culture and Diet
Wherever yak are kept, they are a central element in human ecology and adaptation. Farmers, for example, use these animals for a variety of agricultural purposes, including plowing and threshing. Among pastoral nomads, yak are a source of hair for tent-cloth and may be employed in caravan work. For transhumant populations in mountainous regions, who combine certain aspects of pastoral and agricultural economies, yak are employed in these and other ways to wrest a living from often fragile environments. But most important, perhaps, to those who keep yak is the role the animal plays in the direct provision of food for human consumption and nutrition. In this regard, any detailed consideration of the wide variety of useful dietary products supplied by yak must focus on meat, milk, milk products, and blood.
Although most yak-keeping folk profess Buddhism, a religion that encourages a vegetarian diet by forbidding the slaughter of animals, few abstain from meat eating. Quite the opposite seems to be the case. Flesh foods are relished by most of these people, and every attempt is made to include at least some meat in the main meal each day. This is not always possible, however, because in most regions meat is a seasonal commodity and, in any case, is expensive.
The Buddhist prohibition of slaughter stems from a central concept in Buddha’s teachings: ahimsa. Slaughter and meat eating compromise Buddhist yakherders and are a source of guilt, for they contribute to the suffering and death of yak. To escape guilt, people slaughter yak in ways that rationalize and minimize responsibility. For example, calves may be denied the milk of their mothers. Since such animals starve and blood is not shed, death is considered a matter of fate and not the result of human action.
When slaughter by starvation is not practical, other methods are employed. Adult yak, for example, can be suffocated with a cord tied tightly around the animal’s mouth and nose. And according to Marion H. Duncan (personal communication), Tibetans of Kham in eastern Tibet fit a leather sack tightly around the animal’s muzzle, thereby cutting off air.
Perhaps the most common method of minimizing guilt is to give yak over to a hereditary group of professional butchers for slaughter. Such butchers absolve others of moral responsibility in the affair and are considered damned for their transgressions. Many butchers form a distinct caste in Buddhist societies. Others, such as those of Lhasa, are Moslems, originally from Ladakh or Kansu, who do not adhere to the ahimsa concept.
Although the slaughter of yak by butchers takes place throughout the year, especially in larger settlements, slaughtering by farmers and nomads is a seasonal affair. Most are killed in late autumn or early winter when the animals are well fleshed from spring and summer grazing. This is the time of year when winter temperatures facilitate preservation and storage of meat; the timing of the slaughter also reflects an attempt, in regions of limited pasturing opportunities, to minimize overgrazing and herd losses by careful control of herd size.
Selection of yak to be slaughtered in late autumn or early winter is not random. Rather, each animal is carefully considered, and those deemed least able to survive the harsh winter months are culled out first. To these are added others that are considered poor economic investments. Such yak are usually the male cattle, often yak bulls too old, too sick, or too weak for traction or burden. Female yak are selected if they are dry or past the age of breeding. Selective slaughter, thus, not only provides an abundance of meat but also enhances the ability of the remaining cattle to survive the deprivations of winter. In addition, it results in a more efficient allocation of pasturing and other resources and a more efficient and economical herd.
Meat not eaten immediately after slaughter must be preserved or traded. If fresh meat is traded, distances involved are very limited—within a village, for example, to folk who have little access to meat and who pay cash, barter goods, or provide services in exchange. If properly preserved, however, such meat can be kept for months, even years, and traded over great distances.
Yak meat is preserved in a variety of ways. The lower temperatures of the slaughtering season may be used to freeze it. The meat is also salted and smoked, but drying is by far the most common method of preservation. Carcasses of slaughtered yak may be simply cut into joints, which are hung outdoors. The joints slowly dry, often shrinking to half their original size.
More commonly, the beef is cut into thin strips, which are set out in the sun to dry, sometimes on cloths spread over the ground, more often on racks erected for this purpose. Beef jerked in this way is very popular in Tibet and the high Nepal Himalaya.
Not only does drying preserve meat, it also reduces its weight, allowing more to be carried on long journeys. In wintertime, dried meat is an important item of barter and sale. This is especially true for pastoral nomads, who use meat and other animal products to trade for the carbohydrate-rich plant foods of farmers and transhumant folk.
