by Dr Annie Woodhouse
I admit, I have always been fond of camels. Beautiful, majestic animals with attitude, they bite, kick and can throw up their own stomach when annoyed – you have to respect that! So, imagine my surprise when I came face to face with a full camel carcass, complete with a recognisable head, in a market in Palestine. Unbeknown to me (and I am sure, a lot of other people), camel is a mainstay meat in many parts of the world.
So who eats camel?
Camel is eaten as a staple, everyday meat in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, while it is considered a gourmet meat in other countries and used only for special occasions, such as ceremonies and wedding feasts. Camel is eaten in countries such as Palestine, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Camel has been eaten for centuries and there are writings from the Ancient Greeks, which record camel being roasted whole and eaten at feasts and of it being a favourite dish of some emperors.
Today, camel is eaten as an everyday meat in countries where alternative forms of protein may be limited, or where other meat livestock are not farmed and readily available or affordable to the local population. In some areas, such as Northern Kenya, camel blood is drunk, along with camel milk, as an important source of protein, iron, vitamins and minerals. In other regions, such as the Gulf and Egypt, camel is kept as a meat to be used for parties, weddings and festivities.
How did camels come to Australia?
The first camel arrived from the Canary Islands in 1840. It is unclear why this camel was brought here, but in 1860, another 24 camels arrived and were used on the Burke and Wills expedition. In 1866, camel studs were established and fine-quality camels were bred in Australia. Even with the studs, it is estimated that 10,000 to 12,000 camels were imported into Australia between the 1860s and 1907.
Camels were ideally suited to the arid Australian conditions and they were used for exploration, pioneering and transportation throughout the dry interior areas. In Western Australia and the Centre, large camel trains were used. A team of four Afghani cameleers would take as many as 70 camels in camel trains travelling between 30 and 40km per day and carrying between 16 and 20 tonnes. A large bull camel could carry up to 12 hundredweight (600kg) and small camels from six to eight hundredweight (300 to 400kg).
Why are camels a pest problem in Australia?
As motor vehicles became popular and affordable, they took over more and more transportation in areas once serviced by camels. By the mid-1920s, most of the camels were released into the wild and because they were ideally suited to the arid conditions, they quickly established free-roaming nomadic herds. Australia now has the largest population of free-ranging camels in the world.
The Ninti One Project, which was completed in 2013-14, estimates that there are 300,000 feral camels in Australia. They are dispersed across the country with roughly 50 per cent in Western Australia, 25 per cent in the Northern Territory and 25 per cent in western Queensland and northern South Australia. Feral camels pose a significant threat to the environment and the federal government funded the Ninti One Project to undertake a compressive study of the management and impact of camels in Australia. One of the recommendations was that commercial use of camel meat should be encouraged and enhanced as an industry. (For more information, see: McGregor M, Hart Q, Bubb A, and Davies R (eds) 2013, Managing the Impacts of Feral Camels Across Remote Australia, Final report of the Australian Feral Camel Management Project, Ninti One Limited.)
Where can I find camel meat?
Camel meat is not widely available, but can be sourced from specialty game meat suppliers. I buy mine from Alpine Game Meats in Sydney, but a simple internet search will bring up other suppliers, which may be closer to you.
Camels are feral animals, but they have not been declared ‘pests’ in New South Wales or Queensland. As such, if you wish to hunt and prepare your own camel meat, you will obviously need to observe all local laws and regulations. While I have not personally hunted or butchered a camel, I understand they can yield between 250 and 500kg of meat.
What does camel meat taste like?
I am always hesitant to try to answer questions such as this, but here is one case where the cliché ‘It tastes like chicken’ does not fit. Camel is a rich, red meat that is a blend between beef and lamb. It is low in cholesterol and high in protein and has been approved by the Australian Heart Foundation as a healthy choice. Like any meat, how it tastes will depend on age, gender, condition and preparation. In some parts of the world, only young camel is ever eaten, mainly because there is no tradition of ageing meat.
