The first time I tasted camel was some 25 years ago in Damascus, Syria.
I didn’t want to pass up the chance. I sat down and asked the butcher to grill me some meat. He suggested I have it ground rather than cubed, as it would too tough otherwise. It was not a gastronomic marvel. The meat was dry with a slightly gamey taste, but I was excited to have tried it. In this recipe, which also uses ground meat, the meatballs are made more interesting by the addition of millet grains, which provide a nice crunch, and dipping sauces that temper the dryness of the meat. If you can’t get camel meat, simply use lamb or beef, or a mixture of both.
Put the tahini in a bowl and, alternating them, gradually add the lemon juice and cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) water, stirring all the time. The tahini will thicken at first even though you are adding liquid, but do not worry; it will soon thin out again. Before you use up all the lemon juice, taste the dip to adjust the tartness to your liking. If you decide to use less lemon juice, add a little more water to make up for the lost liquid. Stir until the sauce has the consistency of sour cream. Add the garlic and salt to taste. Mix well.
Put the tamarind paste into a separate bowl. Add 1 cup (325 ml) hot water and let steep for 15 minutes, then mash the pulp in the water. Line a fine-mesh sieve with cheesecloth and set over a bowl. Strain the tamarind mixture in the sieve, pressing on the pulp to extract as much tamarind as you can. Add the coriander, pepper and cilantro. Season with salt to taste and mix well.
Combine the meat, millet, garlic, coriander, pepper and salt to taste and mix well. Shape the meat into small balls, each the size of a walnut, and place on a baking sheet. Refrigerate for 15 minutes while you heat the oil.
Set a fine-mesh rack on a rimmed baking sheet or line the baking sheet with several layers of paper towel. Pour 2 inches (5 cm) sunflower oil into a large deep skillet. Heat over medium heat to 350°F (180°C). If you don’t have a thermometer, test by dropping a piece of bread into the oil—if the oil immediately bubbles around it, it is ready. Drop in as many meatballs as will fit comfortably in the pan. Fry, stirring the meatballs every now and then, until the millet is golden and the meatballs are cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on the wire rack or paper towels.
Reprinted with permission from Feast: Food of the Islamic World
Anissa Helou, Ecco Press, 978-0-06236-303-9, $60 hb. www.harpercollins.com.
Anissa Helou (www.anissas.com) is a chef, food writer, journalist, broadcaster, consultant and blogger focusing on the cuisines and culinary heritage of the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa. Born and raised between Beirut, Lebanon, and Mashta el-Helou, Syria, she knows the Mediterranean as only a well-traveled native can. She is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, an accomplished photographer and intrepid traveler. She runs culinary tours to Mediterranean countries and teaches cooking classes, for which she has appeared in numerous tv shows. Helou was also the first-ever chef-in-residence at Leighton House during the annual Nour Festival in November 2011.