As you know, I am pretty familiar with camel meat but when I recently posted a link on facebook to an article on camel burgers in Dubai, my lovely friend Charles Perry (who is the leading expert on medieval Arab cookery) left a comment about a recipe he had for camel hump. I had seen the hump for sale at my camel butcher in Aleppo but I had never seen a recipe for it. So, I asked Charles for his. Sadly, he couldn’t find it — it had gotten lost between computers — but as usual, he sent me lots of information and other recipes; and I thought it would be great to have him do a post here about how camel meat was used in medieval times. Here is his post with some photographs that I shot in the souks of Aleppo.

xmas card 3

Charles Perry: Last May, Anissa blogged about visiting a camel butcher in Damascus and making camel kebabs. That was a new one on me – I’d only heard of camel being cooked in elaborate stews. It’s how they cooked camel in the Middle Ages.

Camel meat was reasonably popular back then, popular enough for doctors to gravely warn against eating too much of it (in the manner of doctors throughout the ages). They held it to be “heating” and to “engender thick blood,” and declared it suitable only “for those who do exhausting labor.” Or suffer from “hot stomach” and diarrhea, oddly.

There was a special word for camel meat, jazur, which basically means “that which is slaughtered.” Occasionally the word was applied to mutton, but most of the recipes mention hump, which is kind of a giveaway that we’re talking camel.

There’s a whole chapter of camel stews in the 10th-century book Kitab al-Tabikh. Here’s the first recipe. Pay attention in case you ever need to stew camel, complete with its hump.(Anissa: and if you do, here below is where you can find it at Malak Lahm el-Jamal which is what the Arabic sign says, meaning the king of camel meat!)

camel butcher 2

Jazuriyya bi-Lahm Jazur

Camel rib and leg meat
Camel hump
Soy sauce
Mixed spices (abzar, probably like the baharat or hawayij of modern Arab cookery)

Slice up the meat and hump as if you were going to make the medieval fry-up called qaliyya. Cook the sliced meat in a pot until it gives up all its moisture, then add onions and the sliced hump and cook everything together until the hump renders its fat.

Add the vinegar, soy sauce, pepper, coriander, caraway and mixed spices to taste (the recipe gives no measurements at all) and continue cooking until everything is done.

Yes, they had a sort of soy sauce in the medieval Arab world. Murri was made by culturing barley the same way that soy beans are cultured in the Far East. The second jazuriyya recipe is pretty much the same as the first, except that instead of soy sauce, you add bunn, which was the rotted barley paste from which the barley “soy sauce” was pressed.

It must be significant that the heading of chapter 77 says it contains bunniyyat as well as jazuriyyat. None of the six dishes in the chapter is actually named bunniyya, but five of them contain either bunn or soy sauce. I’ve never had camel meat – maybe its flavor just cries out for soy sauce.

But maybe not. Kitab al-Tabikh describes a royal Persian dish called (in Arabic) ma-wa-milh. The recipe calls for hump (sanam) as well as meat from the back, belly and thighs (of an unnamed animal, but it if you have a hump, you pretty much already have a whole camel lying around). However, ma-wa-milh was a soupy stew with hand-cut noodles in it, served with a garnish of garlic and walnuts stewed in broth. No soy sauce. I retract my theory.

Anissa: Thank you so much Charles. This is brilliant. I will be making the recipe next time I am in Aleppo.

There is 39 comments on this post

  • I did eat some camel meat when I lived in Cairo, in a stew, so was interested reading this. The meal was not memorable beyond the novelty of the meat, which I neither especially liked nor disliked.

    I was struck by the word “abzar” for spices, the Maltese word for pepper, both black and red is “bzar”, and now I now where it comes from, bearing in mind the Arab period(Aghlabid then Fatimid) in Malta ran from 870 to 1120.

  • interesting. in arabic it is called b’har. yes, camel meat is not fabulous but i like camel butchers.

  • checking lisan al arab to try to find the origin-root of
    bzr: “al bizru kol habb yubzaru lnnabat”
    bhr : … buhar: “…. ihsubha kalimat ghayr ‘arabiya wa-uraha kubtiya”… buhar “‘araby sahih wahua ma yahmul ‘alalba’ir biloghat ahl achcham”.
    fulful “ma’rouf la yanbut biard alarab wakad kuthir maji’ah fi kalamihim wa asl alkalimat farisiya…”

  • this is so interesting brigitte. thank you.

