Yak, the shaggy beast from Tibet and Nepal, produces cheese that is high in polyunsaturated fat. Researchers say that they also have four times more conjugated linoleic acid than dairy cattle cheese. Linoleic acid may help ward off heart disease. Some earlier studies also had shown that certain types of dairy-derived fatty acids, particularly conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), may help fight heart disease, cancer and even diabetes.
As yak cheese is supposed to smell and taste much like cheddar, it may be a better option if you love cheese but don’t care for the fat that comes with it.
Distinct Nutritional Differences
Distinct nutritional differences have been found between cheddar cheese made from grain-fed cows and those made from the milk of yak. A research team from the University of Guleph, Canada, comparing yaks from Nepal and cows from Canada, found yak cheese to be lower in overall fat content when compared to the cheese of grain-fed cows.
They also found yak cheese containing high amounts of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is commonly found in flaxseed, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another healthy type of fat. Possible reason for this is attributed to these yaks grazing on Himalayan alpine pastures as against dairy cows which are given grain-based diets.
Nepal First Country to Make Yak Cheese
Historically the Tibetans and the Nepalese were amongst the few Asians to use dairy products. But cheese as we know today was not made as they never had much taste for Western-style cheese. The cheese made from yak milk is only for export to Western markets, where they are sold in high prices.
Yak cheese is an important part of Himalayan cuisine and Nepal was the first country in the world to start making cheese from Yak milk. The first yak cheese factory was set up in 1952. Even now cheese factories are in remote high hill areas of Nepal and it takes 2 to 4 days to transport cheese from these factories to Katmandu.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1952 took up training of Swiss-style hard cheeses making among dairy processors in Nepal. Cheese making was earlier a state monopoly but in the early 1990s private cheese making began to be permitted.
Yak cheese has a high value to weight ratio, making it one of the few products well suited to Nepal's remote high-altitude areas where poverty is particularly severe.
The primary market of yak cheese is foreign tourists and ex-patriots living in Nepal.
Yak Cheese in Tibet
Dairy products in Tibet can only be made from May to September as at this time enough grass is available for yaks to consume and produce sufficient milk.
Yak Cheese made in Tibet and Nepal has half the butterfat skimmed off the milk to make a harder-style cheese, which is then soaked in brine and cured outdoors in shelters. The cheese ends up grainy and tangy. Rajya Metok Cheese in Tibet was developed partly as an effort to produce a higher-quality Yak Cheese.
Cheese in Chinese Village
In the Qinghai province in China, half the total milk production of 230,000 tons is from yak milk. Chinese yak cheese is gaining acceptance in international markets, especially in the USA, Italy and Hong Kong.
The village of Langdu in western China, a community of ethnic Tibetan yak herders, is developing a sustainable yak cheese industry with Government and NGO support. Nomadic yak herders are supplying milk to the village's cheese factory, a log cabin equipped with wood-fired burners. The factory takes pains to maintain hygiene and cleanliness. With availability of electricity and installation of electric stoves their capacity is expected to double.
The yak herders too will make huge gains from selling their milk to the cheese factory. This would also prevent the villagers from migrating to cities in search of employment.
Yak Cheese Market in the West
Only certain gourmet grocery stores in the US have recently started making yak cheese available. Online purchase facilities are also limited. Yet with quality improvement there is great possibility of developing markets in foreign countries, particularly in the Indian subcontinent.
While the sale of Yak Cheese to the West has increased household incomes in the Himalayas, the FAO is concerned that with so much milk being used for making cheese for the West, Yak calves are being deprived of milk and suffering a higher infant mortality rate.