Regular View from Fez contributor, John Horniblow, goes gastronomic and salivatingly lyrical about eating camel meat in Morocco
Camels, this great romantic creature, the fabled animal of the great caravans that transversed the great trade routes of the deserts are still bred and droved in numerous numbers and traded at livestock markets from the Atlas Mountains to souks of the Saharan towns. Whether its the nomadic tribes of Aït Haddidou still porting their belongings and tents on the backs of Camels as they move camps, or the Camels in the tent alley’s of the great moussems, saddled and dressed up in front of cameras to pose with children dressed in Arabian Night’s finery, or those that carry Moroccan and foreign tourists across the golden dunes of Erg Chebbi, the windy beaches of Essaouira, or the Palmerie of Marrakech; Camels are an indomitable feature of Morocco’s landscape and lore. While the great Thursday Camel souk at Bab el Khemis in Marrakech may have faded into a sunset of memories in the 1980’s even the occasional camel can found, sold and bought there today. However, the fact remains that most Camels in Morocco, which you encounter in any great number, are destined for the dinner table and always have been.
Finding Camel in Casablanca, while at first sounds improbable or verging on ironic, is not a hard quest. You can follow your nose to the aroma of barbequing meat emanating from Derb Abdeladir Sahat Moulay Abdellah, a short stroll from Habbous (The New Medina) heading east to Derb Sultan and across the railway bridge. In the wide open plaza of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah , or on what some maps call the Marche Viande ( Meat Market ) , is one of Casablanca’s few open air eating spots. Billowing plumes of white fatty smoke rise from the multitude of “grillades” or BBQ stalls dotting the square on the outside of a middle lane with two competing sides of butcher shops, facing each other. This popular Casablancaise eating spot is bustling and lively with grill chefs, customers with freshly butchered bags of bbq meat, frites vendors carts, sugar cane juicers, roving saffron sellers and beldi cheese vendors with their long shoulder poles tipped with hanging green, woven, palm frond cones filled with fresh cream cheese, and vegetable and fruit carts over flowing with a colourful array of seasonal produce.
On rare occasion a travelling troupe of acrobats in red satin tops, embroidered with the green star of Morocco on their chests and Sinbad pants, will materialise out of thin air, shouting orders to usher back the crowd and clear a path in the side alleys facing the grillades and an indulging and entertain-able luncheon crowd. Then proceeding with a spectacle of mesmerising leaps, bounds, stacks, jumps, and cart-wheeling they end abruptly in a finale of gravity defying flips. Caps in hand, outstretched to collect their entertainment fee and halting within inches of the luncheon tables, covered in plates of barbequed meat.
At Boucherie Lhaj Ahmed a crowd of loyal clientele mingles amongst the hanging camel heads, shoulders, rump and leg hocks, and white fatty camel humps. It’s easy to identify the Camel butchers. The severed long necks and camel heads with their long eye lashes and drooping lips, decorated with fresh sprigs of parsley laid over the tongue between the lips and teeth, hang in a line down one side of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah’s wide central lane. To the side of Lhaj’s main sales counter are his assistants and apprentices, busily trimming off the meat and fat of carcass pieces, paring them down to the bones that are discarded into piles in big wicker baskets.
Most camel meat is consumed as a mince or Camel Kefta and Lhaj’s mincing machines grind endlessly throughout the day. Camel Merguez , spicy camel sausages, are also popular. Typically the Camel Kefta is mixed with cumin, red paprika pepper, fresh parsley, fresh onion and a small amount of salt before being deftly threaded into long sausage skins then twisted and hung in long tailing ropes from the meat hooks above and in front of the stone slab sales counter. Like all other meats in Morocco, there’s little wastage when it comes to butchering or eating an animal. While you will never find it on a menu, widely discussed at the dinner table or in recipe book, a close peak at some of the camel heads reveals that they’re open. Skin peeled back revealing a wide pink hole in the cranium where the camel’s brain has been removed to grace a dinner plate cooked as an oriental delicacy. How its cooked I’ll never know, and no one could me, but it’s all very reminiscent of an Indiana Jones tale.
