Eating Camel in Dubai

Eating Camel in Dubai

 

I tend to feel like a stranger in a strange land until I familiarize myself with a country’s cuisine. And I don’t mean ordering Pad Thai in Bangkok because I could simply walk down most streets in Manhattan and find this noodle dish, (albeit for ten times the price). I like to eat whatever it is that Americans don’t usually classify as food. So in Thailand, I ate Thai-spiced grasshoppers and beetles and whirligigs. Down Under, I went over the top on kangaroo. In Fiji, I sipped Kava with the locals, who honored me (or mocked me) with the title of Kava King. (Only in Peru was I less daring and avoided devouring the relatives of my second grade classroom pet: Sam the Guinea Pig.)

 

On my recent trip to Dubai, my stomach would not settle until I ate something unique to the region.

 

“You must try the dates,” a spice souk vendor said and then forced my hand into a box, which held dates that tasted as creamy and sweet as congealed honey. While incredible, dried fruit was not the fix I was looking for. The vendor continued to pitch, hoping to sell me on his dates or saffron, or even these nuts that he purported to have Viagra-like effects. I bought the dates, refused the saffron, and ignored the nuts, (though, in the interest of full disclosure, did receive one nut for free).

 

“How about you try camel chocolate?” he said, opening up a tin filled with pieces of camel milk chocolate, which were shaped and dyed like pieces of coral that had chipped off from the reef. “Much healthier than cow chocolate.”

 

Camel Milk Chocolate Dubai

 

It turns out that he was right about “cow chocolate”–or at least the milk that’s used in our familiar Western dessert. Cow milk is nowhere near as healthy as its desert equivalent. Camel milk has half the fat, but three times more vitamin C than cow’s milk. It is also the closest milk to a human mother’s, is easily digested by many people who suffer from lactose intolerance, and contains antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-tumor properties.

 

But I wasn’t as interested in the healthy properties and taste of camel milk; I was, however, inclined to sample the source of such a product.

 

Camel meat is not a popular dish in the United Arab Emirates. Firstly, unlike the American cow who we demand give us both its milk and meat, the camel is a bit more revered in the UAE. After all, these single-humped creatures are as close to an Emirati’s best friend as American’s consider their humping creatures–dogs–to be. Not long before Dubai’s skyscrapers soared to Guinness-Book heights, the UAE was mainly desert, where the camel was most essential for its milk and abilities to transport. Today, even though the Emiratis have quicker ways to get around and can import whatever milk they so desire, as they have more money than most can imagine, the locals still love their spitting beasts. Emiratis host camel beauty contests, races, and hold auctions, where the most prized creatures can fetch millions of dollars. Eating camel, however is not taboo. It’s just usually reserved for special occasions.

 

My visit to Dubai, to me, was a special occasion, so I spent the day walking the old part of the city, hunting down my lunch: any menu that had the word camel on it. As the 110-degree day started to bake my good senses and I was near giving up, I arrived in the historic district, Al Bastakiya, and spotted the Local House restaurant. Outside the entrance to this eatery stood a board with a faded caricature of a camel waiter serving up a burger. I wondered whether this picture was some cute marketing effort–a camel evolved with the times, appearing as modern as the city, shedding its blanket and reins for waiter fatigues, though still abiding by its role as chief of transportation in this desert climate–or a mirage. But upon closer inspection, I realized that the picture was real and the camel was not serving a typical hamburger. It was delivering a piece of itself: a camel burger that was going for 43 dirham (about $12.00 US) at the Local House.

 

Local House Camel Meat Dubai

 

Eating Camel in Dubai

 

I entered the restaurant’s courtyard, where a shaded gazebo sat in the middle of the space and photographs of the top shiekhs, ubiquitous in all Dubai establishments, hung from the posts. Surrounding the courtyard were dozens of camel statues draped in traditional camel garb. It seemed like a bad design choice, which could cause customers to switch from feeling pleasure to empathy. It would be like McDonald’s replacing Ronald with Bessie the Bovine.

 

Local House Dubai

 

But I was not conflicted by the presence of camel dolls. I opted for the back room, however, where there were no long-faced statues to cause me guilt, plus the air-conditioning was on full blast. With beatific swords, decorative coffee pots, and a side room filled with floor cushions, I felt like I was sitting in a cosmopolitan Bedouin camp.

