12:16pm

Wed June 13, 2012
The Salt

Libyan Menu Prompts The Question: Camel, Anyone?

Originally published on Tue December 4, 2012 4:00 pm

NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road trip from Tunisia to Cairo to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves.

He's also sharing with us here at The Salt what he's been eating.

Dear Salt,

In Tripoli, there is an outdoor restaurant called Al-Athar, which is located next to an ancient Roman arch. And my eyes were drawn to the menu item that said "baby camel."

I tell you, you do not order a meal with a name like this without first pausing to think. The menu might as well have said "baby panda." Our photographer John Poole, who's open to many things, said there was no way he was ordering that. Our producer, Nishant Dahiya, did not particularly object but ordered something else. That left me, and I knew you'd want to know. I ordered what duty required.

The chunks of camel meat are stewed in what seems to be a tomato-based sauce, though it is spiced differently from any tomato sauce I'd tasted.

More striking is how the camel is served. It's heated inside a clay jar, which the waiter carries to the table with a piece of bread pressed over the opening on top. Then, the waiter takes a hammer to the jar. He raps it several times, turning it after each rap. The jar cracks until it comes apart like an egg, and the meat and sauce are poured onto your plate. If you get a stray chunk of pottery hidden in the sauce, it's a challenge akin to watching for bones in a fish.

The taste is tremendous, the meat soft and juicy, although I suspect this has less to do with the camel meat than with the sauce and the preparation. But I did decline roast camel a few days later when a group of Bedouin tribesmen with camels, pickup trucks, and anti-aircraft guns invited us to lunch.

It was not so much the camel or the company. At that point, we were in a high-velocity phase of our road trip, when the vast distance across the desert dictated that we had to travel hundreds of miles on that day.

Dear Steve,

Thank you so much for tucking into camel on behalf of The Salt. If your traveling companions are still giving you a hard time, think of it this way: For us, you dined on something not just in a distant place, but also from a distant time.

The ancient Persians used to serve whole roast camel at banquets, just as Libyans in the western part of the country do at weddings today. And the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus was apparently very partial to camel's heel.

In fact, camel meat has long been a staple in many parts of the Middle East, Pakistan, and North and East Africa. Jamal Hashi, who serves camel and other East African food at his restaurant Safari Express in Minneapolis tells The Salt that there is a phrase in Somali,"Cad iyo Caano waa Nin Baadiya Cuntdadii," which translates to "camel milk and meat is all a nomad needs."

And camels pack a meaty — even a mighty punch. Anshu Pathak, who raises camels for meat in the U.S., tells us that a three-year old male camel will provide around 700 pounds of meat. And you can, he says, eat "each and every part of it, even the tail."

Camel meat is very lean and often prepared in the way that you ate it, Steve — simmered in red sauce like beef or lamb, though usually for much longer. "A grown camel's meat is quite tough," says Sundus Qutait, who writes for a blog called Libyan Food, though "a very young camel has tender pink meat just like a young calf."

Camel can also be roasted over a fire, but also baked like this: "Foil wrapped meat is placed in a metal drum which is buried in sand then a fire is lit on top. Even camel meat falls off the bone and has a butter soft texture when cooked this way," Qutait says.

"The camel hump or sanama is considered a delicacy by some," Qutait says. "It is fibrous and doesn't melt like other fats." It is sometimes diced and served over Mbawakh (steamed dishes like rice, pasta or couscous), or added to osban (rice sausages).

It all sounds delicious, but apparently even most Libyans don't put camel at the top of their favorites list. It's eaten more regularly in the west than in the east, Qutait says — lamb is most popular in Libya.

You may be offered camel meat again when you get to Egypt, as the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease has sent demand for camel soaring.

Back in the U.S., Jamil Hashi of the Safari Express restaurant tells The Salt that he has successfully introduced camel meat to this country by putting it inside a bun. "People weren't so hesitant anymore, after all it is just a burger," he says. Hashi gets his camel meat from local Halal butchers who import it from Australia.

If you fancy cooking camel for yourself, Ashu Pathak at Exotic Meat Market has camel ribeye steaks, and camel filet mignon as well as stew meat. Camel Wellington, anyone?

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