How many ways to say camel?
Eskimos have 50 different words for snow right? Actually this is an urban myth. But Emiratis (people who come from the United Arab Emirates) do actually have more than 50 words for camel. In fact there is a saying that there are over 1000 terms for camel in Arabic. While you may call a horse a foal, filly, gelding, mare or stallion, with camels it’s much more complex with some being defined by a certain development of their teeth, whether they are breeding, their colour and other stages of their lives. Emiratis never actually use the generic term ‘camel’.
An Emirati camel farmer told me this? No – not at all. It was a lady called Ursula, dressed in a jalabiya, who while sitting on cushions under the draped roof of a tent in the desert under the stars, was addressing our group in slightly broken English punctuated by staccato asides in Bedouin Arabic uttered in a thick German accent.
There is a lot about Ursula that I need to ask and cannot tell you today. When did she move from Germany to the UAE? How did she come to be an expert on camels and manage two camel farms? When did she start breeding highly prized (and expensive) racing camels? How did she integrate into the local community so completely that she refers to her Emirati ‘Mummy and Daddy’?
Today (and this may not come as a surprise) we’re going to talk about food. And specifically an Emirati feast for twenty people, cooked over two open fires by Ursula (or Uschi as she’s known by her friends).
How did we get out into the desert to meet Uschi? No surprise that the magic wand of Arva from Frying Pan Food Tours was involved and, just after lunch on a Friday (the first day of the weekend in the UAE), a small group of her close family and friends met at a petrol station on the outer edges of Dubai. After a very shaky start to our convoy, following vague maps and disappearing Google pins, finally we all met up by a lonely mosque after a couple of hours. I’d been ready to give up but the soft, low light in the desert, the wide open spaces and then, after following a faint track over sand, the sight of camels, swept all the driving angst away. Ursula was soon explaining the characters of each camel, their names, backgrounds, temperament and how to stroke them. She was cuddling them like babies, there was such a close connection.
As the sun went down I rode a camel for the first time (despite having lived in the Middle East for twenty years). After initial trepidation, I managed to relax and really enjoy the swaying comfort of lolloping through the dunes.
Uschi disappeared in the ‘kitchen’. This was actually a circle of sand surrounded by a high fence to protect it from the wind. By the time I joined her, two fires with metal trivets above them were glowing orange in the dark. A small team of men helped by stoking the fire with different sized branches and fetching things from a table behind. One man took shovelfuls of embers to feed another fire inside an oil drum on its side. As we watched this carefully choreographed activity the air was filled with the most amazing aromas. The wood, which was aromatic, formed a smokey base note. Uschi sautéed chopped onion, tomato, marinated chicken and then added B’zar. This is a type of local garam masala which people make from scratch, roasting and grinding the spices, and each family has their own, slightly different recipe. Uschi said the ones from Saudi, Yemen and Oman all are a bit different too.
Camel meatballs hit the sizzling pan but Uschi was not happy as the fire was too low and the smoke was billowing in her face. She asked a question from her team and their response elicited a shouted volley of orders from her. They disappeared hurriedly to put the neglected camels to bed. As her only light source was the glow of the flames and a storm lamp, I took over holding the latter and was quite kippered myself after a while. The men returned, one with an enormous bowl of dough. He stood at a small table by the oil drum and flattened, rolled, then spun flat breads or rotis to make wafer thin discs which would be envied by any master pizza maker. These were slapped one by one onto the oil drum to bake or griddle them.
We were all seriously hungry so when Uschi asked someone to taste the broth I rushed forward and nearly went flying over a branch poking out from the fire. Mortified I sipped from the ladle – the savoury broth with multi-layered flavours was blissfully good and we passed it down the line.
Very soon we were ordered to wash as even tiny grains of sand would get into the food. One of the helpers poured water from a silver teapot-like vessel over hands. Dishes were brought and put on the palm frond matting in the middle while we sat on banks of cushions under the tent canopy.
Everyone dived on the fragrant chicken stew with masses of vegetables like sweet carrots and sautéed onions; the roti was torn, the salad passed around. Communal eating is a great shared experience.
The camel meatballs looked so tempting garnished with slices of lime and a sprig of mint. This was soft, like pork, in texture and resembled a very mild lamb and venison flavour. A dish of stewed vegetables followed, amid the chunks of courgette and carrot were tiny hand-made pasta shapes similar to spätzle; it was difficult to believe that it had no meaty element from the deep richness of the sauce.
A basket of fruit and some chocolate covered dates made up our desert which accompanied coffee. Like the rest of the feast this was no ordinary coffee. The beans were roasted over a fire and then freshly ground. The smell was strong but the taste subtle and refreshing with green, herbal element balancing the mocha notes.
Uschi sat on the cushions and eventually reclined like a odalisque painting recounting us with tales of camels, society and finally perfume. She dabbed a variety of oils and liquids from ornate bottles and jars onto her gold jalabiya before passing them round for us to share. Finally a burner of incense was produced and she showed how to put it under your clothes so that the smoke passed through the fabric.
To travel back to our cars, we all clambered into the back of a pick up, wedged in, crouching on the floor, and swooped over the dunes – driven by Uschi. We were sated in every sense of the word.
Dubai was reached quickly, the miles falling away rapidly on new, modern, straight highways and as we reached the Burj Al Arab it burst into one of the regular light shows, colours changing and flashing. It was a surreal contrast to our simple evening under the stars.