Without the might of an ad campaign or trade association behind it, camel meat is unlikely to become a widespread option for Americans who identify as health-conscious red-meat lovers. Yet there are signs it is making headway.
One such sign is the filet-size starburst neon-cardboard cutout, outlined in black Sharpie, that’s affixed to the freezer case at Wagshal’s Market: “We have camel!!”
Butcher Pam Ginsberg carries ground camel and camel rib-eye steaks in the Northwest Washington shop known for catering to a well-heeled clientele. “I get them in and mention it, and they’re gone,” she says. “People are buying it because it’s so lean.”
The camel meat Wagshal’s sells is from Australia, farm-raised. Ginsberg finds it bland-tasting when unseasoned and compares it overall to ostrich and, somewhat less so, bison. Australia is a major exporter of camel meat, due to circumstances linked to the animal’s introduction to that continent in the mid-19th century, for purposes of carrying heavy loads across inhospitable expanses of territory.
Efforts to cull the 1-million-strong feral camel population there resulted in a national campaign urging Australians to eat more camel and kangaroo. With no natural predators, camels have become a powerful and destructive force for farms and water supplies, damaging infrastructure.
Health claims tout camel meat’s relatively high percentage of protein, kangaroo-low levels (1 to 2 percent) of fat and the near-absence of saturated fat. It is said to be high in amino acids, iron and glycogen, a stored form of carbohydrate that supports nerve-cell growth.
As a novelty item, ground camel meat clocks in at less than $20 per pound — substantially more than the $4-and-change average price of ground beef in the United States but modest in comparison with other “exotics,” such as imported and domestic alligator loin, wild boar and python.
Ginsberg says ground camel is typically made up of what the butcher assesses as “good meat,” from only the leg and trimmings of the animal. Anshu Pathak, owner of Exotic Meat Market, a California distributor that provides game to the likes of Food Network, imports vacuum-packed muscle cuts of camel — and hump fat, when he can get it — and grinds his own.
Pathak could qualify as official camel meat spokesman should the need for one ever arise. With little prompting, he enthuses about the flavor of the meat, its fat and its sustainability. What he imports, also from Australia, is wild camel that’s harvested at age 2 or 3; “we are recycling,” he says. Pathak reports a 3,000 percent rise in sales over the past year, although he will not quantify those sales further.
“Basically, it’s ethnic food for Africans and for some Indians, like me. I love it,” he says. “The fat is clean-tasting, creamy, amazing. The meat is clean-tasting, too.” He cooks with rendered camel fat when he can and uses it in the camel sausage he produces.
Pathak says the meat must be eaten on its own, preferably raw, to appreciate its unique flavor and texture. (Because it’s inspected rigorously before it leaves Australia and upon arrival in America, he says he feels secure making such a recommendation.)
Camel burgers seemed to be the way to sample the ground meat we bought at Wagshal’s. Because the meat is so lean, cooking it properly is key. We tweaked a blog recipe that calls for a light touch of seasonings, onion and cilantro. The raw meat is a rich, deep red and barely holds together when shaped into patties.
We started the burgers in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top and finished them in the oven, to 150 degrees and a pinkish medium-rare interior. Several dozen volunteer tasters at The Post who ranged from apprehensive to concert-line enthusiastic gave the burgers a thumbs up, deeming the meat chewy, somewhat crumbly, extra-meaty and “no mistaking it for beef.” We found no trace of the tongue-coating mouth feel that an 80-20 (lean meat-to-fat ratio) burger can induce.
Distributor Pathak suggests an alternative cooking method for ground camel: Shape two patties’ worth, eight ounces each, with no seasoning. Place them in a screaming-hot pan to cook for a minute or so, then flip them over and add a scant cup (15 tablespoons) of water to the pan. Cover and cook until the meat absorbs the water and reaches an internal temperature of no more than 145 degrees.
That way, he says, you’ll understand camel’s flavor, texture and taste — a novelty, perhaps, for those health-conscious lovers of red meat.
It’s good to closely monitor their internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer, to avoid overcooking.
Adapted from a recipe by Christopher James Clark, author of “Nutritional Grail: Ancestral Wisdom, Breakthrough Science and the Dawning Nutritional Renaissance” (Extropy Publishing, 2014).
2 pounds ground camel meat (see headnote)
1/2 medium red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
2 tablespoons wheat-free tamari (may substitute low-sodium soy sauce)
2 to 3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 to 3 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
6 toasted, buttered hamburger buns (on the small side), for serving
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
Combine the camel meat, red onion, garlic, tamari, the cumin and coriander (to taste) and cilantro in a mixing bowl. Gently blend with your clean hands until well incorporated, then shape the mixture into 6 patties of equal size that are about 1 inch thick.
Arrange them in the pan so they are not touching; cook for about
6 minutes or until nicely browned on the bottom, then turn them over. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook for 6 to 8 minutes; after
5 minutes, begin spot-checking the internal temperature of the burgers with an instant-read thermometer. Pull them out at 140 degrees; let them rest (in the pan) for 5 minutes before serving on toasted, buttered buns.
Nutrition | Per serving (without buns): 160 calories, 34 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 420 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; e-mail questions to email@example.com