I have a dark secret: I am not a great cook. I could live off cheese sandwiches, whole fruit and the occasional meat, forever. My mother doesn’t know this.
So it should come as no surprise that I, a woman from Saudi Arabia, have never eaten camel meat. Or drank camel milk.
And while I am, clearly, without shame, I am also curious. That is what brought me to the tent in al-Rumah, two hours from Riyadh, at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival. I came knowing that, over the next few days, I’d be eating camel.
It only took a few hours.
“Dinner is ready.”
The words come with much anticipation.
Dinner, it turns out, was camel. They divided part of one camel among five enormous silver trays, each with rice and vegetables.
“Do you eat camel often?” I ask my companions.
“Not really,” Nada answers. “We have it when important guests visit us. And during Ramadan. We have to have it during Ramadan.
“We’ll buy a whole camel and split it between our homes,” she says. One camel can feed several hundred people.
She explains that the “most delicious” camel meat is hashi. That means it comes from a camel between six months and one year old.
“They’ve got enough meat on them by then, but are also nice and tender,” she says. “That’s what we’re eating today.”
Yikes. I had prepared myself to eat camel, but not baby camel. Refusing was not an option. “What will it taste like?”
“Like lamb,” she says.
Later in the evening, Mohammed al-Rushoody, our host at the festival, tells me stories of growing up with pet camels. His favorite was a young male, which he nursed when the mother died. “I was so upset when he died.”
“How,” I ask, “can you eat camels when you’ve raised them as pets?”
“Because they’re delicious,” he says, grinning. “And besides, their purpose is to be eaten.”
This is where Mohammed is mistaken.
Before their meat ever filled anybody’s belly, camels were first and foremost a means of crossing and surviving in deserts. It’s a job they got by developing padded feet, protective long eyelashes and of course the ability to go weeks without water. Their hair and skins provide clothing and shelter, and even their pellet-like excrement—nearly odorless—can be burned to cook a meal. Not to mention the nutritious milk. They’re “ships of the desert” for good reasons.
But that’s a role that seems to be changing.
The next day, I ask my colleagues if they’ve ever had camel meat or milk before.
“I got invited to a friend’s farm, and I got to drink camel milk, straight from teat to bowl to mouth,” says Jason, one of the photographers. “The milk was still warm in the glass. It was very sweet.”
“Really?” interjects Hatim, the other photographer. “I also drank it straight from a camel, but the milk was salty.”
Mohammed shares his own experience: “I find camel milk very sour, actually.”
Three people, three very different impressions: Is camel milk a kind of tasting equivalent of a #TheDress debate?
At the festival’s suq, I meet Umm Abdullah, an older woman who is selling camel bridles. I ask if she has ever eaten camel. She laughs.
“Child, I used to raise and milk camels myself.” Her eyes well up. “We are in the city now. But I’m a Bedouin. I’m just a city-dwelling Bedouin.”
She refuses to share her recipe for camel meat. “You simply use the same spices that you would for lamb,” she says. “Everybody has their own favorite mix.” Instead, she shares her recipe for camel milk.
“It’s best during the winter,” she says. “Or you can heat the milk with some desert plants and leave it to ferment, and then it becomes like yogurt.”
I wrote it down:
Camel milk, pasteurized
Black pepper (optional)
Just like that.
Next door, Umm Muhammad is happy to share her camel meat recipe. “I only make camel meat with rice, like a kabsah. It doesn’t work otherwise,” she says. “I put cinnamon, dried lime, bay leaves, cloves and cardamom. But I don’t like camel.
“I know I’m from the desert,” she continues, “and I’ve eaten it a lot. It’s healthier, but I never liked it.”
Farther down the suq, Umm Ziyad asks if I’m interested in spices. I ask if she has any for camel meat.
“They’re all for camel’s meat,” she says, adding, “my mix is special. I can’t tell you what’s in it, so don’t ask me.”