Meat also plays a prominent role in the diet of most yak-keeping peoples as a ceremonial or feast food. Among more prosperous families, meat of some kind is eaten nearly every day, but because of the expense involved, poorer families eat meat only occasionally. Whenever possible, however, even the poorest will try to offer a meat dish to visitors and guests. When unable to do so, apologies are given or excuses made.
Not everyone eats yak meat, however, and even those who do often abstain from certain kinds of flesh or from flesh prepared in proscribed ways. Some Tibetans, for example, consume the flesh of yak and female hybrids eagerly but refuse to eat the flesh of male hybrids. When asked why, they reply that male hybrids are sinful animals and their flesh is polluting.
Yak meat that has been roasted, broiled, or fried is considered polluting and impure by virtually all Tibetans and Himalayan Buddhists. Some Tibetan nomads believe that consumption of flesh prepared in these ways will result in sickness or bad luck—the punishment of gods angered by the odor of scorched flesh. Although many farmers and transhumant peoples agree with this pastoral nomadic belief, perhaps in an attempt to emulate this more prestigious group, others strike a compromise. According to them, the indoor roasting, broiling, and frying of meat produces odors that house gods find offensive. If, however, meat is prepared in these ways outside the home, it can be eaten with no harmful effects. In any case, the most common method of cooking yak and hybrid meat is boiling, a method acceptable to all. But flesh is also eaten uncooked, whether fresh or preserved.
In a few areas of Tibet bordering on India, Tibetans have been affected by Hindu views of the sacredness of common cattle. In some cases, Hindus themselves have transferred their views concerning common cattle to yak and hybrids, and in areas under their political influence such flesh has been (at one time or another), difficult or impossible to get. In other cases, Tibetans have taken over Hindu views. Some Tibetans of western Tibet, for example, were reported to view yak as sacred and avoided eating its flesh at all costs. Other Tibetans of the same region, however, who were less affected by Hindu ways, ate yak meat freely (Sherring 1906).
Some inhabitants of the Nepal Himalaya have been similarly influenced by Hindu ideas. The Gurung and Thakali are two such groups. The legends of the Gurungs, a tribal people of west central Nepal, indicate that they once consumed yak flesh freely, but according to Donald Messerschmidt (personal communication), present-day Hinduized Gurung consider this practice abhorrent because they have transferred Hindu ideas concerning common cattle to yak.
The Thakali of the Kali Gandaki Valley gave up eating the flesh of yak in the nineteenth century in an attempt to elevate the social status of their caste and to facilitate establishment of social relations with dominant members of Nepal’s Hindu ruling class. Tradition maintains that Harkaman Subba Sherchan (1860-1905), a customs contractor, initiated the banning of yak flesh (Fürer-Haimendorf 1966: 144-5).
Because of the feelings of guilt associated with the consumption of yak flesh, meat is included in a category of “black” foods, considered unceremonious, harmful, or improper. Milk and milk products, however, are classed as “white” foods, suitable for all occasions and persons. Most yak herders consider milk, in both its fresh and processed states, a tasty food to be consumed eagerly by all ages. But while these views are associated with milk in general, distinctions are made among a variety of milk types, each the product of different mammals. Furthermore, each type of milk occupies a position in a hierarchy of milk preference that varies little, if at all, from place to place.
Among Tibetans and Himalayan folk, for example, there exists a strikingly consistent pattern or hierarchy of milk preference from place to place and group to group. Above all others, milk of yak is preferred, not only for its flavor and richness but also because it is considered especially healthful. Milk of hybrid cows is thought to be less tasty than yak milk but is preferred over that of common cattle (the other component of hybrid parentage).
Distinctions, however, are made by those more familiar with hybrids. The Sherpa of Nepal, for example, distinguish between milk of the two major hybrid types and prefer milk of hybrids (dimdzo) sired by common bulls to that of hybrids (urangdzo) sired by yak bulls. In any case, milk of common cows is not especially liked but is considered superior to the milk of backcross cows and ewes and is consumed when more highly prized milk is not available. Milk of female goats is least preferred and is seldom consumed by Tibetans and Himalayan folk, even the poorest.