  • Did you know that camel’s hump was a Chinese imperial delicacy and is still served at, for example, the Fangshan imperial restaurant in Beijing. And camel’s FOOT is a delicacy in Dunhuang, the old Silk Road oasis and home to the Buddhist caves. They occasionally sell camel meat in markets in Xinjiang, too, although its meat is not commonly eaten.

  • so, i guess you have tried both the hump and the foot, and the meat. i have seen hump sold in the souk, sliced open in a funny decorative kind of way but have never seen the feet on sale. must be enormous. are they any good?

  • Slow-cooked for hours and then served in a rich, dark sauce, they have a wonderfully soft, slippery, gelatinous consistency. Definitely more about texture than taste – although of course the final dish, made with rich stocks, is delicious.

  • P.S. I also saw, in an old book on Xinjiang customs, a photograph of an entire roasted camel!! Of course I tried to find a place that served this, but no one I met had heard of it, and I’m guessing it was a rare occurrence. (I wrote a bit about eating camel in my last book – I found some camel meat on sale in the market at Kashgar and persuaded a kebab seller to grill it for me. The kebabs, served on a nan bread platter, were pretty good.

  • mmm… i want to eat one right now. will check when i am in syria to see what they do with the feet. it won’t be anything as good as you’ve described. do they cut them in pieces. they must be enormous, although the carcass in my picture is not that large considering.

  • they roast whole camels in the gulf, but baby ones. it’s funny. my syrian camel butcher refused to grill my camel meat in pieces saying it was too tough. instead, he minced it and wrapped the mince around the skewers, which was confusing at the time as he called it kabab whereas it would have been kafta in lebanon.

  • As far as I remember, the foot I had in Dunhuang was whole, but boned, so it wasn’t TOO enormous – and it was meant to be shared by the whole table, of course. Camel hump I’ve only had in small portions as part of a long banquet.

    I thought the camel kebabs would be monstrously tough, but they weren’t. Not, perhaps, as tender as the usual lamb kebabs, which are threaded with moistening tail fat, but perfectly eatable.

  • Oh no, Anissa, I’ve found yet another source of internet distraction! I’m trying to write a restaurant review!

  • i know. and i am trying to write a book, having finished a restaurant review yesterday. in any case, i will insist that my butcher grills me camel pieces when i am next in damascus which may be v soon.

  • will plan on tasting camel meat soon during my next visit to the ME.

  • look forward to hearing how you like it.

  • Fuchsia, what I need to know is, do the Chinese use a lot of soy sauce with camel? Apparently the Iraqis usually put soy in their camel stews in the 9th century.
    Brigitte, abzar is certainly a plural of bizr “seed,” but here’s a puzzling thing: McKenzie’s “A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary” says abzar meant “instrument, means” or “spice” in Middle Persian. It’s hard to believe the early medieval Persians would have borrowed an Arabic word for spices.
    I can’t back up Ibn Manzur’s suggestion that bahar is Coptic. There were certainly lots of h’s in Coptic, but all the b’s were pronounced like v’s.

  • Hi Charles
    I’ve had a quick look at various sources, and can’t find a great deal of information about camel cookery. One very well-respected scholar of Tang Dynasty food mentions the dish ????literally roasted camel hump, but by the Tang Dynasty actually a dish made using a variety of other cooking methods (because too much oil was lost if it was roasted). In one of his books, he gives a recipe for this dish that involves soaking the hump for three hours, then boiling it for three hours, and then steaming it for a shorter time with seasonings that include star anises, cassia, Sichuan pepper, ginger and spring onions (scallions), along with some salt pork, and reconstituted dried mushrooms and bamboo shoots. It is served with a sauce made of seasoned chicken stock (which might include soy sauce, though he does not specify), and a scattering of coriander (cilantro) leaves?

    I’ve checked my notes from Dunhuang, and I had camel’s foot served in a rich stock-based sauce with garlic, scallion, Chinese dates, wolfberries and dried mushrooms. One book lists a Gansu delicacy of ‘oil-exploded camel hump’ ???? – this is made by boiling the hump until it’s soft, then cutting into small pieces and blanching in hot water with some cooking wine, then stir-frying the pieces with ginger, garlic and scallion, and finishing with a sauce of soy sauce, MSG, salt, pepper, starch and stock.

    No mention so far that I’ve spotted of camel stew with soy sauce.