 

Local House Dubai

 

According to their Website, the Local House, back in 2010, was the first restaurant in Dubai to serve up the camel burger. Like camel milk, the meat of this animal is also healthier as it contains much less fat and cholesterol.

 

I didn’t order the camel burger though. For seven dirham more, I upgraded to camel biryani, which was served with a huge plate of turmeric-tinged rice. When my meal arrived, my first guess, as I studied the cube at the end of my fork, was that the meat would be tough. After all, desert conditions and endless walking prep muscles to be sinewy. And if you read up on camel meat, you’ll know that my hypothesis is true. However, the Local House recipe turned this stubborn protein into tender cubes that fell apart like slow-cooked brisket.

 

Eating Camel in Dubai Local House

 

The lankier of two men, both of whom worked the restaurant floor and kitchen, arrived to the table with water.

 

“How did you prepare the meat?” I asked.

 

He said that his camel meat came from the smallest of the seven Emirates, Ajman. Once delivered to his kitchen, he explained that he boiled the meat for fifteen minutes and then stir fried it for half that time with a melange of onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, dashes of black pepper and soy sauce that produced a peppery reduction. But as I took another bite, which was as easy as closing my jaw upon butter and as flavorful as a savory stew, I knew that twenty-odd minutes of cook time couldn’t be true. It would require more effort to make beef as soft, and for flavors to exchange so perfectly, a chef couldn’t set his watch to the time it took for a sitcom episode to air.

 

After the meal, I found the heavier waiter/chef standing beside one of the camel dolls that sat on a table near the kitchen.

 

“Can I see your kitchen?” I asked him, hoping to acquire a few more elements to this camel biryani recipe.

 

He waved for me to follow him and we ducked beneath a half door that was only open on the bottom. The austere room was mostly empty space with a large stove and a half dozen pots bubbling away on the range.

 

“Chicken,” he said, lifting the lid off one pot and keeping the contents exposed. “Rice biryani.” The process of naming dishes, removing lids, and keeping them off continued until we reached the last pot. “Camel.” He smiled, nodded, allowed me to peer down upon the ingredients at work, but then covered the lid as the tough meat became tender in the secret kitchen of the Local House.

 

Local House Dubai Kitchen

 

When I returned to my hotel, I typed in “eating camel” into Google, hoping to get a vague idea about camel preparation or dromedary recipes. Unfortunately, the first link that I clicked on brought me to a New York Times article, which suggested that a Middle East coronavirus, known as MERS, might be linked to the camel. In the year since the SARS-like MERS had been discovered, about 100 people had contracted the virus and almost half that number had died. Again my stomach felt unsettled. But considering that we have scares when it comes to all of our comestibles, from beef to spinach, and we sometimes excoriate the wrong veggie, I thought of happier memories like how the Local House got their camel meat so tender.

 

Local House Dubai

Posted on by Noah Lederman in I Ate What?, Middle East

11 Responses to Eating Camel in Dubai

  1. Mrs. Gross

    You remembered Sam! Actually, it was Samantha after I took it home, and she produced 3 mini guinea pigs. Interesting piece on the camel brisket. I love your writing.

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks Mrs. Gross. Samantha?! That fact changes my entire childhood.

  2. Juliann

    Great post. I’d be inclinced to try something local like this, too, but am not sure how far I’d go to explore the meat source and preparation. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s not a meat I would have thought about. I’d probably make do with trying the camel’s milk in all its varieties.

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks Juliann. Let me know what you think of camel milk if you ever sample it.

  3. The Hopeless Wanderer

    I think I could try the chocolate but I don’t think I could go as far as the actual camel meat! lol
    The Hopeless Wanderer recently posted…The Duplin WineryMy Profile

    • Noah Lederman

      Fair enough. But the next time you’re in a desert country, reconsider. It’s pretty tasty. Thanks for reading.

  4. Susan (@VibrantIreland)

    I’m curious to know- did the camel chocolate taste much different than cow’s milk chocolate?
    Susan (@VibrantIreland) recently posted…Photos: Storm Christine Rocks Ireland’s CoastMy Profile

    • Noah Lederman

      A subtle difference, but if no one had told me I doubt I would have known.

  5. Uday Dhale

    I have tasted Camel Biryani in Dubai. The meat was bit tough, though the dish was prepared and marketed by a big company. Rice was like any Indian Biryani, however, small pieces of camel were bit difficult to chew.

  6. Anna la viajera

    This answers my query on where to eat camel in dubai.thanks☺

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