This pattern of preference is generally explained in terms of the varying quality of milk types. Quality is defined as “thickness” or “richness.” Such terms refer to the fat content of the various milks, for analyses of these milks do indeed show substantial differences in fat content. This content may range widely, however, depending on such factors as the season when the milk was obtained, grazing conditions at the time of milking, and availability and utilization of supplementary feed. Thus, the fat content by volume of yak milk has been assayed by some to be between 4.8 percent and 16 percent (Mittaine 1962: 693; Schley 1967: 45-6, 78). But a study by Peter Schley of experiments on yak, hybrids, and common cattle in the Soviet Union has demonstrated that at any given time, fat content of yak milk is 18 percent to 28 percent greater than that of hybrid cow milk and 39 percent to 97 percent greater than the milk of common cows. Furthermore, the fat content of hybrid cow milk is, according to Schley’s figures, 13 percent to 65 percent greater than that of common cows (Schley 1967: 78).
With respect to fat content, the obvious superiority of yak milk to that of hybrids and common cows is somewhat offset by the inability of yak to produce as great a volume of milk as hybrid and common cows. But, as with the fat content of milk, production figures for yak, hybrids, and common cows vary from place to place and season to season. Grazing conditions account for a goodly part of these variations, but milk production also varies with age of milch cows. Yak and hybrid cows, for example, begin lactating at 2 or 3 years of age. As they grow older, and until they reach the age of 10, the lactation period lengthens from approximately 230 days to 300 days. Naturally, this lengthening is reflected in higher production of milk. After this maximum is reached, milk production declines.
Whatever the actual milk production figures are for yak and for hybrids and common cows kept under similar conditions, field observations in the Nepal Himalaya reveal several constants that should be noted. First, hybrid cows produce twice as much milk as yak and 50 percent more than common cows. The latter, however, consistently produce more than yak by about 30 percent.
The second constant reflects the season of milk production. Milk yields for yak, hybrids, and common cows increase as summer waxes and grazing improves, then begin to decline in late summer. In midwinter, lactation nearly ceases, though hybrids tend to be able to lactate during this period somewhat better than yak or common cows. Percentage of fat by volume, however, does not decline with the seasonal decline in milk quantity. Rather, it continues to climb, reaching its maximum when milk yields are lowest. These data confirm the findings of Schley and others but conflict with certain other sources.
Tibetans and others do make some efforts to increase the milk production of their cattle. For example, they use stud that derive from lineages renowned for their milking characteristics. Another technique involves supplemental feeding of lactating yak and hybrids. A number of fodders are used for this purpose, including grasses and leaves collected in pasture and transported to the agricultural village or nomadic camp, where the feed is given to animals in the evening or stored for future use. Also used are fodder crops such as radishes and the straw of harvested grains. And some Tibetan nomads occasionally cultivate fields of planted and volunteer fodder crops for just such use.
Among the more interesting Tibetan customs employed to maximize milk yields is the feeding of salt to lactating cows; more frequent milking, especially as the grazing season progresses; restricting nursing by calves; and stimulating the milk let-down response in stubborn females. In this last, several methods are employed, among them use of calf substitutes, calf dolls, and vaginal insufflation.
Milking of yak and hybrids is done almost exclusively by women and girls; only occasionally will men and boys involve themselves in this work. Whoever does it, the milking procedure seldom varies. The milker always squats beside the cow with her head pressed against the animal’s side for balance. The milk pail is set on the ground or held against the milker’s thigh by a hook attached to her belt and fitted into a notch in the pail. Robert B. Ekvall, who had extensive experience among the Tibetans of northeastern Tibet, has described the hook as a prized item of female attire that, when wealth permits, is covered in silver, coral, and turquoise. According to Ekvall, the milking hook has come to symbolize, in nomadic society at least, the female’s role in foodgetting (Ekvall 1968: 50).
