Soft, moist, cheesy and easy on the palette in general, the camel sliders at Switch Restaurant and Lounge sent my taste buds on a nostalgic trip from The Dubai Mall straight to Nairobi, reminding me of Kenyan venison. The iced camel latte (Dh22), however, had me rooted to the present, gently flavoured cold coffee that went down faster than I could say wow.
The camel milk felt quite heavy and filling, like it ought to be a meal by itself, and indeed it has been so for the desert-dwelling Bedouins. Arab nomads roaming deserts in search of pasture and water for their livestock, the Bedouins have relied upon the Camelus Dromedarius (the Arabian one-humped camel) for transport, milk and meat all along the rolling dunes of Middle East and Africa. A dish of whole stuffed camel, featuring a camel stuffed with a lamb that is stuffed with other ingredients, is believed to be the traditional Bedouin wedding dish for shaikhs.
Fast food trends
UAE restaurants are now trying to cash in on the versatility of camel meat, and chefs have taken to featuring the ship of the desert in familiar preparations, making it accessible to more people. Popular eats such as pizzas, burgers, sliders, steaks, pastas, ragouts and kebab platters are fast developing camel meat avatars.
"Not everyone will be able to stomach camel meat in all its Bedouin glory," says Chef Khulood Atiq, the UAE's first female Emirati chef and author of Sarareed, "Which is why I am trying to reach the wider audience through a more accepted vehicle, the burger." Local House Restaurant, an unassuming food spot in the Bastakiya heritage village area of Bur Dubai was the first to sell camel burgers in the emirate.
Plans are already afoot for camel meat lasagne, spaghetti and manakish in Olivia's Italian Restaurant as part of Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre's (Adnec's) drive to fuse UAE-sourced produce into its restaurants. Olivia's serves a delectable camel pizza, with about five to six pizzas being sold on an average day.
East meets West
The idea of consuming camel meat and, indeed its taste, are fairly new concepts for the Western world (although it is not a novelty on Australian menus, which famously feature kangaroo and emu). "We recently had a shaikh who requested for and was served an entire camel," says Kenneth Murphy, Executive Chef, Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara. "Those who are not from the Middle East, on the other hand, might find it harder to eat camel meat."
Perhaps the hesitation stems from lack of exposure to camel meat or difficulty in associating camel with food? The answer, if such is the case, lies in overcoming inhibitions and playing gastronomist. After all, what you find on your table is meat from camels that have been farmed especially for consumption, says Executive Chef Salvatore Silvestrino, Movenpick Hotel, Deira.
The UAE has a strong halal guideline and mandatory hygiene decrees, which are followed on every slaughter, and once this requirement is met, the meat is considered fit for consumption, says Chef Raydan Mahdi, Executive Sous Chef, Olivia's Italian Restaurant at Adnec. "Even though camel meat is not as common as beef or lamb, eating camel is not a sensitive issue here in the UAE," he says.
The growing popularity of camel meat can be attributed to its health benefits and its versatility in successfully fusing different cuisines from around the world. "Believe it or not, camel meat is very lean. It has a good cooking temperament, which allows for the meat to be cooked for longer periods without undergoing a change in taste or texture," says Chef Silvestrino, creator of such fusion dishes as pomegranate jus-braised camel and ribbon pasta with camel, among others. "The cooking time varies from anything between 45 minutes to one hour for braising with the lid secured on the pot. Spices tend to lend themselves quite well to the meat, but I would use them sparingly," he advises.
Milking the benefits
And what of camel dairy? Does the nutrient-rich camel milk take a quiet backstage and let the meat steal all the applause? Never. "Use it as a substitute for normal milk, and if you don't like the idea of camel milk, just don't think about what it is!" says Chef Murphy.
Is it worth fooling yourself into drinking something you don't want to? Yes, as it turns out. "It is a much healthier option. It is nearly fat-free and has a number of different nutrients," adds Chef Murphy. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations website mentions that camel milk is "three times as rich in Vitamin C, is rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins." It also boosts the immunity system.
Camel milk is easily digestible as it doesn't curdle in acidic environments such as the stomach. Doctors the world over are recommending camel milk to patients, but its success as a magic elixir that cures diabetes and heart disease is still being researched.
Camel milk chocolate has been flying off Dubai Duty Free shelves as an exotic reminder of the Arabian desert, while the more affordable milkshakes pose a healthier alternative to their bovine counterparts, in a variety of flavours.
Gastronomists eagerly await the launch of the cheese even as camel milk finds a home in cafes and restaurants in its 'camelccino' avatar, coffee with camel milk. Camel dairy is also breaking the culture barrier by being introduced in Western preparations such as creme brulees and panna cottas.
"One of the biggest challenges we face today is changing the perception of camel milk as a niche product, not for everyday use. People drink camel milk for its novelty value, they need to be educated about the nutrients in camel milk and drink it for the health benefits instead," says April Hobbs, Public Relations Manager, Al Ain Dairy, a leading dairy products manufacturer in the UAE. A sharp rise in demand saw Al Ain Dairy add six new flavours to the original Camelait camel milk product this April: laban, date, rose, chocolate, saffron and cardamom, with the latter two being particularly popular.
If the pending European Union commission approval comes through, camel milk production will hit a new high in the UAE as exciting trade possibilities would open up, but there is a long way to go before the country capitalises on the opportunity. "Producing camel milk is a labour-intensive and capital-intensive enterprise," says Hobbs. "We are facing a rising demand here in the UAE, which is bombarded with a shortage of supply."
Surely, there cannot be a shortage of camels in a desert country? So where does the deficit come from? "Save some hobby farms dotted over the Emirates, there are hardly any serious suppliers of camel milk in the market. We have some 2,500 camels in our farm at Al Ain Dairy, but not all of them are lactating females," says Hobbs. "Also, it is a less-known fact that camels only produce about one-fifth of what cows produce."
Camel ice cream
The FAO website mentions that the world's biggest camel milk producer is Somalia, with a production of about 850,000 tonnes of camel milk a year, followed by Saudi Arabia with 89,000 tonnes. Yet, it seems that the UAE will be the first producer of camel milk ice cream in the Gulf region. Al Ain Dairy was born 31 years ago out of a desire to bring fresh milk to a nation that was surviving on powder milk. It's now set to launch its own brand of camel milk ice cream by year end. "It will be a niche, high-end luxury product, competing with the top end of the market," says Hobbs.
I stepped out of Switch guilt-free after foregoing home-made dinner for camel sliders and iced camel latte. After all, the meat was lean and the milk boosted my immunity, was low in fat content and packed with vitamins B and C, iron and what not. A ghost of a pimple the morning after reminded me that I had tried something new the night before, but apart from that, nothing had changed. I am still sticking to the familiar bovine produce and will not hunt for camel meat any time soon, but every now and then when my diet goes awry, I will step into Switch and demand camel, if only to fool myself.