And, yes, you can eat the hump. It is a myth that the hump is full of water. In many places, the hump is the most prized part of the animal, as it is considered fattier and more tender than the rest of the beast.
Camel milk is also a staple part of the diet in some areas of the world. It is rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins and immunoglobulins. It is lower in fat and lactose than cow’s milk and is higher in potassium, iron and Vitamin C.
Most cuts of camel are lean, so steaks are best cooked quickly and seared on a very hot surface. The meat is delicious and when sourcing the meat for this story, I cooked camel steaks and roasted a piece of camel, both with great success. The following recipes are inspired by traditional Middle Eastern flavours and spices, but you can add or substitute ingredients as you become more familiar with the meat.
A tagine is a type of historically North African stew that is named after the type of pot in which it is cooked. This tagine recipe features ras el hanout – a spice blend used widely in the Middle East. There are many recipes for ras el hanout, but I prepare the following mix.
Ras el hanout
- ½ teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon fennel
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon tumeric
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 6 cardamom pods (seeds only)
- olive oil
- 2 onions – sliced
- 1kg camel meat – large and can have the bone
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons ras el hanout
- 2 cups beef stock
- ¼ cup honey
- ¾ cup raisins
- salt and pepper – to taste
Oil the tagine or heavy pot, line with sliced onion and place the camel meat evenly over this.
Combine all other ingredients and then pour over the meat. Cover and bring to the boil.
Turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for about 3 hours if using a traditional tagine, or about 1½ hours in a heavy pot.
Serve with couscous.
Indian-style dried fruit curry
- 2 onions – finely diced
- 2-3 cinnamon sticks
- 3-4 cloves
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 2 tablespoons chopped ginger
- ½ kg camel meat
- 1½ cups yoghurt
- ½ teaspoon white pepper powder
- 1 teaspoon coriander powder
- ½ teaspoon cumin powder
- 1 tablespoon crushed red chilli
- ¼ teaspoon allspice powder
- 3 tomatoes – chopped
- 2-3 green chillies – chopped (or green capsicums if preferred)
- salt – to taste
- 1 cup dried apricots
- 2 tablespoons almonds
- 2 tablespoons pistachios
- 2 tablespoons walnuts
- 2 tablespoons raisins
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 3 tablespoons cream
Heat oil in the pan and add the onion, cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger, garlic and camel meat. Fry on high heat for 4-5 minutes to sear the camel and activate the other ingredients.
Lower the heat to simmer, add the yoghurt and cook for a couple of minutes.
Add the white pepper, coriander, cumin, red chilli, allspice and water, cover and cook for about ½ hour or until the meat is tender.
Add the tomato, green chilli/capsicum, salt, fruit and nuts and cook for another 10 minutes.
Just before serving, mix in the cream.
Serve over rice.
Middle Eastern-style camel burgers
- 1kg camel mince
- 1 tablespoon fat from camel hump (or lamb fat, or butter)
- 4 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
- 6 cloves garlic – crushed
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
- 2 tablespoons chopped dried culinary rose petals (or 1 tablespoon rosewater)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- lemon juice – to taste
- salt and pepper – to taste
Put all burger ingredients through a food processor and pulse quickly (don’t make it too mushy).
Remove the mince, knead together and shape into four large patties. Cover and refrigerate overnight or at least a few hours before cooking.
Fry in a dry, hot pan for about 4 minutes or until done.
Serve on a toasted sesame bun with Taza ketchup and all the usual burger trimmings you like: a slice of cheese, tomato, lettuce and onion rings.
- 5-6 ripe tomatoes – roughly chopped
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 4 teaspoons honey
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
Blend the tomatoes in a food processor until fairly smooth and then gently sauté in a little olive oil for 5 minutes.
Add the cinnamon and honey, season to your taste and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick and glossy.
Pour hot over your burger, or refrigerate and use cold.