No distinction is made between milk taken in the morning and that collected in the evening; both are considered equal in all respects. For children, especially, milk is considered a very healthy and nutritious food and may be made more appetizing by the addition of sugar, butter, or some other ingredient. The Mewu Fantzu, a pastoral group of Kansu, are said to consider yak milk better for children than even mother’s milk, which they say makes children stupid (Stübel 1958: 8). Although this is probably a radical position, it nonetheless serves as an indicator of the esteem in which yak milk is held.
While some Tibetans allow small children to drink fresh milk, it does not seem to be the practice among adults or children over 4 or 5 years of age. For them, milk must be boiled before it is consumed. When asked to explain why they boil milk before drinking it, many Tibetans insist it is necessary to avoid the diarrhea, flatulence, vomiting, and stomach cramps that would surely follow the drinking of fresh milk. Some, however, maintain that milk is boiled simply to improve its taste and that no medical considerations are involved. Whatever the reason, milk is not boiled very long but rather is heated just until it boils, after which it is quickly removed from the fire.
Milk Products: Butter and Cheese
Most milk is converted into milk products as quickly as possible. There are two reasons for this practice. First, milk processing results in products much less perishable than liquid milk. Second, such products can be transported more easily than liquid milk, even over short distances. Because a great deal of milk is produced and collected in pastures distant from established villages and milk yields vary from season to season, transportability and perishability are important factors that must be dealt with by pastoralists.
Butter is, perhaps, the most important product derived from milk both in amount produced and quantity consumed. Butter derived from the milk of yak has the highest prestige value and is preferred over all others for its taste, richness, and color, which varies from season to season from a golden hue in summer to pale yellow in late winter. No distinction seems to be drawn among butters of various hybrids.
The major instrument of butter making is the churn, and a variety of types are employed, with some made of wood, some of leather, and others of pottery.
Butter making, like milking, is principally a female occupation. However, no universal rule exists on this point. As with milking, the process of butter making varies little. After milk is collected from animals, it is warmed over a fire and stored for about a day perhaps in a churn, or in vessels assigned for that use. In either case, the warmed milk is allowed to curdle. Sometimes, a small amount of starter is added to hasten curdling. Once curd is formed, the mass is transferred to a churn and agitated. As soon as butter begins to form, a quantity of warm water is added a little at a time, to encourage the process.As larger clots of butter float to the surface of the buttermilk, they are picked out and squeezed by hand to remove any remaining liquid.
Those who maintain large herds of milch cows produce more butter than is necessary for the normal needs of their families; thus, they store excess butter in a variety of ways for future use, sale, and trade. A common method of storing butter in the Nepal Himalayas nowadays is simply to pack it solidly in 5-gallon kerosene tins. Before tins were commonly available, however, butter was packed in sheep stomachs or wrapped in wet rawhide bags, which, sewn shut and dried, are said to have kept butter from a few months to a year or more. Butter is also stored in wooden boxes and barrels and, according to some Tibetans, pottery containers as well.
Butter, a valuable low-bulk manufacture, is traded widely and is sold by weight. Demand for butter is the result of various factors, not least of which is its prominent role in the diet. Seldom is butter eaten in its raw state. More often it is melted and used in frying or mixed with other foodstuffs. The largest percentage of butter is consumed in the form of tsocha, the ubiquitous butter-tea of Tibet and the Himalayan region. Tsocha is souplike in consistency and nourishment. And, although the ingredients do not vary at all from place to place, the taste of tsocha varies from family to family, perhaps because of the quality or quantity of ingredients used.
Only three ingredients are necessary to make tsocha: tea, butter, and salt. Tea, even among the poorest, must be Chinese, imported at great expense in brick or cone form. A quantity of tea is broken off and boiled in water that is then strained and poured into a tea churn. After hot tea is poured into the churn, butter and salt are added. The best tsocha is said to be made with yak butter; when this is unavailable, butter of hybrids is used, followed, in order of preference, by the butters of common cows, sheep, and goats. Salt is almost always of Tibetan origin; Indian salt is seldom used because it is thought to cause illness. After being thoroughly churned, the tsocha is poured into a kettle for reheating; when hot, it is served in handleless cups or in glasses. Tsocha is a dietary staple drunk many times a day by persons of all ages.
