There's nothing quite like a good burger. Whether beef, chicken, fish or even veggie, a solid burger, parked next to a pile of hot chips, is a splendid thing indeed. But what about a camel burger? Can a pattie of camel meat, slapped between two buns, ever attain such levels of culinary greatness? Of course, camel meat has been eaten across the Middle East and North Africa for centuries. Camel milk is widely used in the UAE, and camel milk chocolate is now available across the country, too. But the camel burger is a new development - and seems a bit odd, especially as it comes doused in cheese and "special" sauce.
However, it's the latest item at the Dubai's restaurant chain Local House, introduced for the more "health-conscious" burger eater. The meat's health benefits are well known. Camels are lean animals, so the meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol. It's akin to beef, they tell us, and comes in similar cuts, too - such as tenderloin, fillet and rump. You want young camel though, ideally under 36 months, when the flesh will still be pink and velvety. Much older than that and the meat will be too weathered and tough.
Camel burgers first made headlines last year when they were launched in a Saudi Arabian restaurant. The idea then, said Saleh Quwaisi, one of the owners of the Local Hashi Meals restaurant in Riyadh, was to invent something new that played upon the Saudi people's love of camel meat. It's a taste that has also caught on in Australia, a country that has witnessed an explosion in its camel population in recent years. In Alice Springs, you can now find camel sausages, pies and lasagne on restaurant menus. Back in the UAE, you can track a burger down at Local House restaurants - one in Bastakiya and another in the newly opened Heritage Village, beside the beach at Jumeirah Beach Residence. At the latter this week, a mixed group of inquisitors stood inspecting the menu. Camel biryani and rice for Dh28, "special camel" and rice for Dh30.
"Why is it special?" I asked the woman behind the counter. It just is, I was told. Big slabs of date cake lay on the counter, and bottles of camel milk sat in the fridge. However, neither I nor my friend, Caitlin, had come for any of that. We wanted a camel burger. A thin but deep-red pattie was slung on to the grill, and rested there until browned on both sides. The Local House orders its camel meat from Al Ain and prepares it with a mix of spices. The exact combination is a secret, apparently, but a sweet smell drifted across to us.
Meanwhile, our server took out a thin, pitta-bread like bun, cut it in half, laid down some lettuce and cheese on it and spread it with a pink sauce. What was in this special sauce? Again, she was extremely secretive about it. I wondered if I could ask for ketchup with my camel burger, but my dining companion told me that would be bad form. "Your camel burgers, they're made from camel, right?" asked a woman peering suspiciously over my shoulder at the grill.
"Yes ma'am," came the reply. "Well, we'll have one of those," replied the customer, who was visiting Dubai on a two-week holiday from Canada. "I've already eaten tonight," she said to me, "but when in Rome, right?" A Local House camel burger will set you back Dh20, but happily that allows for chips too. Our 120g camel pattie being done, my friend and I sat down to tuck in. This was it, the big moment. Would this camel burger change our outlook on the classic sandwich forever?
"Um it's kind of like a Big Mac," said Caitlin with her mouth full. "Yes. Is this sauce just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together?" I wondered. "Think so," she replied. To be scientific about the burger, we tried a bit of the meat on its own, the colour of which by this point was indistinguishable from a normal beef burger. It was gamey, and slightly sweet with a good dose of pepper thrown in. While clearly not beef, the soft, juicy texture of the meat was similar, and definitely not unpleasant.
The overall verdict was that it was just different. Worth a shot for tourists, if fact worth a shot for anyone intrigued by the many culinary uses of the Arab world's most famous indigenous animal. On balance, though, as I wiped the special sauce off my fingers, I reflected that McDonald's probably has no cause to worry quite yet.