Plate or Pass: Camel meat
Americans primarily know the camel from a distance. Sure, it's the face of an American brand of cigarettes, the Alcoholics Anonymous mascot, the subject of a popular Geico commercial, and the namesake of a certain fashion disaster, but unless you've taken an "exotic" camel ride at the circus or while on vacation, you've probably only seen a camel from behind high zoo fences. In Australia, it's an entirely different story.
According to an Al Jazeera article from early last year, camels were introduced to Australia in the 1800s by the British via India and Pakistan for transportation purposes. When automobiles took over the camel's responsibilities in the 1900s, the government ordered that all camels be destroyed. Instead, camel herders set their animals free in the outback, where it was estimated that 1.2 million of them roamed in 2009. In turn, the South Australian government put more than $19 million toward killing a third of the population. By the time the operation ended, 160,000 camels had been killed, primarily by hunters and private contractors shooting them from helicopters. Coincidentally, as the the culling ended, a new study from late last year suggested that only 300,000 camels currently reside in the Australian outback -- less than a third of the initial estimate.
In response to the widespread culling, some groups, like the Australian Camel Industry Association, presented sustainable alternatives, like using the feral camels for meat and dairy production. Considering that camel meat, milk, and blood are widely consumed and considered a delicacy in a handful of countries across the globe, it came as a welcome decision. Today, most of the camel meat found in the States is imported directly from Australia.
Without further ado, let's talk camel meat.
As kids, most of us learned that camels' humps were full of water and, if you're like us, you've probably carried that misinformation into adulthood. We hate to burst your bubble, Hot Dish readers, but those humps are full of fat. Tasty, tasty fat.
But the hump, which weighs upward of 80 pounds, isn't the only edible part of the camel -- other choice cuts include the loin, brisket, and ribs. Meat from young camels is preferable, as the meat tends to toughen and lose flavor as camels age. And lest we forget, these aren't small creatures. Dromedary camels (one hump) can grow up to seven feet tall and weigh anywhere from 600 to more than 1,000 pounds, while Bactrians (two humps) weigh between 600 and 2,000 pounds. That's a lot of meat.
Camel meat is surprisingly easy to find in Minneapolis, sold not only at Holy Land and most halal grocery stores in the city, but as a popular burger at Safari Express in Midtown Global Market. Starting in February, its sister restaurant, Safari, is adding camel to the menu, according to owner, Abdi Ahmed.
"We're bringing back just the regular camel meat with rice, with ugali, with plantains," he said.
Ahmed went on to explain the importance of the camel to Somali life and cuisine.
"Traditionally and geographically, there are three categories. There are nomads, there's people from southern Somalia, and there's the people on the shore," he said. "On the north side, to the nomads, camel is everything. It's the mode of transportation, it's the meat, it's the milk."
After our talk with Ahmed, we headed to Safari Express to try the camel burger. The burger, which costs $8.49 and comes with fries and a drink, is served on a firm, toasted bun with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and spicy mayo. It's good, but dry, which makes sense since camel is one of the leanest meats out there. Fortunately, the mayo and tomatoes provided some needed juiciness. Though we expected a gamey flavor, the meat was surprisingly neutral, though perked up with some added spices.
The burger is worth trying, but we were certain camel meat had more potential. Next stop, Holy Land. We purchased a pound and a half of frozen camel meat for just over $8. The butcher explained that the meat is usually served in medium-sized chunks, so we went with that.
We started by baking the meat with a variety of peppers, garlic, and onion for an hour and served it to a group of friends. The reactions were as follows:
"It's like chewing shitty steak and having to guzzle milk so you can swallow it."
"I think it's awesome. Not a problem with it."
"It has the flavor and texture of a chicken gizzard."
"It reminds me of eating cheap, overcooked steaks as a kid. I'd have to chew and chew and drink milk and swallow the piece whole."
"It's a little tough but, you know, it tastes good."
We weren't satisfied. We headed to Dur Dur Bakery & Grocery on Lake Street for another two pounds of frozen camel chunks, which were much fattier than what we got at Holy Land. We were determined to rid the camel of its dry chewiness and could think of no better approach than the all-powerful crock pot. We covered the chunks in water, added two teaspoons each of cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, curry powder, and salt, and cooked on low.
The longer camel is cooked, the softer it gets. Six hours later, we drained the water and shredded the chunks on a cutting board. The meat pulled apart effortlessly. We added a bottle of Sadia's locally made sweet sauce (purchased from Dur Dur for $3.99) and cooked for another 10 minutes. (For an Americanized version, you can add a bottle of barbecue sauce.)
Pulled camel sandwich.
Pulled camel sandwiches won our hearts. The chewiness was gone. The meat was exceptionally moist. Sadia's East African sauce made for the optimal blend of traditional and contemporary. It was perfect.
Verdict: Plate. You can call us camel converts.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.