Camel meat, tasty, high-protein and low-cholesterol, is more expensive than its counterparts, the beef and lamb carcasses hanging from meat hooks in the butcher stores across on the other side of the lane. The hump is the most prized part of the Camel as it is tender and fattier than the rest of the beast (Camel humps are essentially mounds of spongy fat). According to the butchers its purportedly has a number of health or medicinal benefits (apparent antioxidant properties) and sells for 120 dhms/ kg, about 20% higher than a kilo beef filet and about 50% higher then the best cuts of lamb. The white fatty hump is commonly grilled or added to other meat tagines or added in small pieces back into the kefta mince. The other prized cut is a Camel Filet. At 150 dhms / kg, it’s certainly the most expensive cut of meat in Morocco and other the cuts on offer include Camel Rump steaks which also fetch a very good, but lower price. Even the Camel Merguez and Camel Kefta command a premium price above that paid for beef or lamb.
From Fez to Casablanca and now Marrakech, Camel Burgers are appearing on menus in the eateries catering to modern Moroccan tastes and the forever evolving state of Moroccan cuisine. The Café Clock, in Fez, apparently serves hundreds of camel burgers every day. Mike Richardson, proprietor of this landmark eatery shared the secrets of its delicious camel burger with cookbook author Tara Stevens in the Clock Book, a collection of traditional and modernized Moroccan recipes from the Café. Apparently it is was the loving hand of local butcher who added its secret ingredient, dried Rose petals from Kelaat M’gouna area around the Dades valley; a powerful aphrodisiac and subtle tasting condiment. Fez is well noted for its fascinating food culture and besides tucking into the Clock’s juicy, aphrodisiac Camel burgers adventurous eaters only need to take a short amble down Fez medina’s main pedestrian arteries, Talaa K’bira, or Talaa Segira to find tehal; Camel spleen stuffed with ground camel meat (and sometimes accompanied with beef or lamb) olives and preserved lemons spices and a little bit of hump fat. The stuffed spleen, resembling a giant sausage, is baked in a communal bread oven (ferran) then sliced and fried and served with Moroccan Bread (Khobz).
Unlike Morocco, where Camel meat can be eaten as a daily food, Camel is prized in the Middle East as a delicacy. You can find specialist Camel butchers from Damascus to Cairo, Oman to Baghdad and across the Gulf region Camel meat is eaten at parties and wedding receptions. Unlike beef, Camel meat is rarely sold aged. There is no tradition of ageing meat in Morocco, or the Middle East, for that matter. A high content of Vitamin E actually slows it’s spoiling and the meat would become too dry if it were aged.
The Camel, as you can imagine, is a fairly tough animal and it’s meat benefits from slow cooking. In Morocco Camel meat can be also be found cooked Tanjia style. Deliciously and slowly braised for hours with cumin, saffron, garlic, ginger, ras al hanout, and lemon in large clay, cooking urn (tanjia), over the ashes and coals of the wood fire of a hamman or ferran. In an idea not unlike the succulent Moroccan Camel Tanjia, famous French chef Alain Ducasse, experimenting with local produce, has styled a slow braised Camel meat dish for the menu at Museum of Islamic Art in Doha; “Rossini-style for five days at an extremely low temperature, followed by a sixth day at a slightly higher temperature to deepen the color” The outcome is similar to what you can expect of Tanjia and the Camel meat “has the tenderness of a seven-hour leg of lamb, a flavor reminiscent of an aged beef short rib. “ Yum!! No wonder camel is breaking out as alternate and exotic meat in some places in the world. In Morocco, while not as commonplace as lamb or beef you just need to ask your local good butcher and they’ll probably have it. Look for the happy camel sign out the front and I am sure they’ll oblige with some of this exotic beast. Lhaj Ahmed, on my first visit to Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah and with the true grace of Moroccan hospitality, satiated both my curiosity and inquisitive taste buds with a present. A ½ kilo of Camel Merguez and Kefta. Bismil’allah!