The way to cook camel, she says, is “just like lamb, but double the cooking time so it becomes tender.”
I mention the need to impress guests. “Use my spices on onions for a delicious kabsah, and sauté them together before you put in the meat,” she instructs. “Or if you want to really impress, make harees with camel’s meat. But don’t use any spices.”
Harees is a porridge-like dish, and it is a traditional recipe from Najd, Saudi Arabia’s central province. She directs me: Put the camel meat in until it is “half-cooked, or the fat melts a bit.” Then add harees (cracked wheat, or bulgur, would likely do). Add water. Boil.
She eyes me. “Or I could show you. Call me when you’re about to cook.”
And just like that, she gives me her number.
Back at the festival, Saeed al-Sowailem, M.D., gives me the rundown on the little-understood coronavirus, also known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or mers, that emerged in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. At its peak in 2015, it had claimed more than 500 lives.
The virus was discovered to originate from bats, but camels, too, were carriers. This spread fears around camel milk and meat.
“Coronavirus in camels is just as common as the cold is in humans,” al-Sowailem says. “It’s always been there.” There is “no evidence that the strain that’s infecting humans is transmitted to them from camels,” he explains. But just to be sure, the solution is simple: “If you’re going to drink milk, make sure it’s pasteurized.” And meat? “Cooking meat well is important to prevent all kinds of diseases.”
Two brothers, Mohammed and Nawwaf al-Sahli, tell me there’s “no way” they would eat camel, and food safety has nothing to do with it.
“I don’t like it,” says Mohammed, the older brother. “It’s tough. It has lots of bones. But I do like camel milk a lot.
“I used to go to the camel market with my grandfather to buy and cook the meat,” he says. “My grandfather had a naqah [she-camel] and we would drink her milk. But we sold her when he passed away, and we stopped drinking after that.”
Nawwaf agrees. “I prefer lamb.”
When I meet Fawzan al-Madi, he is between overseeing camel races and rounds in the camel beauty contests. What, I ask, does he look for in deciding whether a camel will be a money-winner or food?
“You can tell by their lineage, if the parents were fast or beautiful,” he says, “but you can also tell when they’re young. A six-month-old camel will show signs of beauty in their eyes, in the shape of their heads; or he will be faster than average.”
The camels that are neither pretty nor fast get sold to slaughterhouses. “That’s if they’re male,” he says. “We’ll keep females for their milk and to reproduce.”
Al-Madi is on the board of the kingdom’s Camel Club, the newly formed official body that is gradually consolidating camel events in Saudi Arabia under one administrative umbrella and, with this effort, pushing camel culture to new heights.
“The camel is a symbol of Saudi Arabia,” al-Madi said in a press release. “We used to preserve it out of necessity, now we preserve it as a pastime.”
It may come as a surprise that Saudi Arabia, home to 1.4 million of the world’s dromedary (one-hump camel) population, does not derive more economic benefit from camel industries aside from untreated camel leather. There are not yet any major commercial camel farms, let alone any significant derivative products from camel meats or milk. Currently the most reliable source of camel meats and milk are local weekly markets, where farmers gather from neighboring towns and cities to sell their produce, or straight from camel markets.
“This will all change,” al-Madi tells me. “There will be factories of camel milk products, and we will export.”
At the festival there are signs of this. One of them is painted on a camel burger food truck. A caricature of a camel has been given a speech bubble that reads, in English, “Born to be hamburger.”
I’m pretty sure no camel ever actually said that.
There are two burgers on the menu: hashi and chicken. I realize this is not the time for chicken. I get to the cashier and ask what they put in the hashi burger.
“We add spicy jarjeer [rocket leaves] and our secret, special sauce,” he says. “It goes great with hashi.”
I take my first bite. It’s tender. Juicy. Slight crunch. The spiciness of the rocket leaves is … interesting. Ultimately, it’s a burger. Not exactly a big deal.
