Camel milk and dates are now bona fide links in the international gourmet food chain. And while this bodes well for Middle East economics, is the associated environmental news happy too? I questioned this last summer in Malahide, a tiny Irish seaside village where I used to live. I was staying with friends and their child offered me some camel-milk chocolate (“It’s just lovely”, she said). I went to wash my hands, and noticed all of their bathroom soaps contained Dead Sea minerals.
My Irish hosts hadn’t been to the Middle East, and I didn’t bring these as gifts from Jordan where I am living. Seems these products had made their way to Dublin markets based on their own merits (neither advertises in Ireland or the United Kingdom).
Camel milk and dates are traditional mainstays of the Bedouin diet. The foods are also elements in modern Middle East cuisine, particularly dates: easily transported, they’re a popular souvenir sold at Middle Eastern airport concessions. Date and camel products have moving beyond gift shop shelves into traditional dining venues, proving popular with locals and tourists alike.
In 2007, a Dubai company called Al-Nassma began making the first camel-milk chocolates. Beginning as a souvenir shop curiosity, Al-Nassma’s products are now sold in almost every supermarket and mall in the Gulf.
The next year, Saudi-based Bateel launched a line of 120 luxury sweets all with dates as a main ingredient. Bateel has grown into a chain of outlets retailing a wide range of date creations including chocolate candies, drinks and baked goods.
In 2010, the Local House in Dubai’s old city called became the first restaurant to feature camel burgers as an entree. They also sell fried camel-milk ice cream, and date-and-camel milk smoothies. The popular restaurant has spawned other eateries with a local-Bedouin-foods theme. Fancy a camel milk latte or date shake? Stop into Dubai’s Cafe2Go for a camel meat fajita.
Local niche goods have made their way to faraway places mainly by well-traveled expats based in this region (my old Irish employer has an office in the United Arab Emirates that ought to be called “Abu Dublin” given its high quota of Irish and UK workers). But these decidedly Middle Eastern products now have a more direct conduit to international fans: last March, the European Union approved camel milk for potential import, declaring it to be more digestible and richer in vitamins than dairy milk. Export of other regional food items will surely follow.
Green Prophet’s reported how camel milk may also be a holistic treatment for diabetes. But blending camel milk with flavorings, sugar and preservatives and frying camel meat for supersized cheeseburgers can’t be truly healthy. The nutritional value of dates similarly diminishes when they’re sugared up as candy or fattened up in shakes.
With a global pork crisis looming, maybe the world’s meat eaters will hop aboard the camel meat train. Exportation of camel meat can be expected as local producers gear up for a world-wide market. This may be good for Middle East and North African camel ranchers, but the associated processing and long-distance shipping can’t bode well for the environment.
Image of two loving camels from Shutterstock