Two other factors help explain the high value of butter and the constant demand for this commodity in the marketplaces of Tibet and Nepal. First is the role of butter in discharging social obligations, and second is the multifarious ceremonial role of butter.
With respect to social obligations, in many instances payment in the form of butter is a desirable method of settling accounts. Turning briefly to religious and ceremonial requirements, we find an almost insatiable demand for butter. In lamaseries, for example, large quantities are required for making the tsocha served to lamas, and enormous amounts are consumed in the many votive lamps kept burning on altars. One scholar has suggested that the larger lamaseries of Tibet required tons of butter each year for just these two purposes (Tucci 1967: 94).
Unlike butter, however, there is no great market for or monetary value attached to the soft and hard cheeses made from yak milk. Nonetheless, cheese, made from buttermilk, is appreciated as a nourishing and tasty addition to meals; as an easily carried, sustaining food for long journeys; and as a treat on festive occasions.
Women, who are solely responsible for cheese making, do not hesitate to mix the buttermilk of yak, hybrids, and common cows in order to produce cheese. The principal concern seems to be the availability of enough buttermilk to warrant the long, tedious process of cheese making and not the composition of the buttermilk.
In any case, after the butter is removed from a churn, the remaining buttermilk is poured into kettles which are set over a fire. The buttermilk is brought to a rolling boil, after which it is removed from the fire to cool. As it cools, the buttermilk separates, forming a thick, spongy, white mass that floats to the surface of a clear liquid.
Solids are skimmed off with a shallow strainer, something like a dipper, and are placed in a cloth bag to allow whey to drain off. What remains in the cloth constitutes soft cheese, which is eaten immediately. On special occasions, sugar is added to make a sweet, tasty mixture. Soft cheese is also fried before eating, mixed with barley flour to form a doughlike food, or boiled with butter, salt, and other spices and served as a soup. More commonly, however, soft cheese is dried to form the second, hard type of cheese.
Hard cheese is produced by drying soft cheese in the sun or by the fire. Sun-drying is much preferred over fire-drying, for the latter darkens the cheese and makes it less tasty. If weather permits, soft cheese is scattered on cloths spread on the ground close to the house. If this is not possible, soft cheese is arranged before an indoor fire, on mats woven of vegetable material. In either case, soft cheese shrinks to about a fourth of its original size, forming a very hard cheese that is said to keep indefinitely.
Hard cheese most commonly is eaten by slowly dissolving pieces in the mouth. But this kind of cheese is also added to stews and soups or dropped into cups of tsocha. As an easily carried food, cubes of hard cheese are often taken on journeys to supplement meals purchased on the trail, or they may be the sole sustenance of the traveler.
Bleeding of live cattle is a widespread and common practice among the peoples of Tibet and Nepal. Bleeding is done for a variety of purposes, principal among them to obtain blood for human consumption.
Unlike milk, butter, and cheese (which are available and eaten throughout the year), blood is a seasonal food. Bleeding of yak for food takes place in late spring and early summer; only if there should be a famine are cattle bled for food in other seasons.
Not all yak are bled for food, however. Yak oxen are the animals most often bled, but occasionally yak cows, if they are not lactating, are bled as well. Hybrid cows seem never to be bled for food, and only persons who have no yak, or insufficient numbers of them, bleed male hybrids. There seems to be no evidence of bleeding common cattle for the sole purpose of procuring blood for food, though they are bled for other reasons. Moreover, no consistent and uniform explanation exists for not bleeding yak dams, female hybrids, and common cattle, but the strong impression is that although bleeding males for food is not quite proper, bleeding females for food is quite offensive.
Perhaps because bleeding cattle for food offends Buddhist sensibilities, Tibetans and Himalayans derive most blood food as a by-product of bleeding for other purposes. One is to prevent disease in cattle and ensure the cattle’s survival by encouraging them to gain weight quickly. 9 Such operations, like bloodletting for food, generally take place in late spring and early summer when cattle, after surviving the winter, begin feeding on new grass.