The cashier tells me that the owner has a private farm where he raises and slaughters camels. They marinate the meat themselves. One camel will make enough burger patties for three or four days’ business. “It’s getting busier. People at first were surprised to see hashi burgers, but then they tried them,” he says. “It’s a different way of eating something familiar.”
On the ride back to the hotel, I tell our Uber driver, Nasir, that I just had my first taste of hashi.
“Nice! He’s still nursing from his mother!” he says. “He must have been delicious.”
Nasir, it turns out, has a lot to say about camel meat.
“Did you know that the best part of the camel is not the hump, but right under the hump, where the fat from the hump has made the meat delicious and tender?
“And don’t try eating the tongue either. It’s rough from eating all the spiky desert plants. It’s not like lamb.
“Ah, I bet you didn’t know this either,” he goes on, glancing back through the rearview mirror, excited.
“The taste of camel milk changes depending on what the camel ate that day. If she eats desert herbs, her milk is salty, but if she eats dates, then you’re lucky. That’s when her milk is sweet.”
And so it was that Nasir solved our camel milk mystery.
Back home, I reflect on the people I have met. Many told stories of older relatives who have kept traditions of raising camels, drinking their milk and eating their meat, but these traditions rarely survive beyond that older generation. For many, a need to move to the city changes everything.
My own departure from those customs happened several generations ago when my great-grandfather left his village and followed the trade route and settled abroad. My parents became the first generation of his descendants to return to Saudi Arabia. While there are many traditions we’ve held onto and passed on, there are some we lost.
Searching for published camel recipes, or descriptions of their culinary context, I am fairly shocked to find a general dearth of both. Whether it is Arabic or English cookbooks, written by Arab authors or foreign visitors, the gap is glaring.
The oldest “Saudi cookbook” I can find, The Art of Saudi Cooking, was published in 1987 by Al Nahda Women’s Charity Society. In it there’s mention of “passing on to our daughters ... our treasured, but soon-to-be-forgotten, local cuisine.” The book has a recipe for stuffed turkey, two for lamb’s brains, but not one for camel.
Going back further—a lot further—there is A. J. Arberry’s translation of Kitab al-tabikh (Book of Cooking), a cookbook produced around 1226 by Baghdad scholar Shams al-din al-Baghdadi. It includes 164 recipes, and no camel.
To help me understand this, I speak to chef and food writer Anissa Helou, who has written nine books. Her latest, Feast: Foods of the Islamic World, includes a chapter on her experiences with camel.
“People didn’t eat camel in the past because it was their beast of burden,” Helou explains. This made it a great luxury, “more associated with feasts and celebrations.”
She explains that the quality of the meat varies depending on the cut and the age of the camel. Today, “camel is eaten at different [socioeconomic] levels and settings. It can be a cheap meat, which is the regular camel, the beast of burden,” she says, “or it can be very refined, baby camel [hashi] that is unbelievably gorgeous.”
There is a place, I learn, where al-Madi’s prediction of factories and camel-food products is happening.
We fly an hour south and land in Abu Dhabi.
In the United Arab Emirates (uae) capital, we sit down at a hipster fusion restaurant called Switch where the menu includes a whole section titled “Camel.” Camel Slider, Camel Burger, even Camel Bolognese. We taste all three.
With me are Hatim, a photographer, and Mariam, a fellow Saudi living in Abu Dhabi.
Mariam admits she has never eaten camel.
“Growing up, they told us that if you eat camel, your heart will become tough because the meat is tough,” she says.
She takes a bite of the bolognese. Pause. Chew. Swallow.
“Better,” she declares finally, “than I was expecting.”
“But I’m not going to have more than two bites. Did you take your photo? Are we done?”
In the kitchen, Chef Francis Mungai Njogu says he had never cooked camel before he came to Switch, but he had grown up in Kenya drinking camel milk.
“What matters is the quality of the meat,” he says. “Camel cooks fast in general, because it’s more tender, but the tenderness of the meat depends on the age of the animal.”