  • Or indeed of any recipes that use camel MEAT rather than the delicacies of foot and hump. Often of course, banquet delicacies are better documented than folk cooking, so who knows how the ordinary people ??? of Northwest China liked to eat their camel…

  • Sorry, the Chinese characters have come out on your blog as question marks…

  • yes, this is too bad fuchsia. i think it would have worked if you’d copied and pasted but it’s too late now. you can try emailing them to me but they will probably be converted to question marks. thanks for the fascinating information. will let charles know.

  • thank you Charles for your comments. I was curious about the origin of these words, especially knowing what an interesting combination maltese is. so you think that bzr-abzar (ashjar, asmak…) could find its origin in old Persian? but it sounds very much like a semitic root…

  • Totally fascinating and does make one want to try it, if not just for novelty sake. Anissa, I hope you take pictures of your attempt at cooking camel, and share with all of us. I’m going to pass on your link to a history list serve I belong too-surely they’ll have something to say. Best, (Romney) Nani

  • thanks so much nani. will definitely take pics of me cooking camel, perhaps even a film clip and will share. x

  • checked ibn shoushan hoping that it would send back to akkadian. but no mention of the root just bazar (hebrew paal and piel bizer) = disperse, spread, scatter.

  • what a collection of knowledgeable comments. impressive. thanks brigitte. have emailed charles to let him know.

  • very very interesting, so many new things to learn! I never had camel meat but tasted camel milk-shake (!), once, in Dubai and wasn’t so bad. Hugs 🙂

  • thanks alessandra. will be having lots of camel milk soon, when i get to dubai. x

  • anissa, i was so fascinated to hear about camel meat, and the conversation between you, charles and fuchsia here. last year my boss went to Mali for a UN trip. He emailed all of us from there telling us about how the Malian authorities took the whole UN staff there to the desert for a Bedouin style party. He said that they had stuffed a camel with a goat and the goat with chicken and rice. He even showed us some photos, but it was too dark to actually see them properly. i thought this was absolutely incredible, fascinating, and smthg which I would love to have one day. loved reading your post and learning more about camel. i shall ask my mum to confirm, but i think we eat camel in pakistan, too. x shayma

  • gosh, i wanted to go to mali for the music, and now i want to go for the stuffed camel feast. amazing, although i suspect not so good. much better to barbecue the animals separately. still, would love to try it. and please let me know if they eat camel in pakistan. x

  • My word!

    The blog I really want to see is the one where you do the cooking! I’ve had camel jerky before (in the Sahara, I think). Stringy goodness.

    On to the ice cream…


  • At first I thought Alelunetta was talking about a milkshake flavored with camel meat. I mean, I’m down with nouvelle ideas, but that would be where I draw the line.
    But of course, it was a shake made from camel milk. This is the only use I’ve ever heard for camel milk apart from fermenting it into kumyss in Central Asia. Camel milk is common enough out there that there’s a special word for it in the Turkic languages, shubat.
    Was there a camel-y flavor? I remember having sheep-milk ice cream in Hama — I thought the vanilla was OK, but chocolate and strawberry flavors didn’t work very well with sheep milk.

  • Anissa and Fuchsia: Hi! do the chinese, or in Syria, roast the camel with their skins? In colonial times in Brazil, they used to slow roast a whole donkey under the embers, for a whole night. It is supposed to live the meat very soft and creamy. And maybe this recipe is originally an oriental one.

  • i will try and find out when i get to the emirates and will let you know.

  • This is all fascinating – thank you.

    In Morocco I met a man making camel milk cheese. He believed he was the first cheesemaker in the world to be using 4 milks – camel, sheep, cow and goat.

    In the Western Sahara I very much enjoyed camel kebabs, made with both meat and hump fat. The hump was particularly delicious. Not sure how to find it in north London…


  • I had fermented camel’s milk in a Kazakh restaurant in Urumqi once… delicious.

    Marcia – I’m afraid I never found out any more about the whole roasted camel. Everyone I spoke to about it seemed to think that it was an unusual novelty rather than a traditional dish. More commonly, in Xinjiang, they eat whole roasted sheep, which are cooked in tandoor ovens. You see them, ready to be carved, in the street markets.

  • Reading the above, I wonder if camel hump the shark fin of medieval times! In which case, camel hump soup, anyone?

  • Thanks for posting this! So interesting! I am writing an article about modern camel meat consumption and found more info on your blog than I have in MANY popular food encyclopedias. Thank you!

  • you are welcome leena. let me know when your piece is published.

Leave a Comment