Any animal considered lean or prone to disease is a candidate for bleeding, though more time and consideration is given to the selection of milch cows and dams lest bloodletting cause lactation to cease. Even calves are bled to improve their health and chances for survival. Cattle that are sick or so weak that they are in immediate danger of dying are also bled. But blood drawn from such animals is not considered fit for human consumption.
As previously noted, lactating yak dams and hybrid cows are seldom, if ever, bled to supply their owners with food. And a great deal more care is shown in the selection of females for prophylactic bloodletting operations than is extended to males. Perhaps this more sympathetic treatment of cows is, as some Tibetans suggest, an attempt to reconcile human food needs with the Buddhist view that bloodletting is an improper activity because it involves use of a knife and the spilling of blood.
Or perhaps the explanation of more secular Tibetans is correct. According to them, milch cows and dams are rarely bled because there is always a possibility that the operation will prove fatal or result in cessation of lactation. This thinking suggests that decisions are based purely on selfish and economic grounds and not on higher concerns. In any case, no such consideration is shown to dry cows and to those that have difficulty being impregnated. These animals are bled in spring to improve their chances of pregnancy.
Whatever the purposes of bleeding, the method varies little from place to place and from group to group. Essentially, bleeding begins with the application of a tourniquet, simply a length of rope, around the animal’s neck. Often, but not always, a similar tourniquet is tied around the animal’s belly or buttocks to force (it is maintained) blood to the neck. Once in place, the neck tourniquet is tightened. If accompanied by another tourniquet, both are tightened. This action causes the blood vessels of the neck to stand out. One of these vessels is chosen, and using a small awl-like instrument or a special handleless chisel-edged tool called a tsakpu, the bloodletter makes an incision (not a puncture) of about 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch in length. The blood that spurts from the wound is caught in a container if it is to be prepared as food, or it is allowed to fall directly to the ground if considered inedible.
Varying quantities of blood are taken from cattle, depending primarily upon the sex, size, and condition of the animal. If the animal is male and in good condition, a half gallon of blood may be taken; if it is female and in poor condition, only a pint or so may be removed. If the operation is performed correctly, bleeding stops as soon as the tourniquet is loosened.
Bleeding of cattle is strictly a male task; women never perform the operation under any circumstances. Among nomads, each adult male is an accomplished bloodletter, having learned from his elders during childhood. Among settled folk, some perform the operation on their own cattle, but others, not as skilled, often prefer to have more experienced men bleed their cattle.
If bleeding of cattle is a task assigned to men, preparation of blood for eating is strictly a female occupation. Blood food must undergo some kind of processing because nobody would consume fresh blood. There are a number of methods of preparing blood drawn from live cattle; the particular one employed by a family depends entirely upon personal preference. One of the most common ways of preparing blood food involves simply allowing the blood to coagulate (a process that sometimes is hastened by the addition of salt), after which it is either boiled in water or fried in butter.
Another method of preparation requires that the blood be mixed with water; after a period of time, a thick mass forms that is eaten plain or mixed with salt and/or barley flour. Or barley flour may be mixed with fresh blood to form a dough that is then cooked. Some prefer to put fresh blood into metal containers that are set over a fire to warm. When the blood coagulates into a jellylike substance, it is seasoned with salt and cut into cubes to be eaten plain, fried, or boiled.
Finally, there is a blood food that seems to be peculiar to the Sherpa of Solukhumbu in Nepal. Blood drawn from cattle is allowed to dry out thoroughly and is rubbed between the hands to form a powder. This powder, or “blood flour,” is added to various dishes as a seasoning.
However it is prepared, blood is not considered entirely proper as a food. Some Tibetans and Himalayans, more committed to the Buddhist concept of nonviolence, believe that the consumption of blood food is sinful even though the process of blood-letting may benefit cattle. Nevertheless, virtually everyone eats blood food with relish, finding it tasty and nourishing. This religious-dietary dilemma is, perhaps, understandable when it is remembered that blood food is a seasonal commodity, available in large quantities during late spring and early summer. This timing coincides with the period of meat shortage for most Tibetan and Himalayan folk. Meat derived from stocks put up the previous autumn is near depletion at this time, and blood is a welcome addition to the diet, too tempting to forgo.