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Eating Camel in Mauritania

Published in Gourmet Live 10.12.11
Michael Y. Park tests the limits of his taste for adventure in northwestern Africa when he’s served a bowl of couscous topped with his least favorite animal

I’ve eaten cockroaches and tarantulas and snakes. I’ve picked scorpion stingers out of my teeth. I’ve scarfed down maggots and liked it. Then why do I feel like gagging now?

That’s basically the monologue that was running through my head as I sat on the sand under a pitch-black desert night sky in the middle of the Sahara as the Mauritanian wedding revelers around me chattered and sang… and waited for me to dig into the huge bowl of couscous and camel they’d set in front me.

“Look! Spine! That’s the best part!” the young man next to me seemed to indicate as he gestured toward the large, flat-bottom metal bowl that contained nut-brown couscous and a fat-streaked grayish organ-like mass attached to a thin, spiraling bone flecked with grease and bits of meat.

Perhaps sensing my hesitation, our hostess slid next to me. Hospitable and friendly, Zaida, the owner of the auberge we were staying at, had only known us a couple of hours when she invited my friend Mark and me to the wedding celebration that had brought the entire village of Ouadane to this courtyard under the stars. Behind her, a trio of clucking women in colorful mulafas stooped over a steaming cauldron set above a wood fire. The men fumbled with speakers, and a musician who’d traveled all the way from the nearest city tuned his lutelike tidinit. But Zaida’s friends were looking intently at me looking intently at the clammy knot of camel meat awaiting my attention.

“You don’t have to eat,” Zaida said. “It’s OK. Have figs instead.”

In other words, she seemed to be saying, You’re a Western tourist. No one expects you to try the Mauritanian foods.

I wasn’t going to let that challenge stand unanswered. I reached out to the bowl with my right hand, scooped up a bit of couscous, and ripped off a hunk of camel meat. Then I bit in.

But let me backtrack a bit.

I don’t like camels. By which I mean I don’t even like them when they’re alive. By the time I made it to the Sahara late last year, I’d already had some experience with them in India, when I rode one for a few days in the Thar Desert.

In Mauritania, I found myself once again sitting on one for several hours at a time, reacquainting myself with these stubborn, bad-tempered, moaning, barking, foam-mouthed fart machines whose single goal in life seems to be insisting on whatever path through the desert is most likely to result in their human riders having the most significant sunburn and sorest possible derrieres.

Yet my old college buddy Mark and I had been planning a Sahara trip for months, and to get to the oases we wanted to visit, we had to do it by fart machine—I mean camel. And my particular camel was especially ornery and seemed to have grudge against me—at one point it tried to throw me off a steep, tall sand dune. (I landed on my feet.)

By the second day of wrestling with my camel through desert bleds (flat, open expanses of sand) and over wavelike dunes, I was already looking forward to the hottest part of the day. That’s when Elwin, our chamelier (combination camel driver, desert guide, and camp cook), threw down straw mats under the spreading branches of an acacia tree and began the slow, intricate ritual of making strong Saharan-style tea.

Waiting for Elwin’s tea in the shade was like finding instant serenity.

He made tea at least four times a day, always in the shade, with Mark and me reclining on the mats in the sand as Elwin lit a small bundle of twigs, and then seemingly blew wisps of smoke into fire. (He usually used a lighter, and seemed fascinated when I gave him a book of waterproof matches and showed him how to use them.) After the fire was going, he poured water into a battered, painted kettle and, as it began to boil over the flame, painstakingly cleaned out three glasses and measured out nearly a full glass of sugar—he liked his tea sweet. Into the kettle went the sugar and the green-tea leaves, and then came my favorite part of the process, when he’d pour the hot tea from glass to glass and back again, building up a thick layer of bubbly froth for everyone.

And after the first round of tea was drunk, he’d smack his lips appreciatively and begin the process all over again. And again. And not once would he ever get a single grain of sand in a glass.

As a cook, however, Elwin relied on canned string beans and tuna salad with canned peas and potatoes. Camp food, it seems, is universal.

So when we arrived in Ouadane—an ancient fortresslike town carved into a huge island of dark rock that juts out of the Sahara, looking like the bones of alien civilization dreamt up for Star Wars—I was ready to eat a real meal. And when Zaida offered to take us to the feast that fell on the second day of a three-day wedding, it seemed like a gift from Providence.

And then they plopped the camel meat in front of us.

“Gamy” is a polite way to put it. The camel meat tasted like goat meat that had been butchered a week before and left to age in a dank cellar in the company of several especially shaggy, especially rain-soaked Irish wolfhounds before being boiled in water wrung from the coats of said Irish wolfhounds.

Texture-wise, the meat, which had been boiled, was tough and sinewy, and impossible to swallow until it had been gnawed on for several minutes. I couldn’t help but wonder if the camel’s final revenge on humans was by stubbornly refusing to be tenderized after years of being ridden. Which was a pretty damn camel-y thing to do. Unfortunately, focusing on the couscous wasn’t any help—it had a distracting amount of sand in it.

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