The restaurant offers both camel and beef burgers, but Njogu says the camel is more popular even though it’s more expensive. “Most of our guests are locals, so they are familiar with it, and they become regulars because they like it.”
Our next stop is CML Station, where the menu offers Baby Camel Salad, Baby Camel Cubes and Baby Camel Pizza. It takes me a moment to realize that this restaurant’s name is not an acronym. It opened last year, which makes it about as old—or young—as some of the hashi it dishes up. Habib, general manager of operations for owner Murban Restaurant Management, says it’s one of the several food and beverage brands they manage, including Camel Cookies, which opened four years ago.
Locals “are very familiar with the world,” says Habib. “If you give them a pizza with a camel on it, they’ll accept it. They’re familiar with both pizzas and with camels.”
The concept appeals to tourists too. “They’re always asking why there is no Emirati cuisine,” he says. “This way they can say, ‘I saw a camel, I rode a camel, and I ate a camel.’”
Our meal arrives, and the standout favorite is baby camel cubes. The smaller cuts are perfectly tender, paired with potato spirals and some very un-local Cajun spice.
“Ours is a modern twist of a national symbol and product,” says Habib.
It was time for milk.
One of the two major camel dairy farms in the uae, Camelicious, lies on the outskirts of Dubai. We arrive as camels are lining up, entering a pen, and workers are attaching automated milkers.
“The innovation of automated camel milkers happened here,” says Karim, Camelicious’s representative, who points out that each milking session lasts about five minutes and yields five to seven liters.
The farm started in 2003 with 16 camels, he says. Now it has more than 6,000.
Karim, it turns out, is something of an evangelist for his product.
“My skin and my hair have changed since I started drinking it everyday,” he says, taking swigs of it as he talks. “It’s more expensive than cow milk, but it’s definitely not more expensive than collagen injections.”
Milking camels is also far more nuanced than milking cows. Camels produce milk for 14 to 18 months after delivering a calf but—this is the tricky part—they let down milk only to their calves, and if they are separated, they stop lactating.
“We have a different approach to the mother-calf relationship,” says Jutka Juhasz, head of the dairy’s Farming and Veterinarians Department. “When the calf is born, we keep it with the mother. We encourage that emotional bond.”
A few weeks after birth, the farm workers start training the mothers by making sure the calves nurse only in the milking pens. There, they develop an association of the handler’s “tongue-clicks” with nursing. Then—gradually—the automated milkers can be used on them.
Another key is well-being: an unhappy camel won’t produce milk. So the mothers and calves exercise daily along a track. It’s a bit like roaming the desert. Sort of.
“Camels are very friendly, very curious, and they approach us with an open heart,” says Juhasz. “They are respected. We don’t want to exploit them. We want to work with them.”
Camelicious has gone well beyond simple bottled whole and skimmed milk: There are flavors, powdered milk, ice cream and even baby formula.
Mazen Mustafa oversees new products. He takes pride in the simplicity of the lineup. “No preservatives, no hormones,” he says. “Natural and artisanal.”
The baby formula, he says, works well for children with allergies to cow milk products.
Then there is Endurance, a new energy drink. “Camel milk has all the necessary vitamins for athletes. It’s a healthy alternative to sugary energy drinks,” he says. A protein bar is in the works.
I ask him why this hasn’t happened earlier.
“Camel herds were managed by individual families,” he says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about camels and their milk. Camel milk is a gift from our culture to the rest of the world.”
Camelicious Sales Manager Mohammed Ashraf says that at first, when bottles hit shelves in 2006, it was hard to convince a younger generation of Emiratis to try it. “Between the late 1970s and the 1990s, the links to the old ways of living were broken.” They hadn’t grown up drinking camel milk and for them, “it was ‘eww’!”
But converted they were. The company now produces 3.6 million liters of camel milk a year, and most goes down locally among Emiratis, Europeans and Asians alike.
The second biggest market is the uk, where although it costs three times what cow milk costs, camel milk “is classified as a superfood,” Ashraf says. “So it’s attractive to the health-conscious. It’s a niche market.”
It was time for dessert. That started with ice cream.
Stephan Barbier, who came to the uae from France, believes the world would be a better place with more camel milk ice cream.
“The first time I had camel milk here, it was completely new to me and I loved it,” he says. “And I saw that it’s actually much better than cow’s milk. I switched completely.”
He and business partner Frederic Kuzyk soon recognized that “anything you can do with cow’s milk you can also do with camel’s milk.”
They started Nouq—from the Arabic for a she-camel—in 2016.
Their flavors range from staple vanilla and chocolate to “crossovers” common in Europe and the Middle East, such as pistachio and caramel biscuit, as well as niche flavors known only in the Middle East, such as Arabic Mastic.
I try their most popular flavor, Honey Saffron, which is aimed at Emiratis and Indians, as well as Europeans. It’s sweeter than I expect.
“Ah,” Barbier chuckles. “People know that camel milk is salty compared to cow’s milk, so they think that camel milk ice cream will also be salty. But salt is a flavor enhancer. And camel’s milk is less fatty than cow’s milk, so the fat doesn’t coat your palette. More of the flavors come through.”
The Majlis is a café in Dubai Mall where, if it’s not made with camel milk, it’s prepared in camel ghee.
At least mostly: The waitress tells me that many local customers go for traditional Turkish or Arabic coffee, maybe some dates—and no camel milk. “They come like it’s a regular cafe,” she says. “Camel milk isn’t special to them like it is for tourists.”
Seated nearby are Silas and Mateus, from Brazil. It’s their first time to taste camel milk. Mateus orders a cappuccino.
“Do you taste the sand?” Silas teases as his friend sips.
Silas has visited Dubai before but was never interested in trying camel milk. “Mateus was talking about it ever since we got here. I was hoping he’d forget.”
Mateus likes it. “It tastes different. A little stronger than a regular cappuccino.”
Would he have it regularly if it was available at home? “Maybe not everyday,” he says, “but I would have it every week.”
Silas doesn’t like it. “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?”
I can not leave before paying a visit to the camel milk chocolate factory. I repeat: Camel milk. Chocolate. Factory. I leave with a bag full of camel milk chocolates. Everything finishes better that way.
Martin Van Almsick spent the first part of his life working in the chocolate industry in his hometown of Köln, Germany. His wife, Hanan, comes from Sudan—“camel country,” he says—and was familiar with the milk. So in 2005 when the pair heard a camel milk factory had opened in Dubai, it was a no-brainer: Al Nassma Camel Milk Chocolates was born a few years later.
Their first challenge was a recipe that would work with camel milk’s lower fat and higher salt. But their bigger challenge was cost, because camel milk is so much more expensive than cow milk.
“You have to create a product—a brand—that is really premium,” says Martin. “This is one of the most expensive chocolates in the world.”
From chocolate beans from Tanzania and vanilla beans from Madagascar, to packaging that used wood from Bavaria, Al Nassma took the premium idea and ran with it. “We’re a craft chocolate,” he says. “This is the good old way of making chocolate.”
Al Nassma’s display cases now appear in top department stores and airport duty free shops around the world—anywhere that might sell a $10 chocolate bar. They offer dark and milk chocolate as well as dates, a flavor called Arabia (think cardamom), macadamia-orange and a slew of nuts. Their best seller? Pralines. Their best customer group? Japanese chocoholics during the season of Giri Choco
, which means “obligatory chocolate.”
“A lot of people buy [the chocolate] as a unique gift, but then they go home and take a bite, and find that it’s amazing chocolate,” Martin says. “Then they call us.”
My own favorite flavor? So far it’s Arabia. It pairs great with the milk, and it tastes like … home.
As for camels? I’ve become too attached to eat them anymore.
But the milk? I’m a proper convert.