Raising a glass to camel milk
Power-packed, low in fat, and yes, salty, camel milk is the new superfood on the scene
What’s new with rabdi, gulab jamuns, roshogollas and kulfi?
How about—camel milk?
Or, if sweets are not your thing, try the camel milk coffee, tea or lassi. At the National Research Centre on Camel (NRCC) in Bikaner, scientists, nutritionists and technicians are well ahead of the global curve in scoping out camel milk as a probable new superfood. “In the last 10-15 years, we have been building up efforts to look at camels for alternate utility," says Niteen Patil, director of the centre. “Camel milk is now being brought out for use for the general public."
Camel milk was first presented on the popular television show, Highway On My Plate, a few years ago. Anchors Rocky and Mayur visited the canteen at NRCC and were delighted to see camel milk ice creams being made and sold on the spot. With great anticipation, the duo bit into the ice creams, only to be taken aback by the salty taste. “It had a very strong, metallic flavour. Camel milk surely is an acquired taste," says Mayur Sharma, recalling the experience.
For Sharma, tasting those ice creams was a “fun element" of the show but, back in 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had already forecast a great future for camel milk. An article on its site states: “To devotees, camel milk is pure nectar. While slightly saltier than cows’ milk, it is very good for you. After all, nature designed it to help baby camels grow up in some of the world’s roughest environments—deserts and steppes. That helps explain why it is three times as rich in vitamin C as cow’s milk."
Its newly-acquired fame is not restricted to the world of wonder drugs and superfoods alone: Camel milk is slowly inching its way into the culinary world as well. Despite the salt factor, chocolatiers and pastry chefs are using it to create pralines and rich desserts. In 2008, the Dubai-based Al Nassma claimed to have become the first camel milk chocolate brand in the world. Since then, it has been crafting luxury chocolates using camel milk, nuts, cocoa and orange zest, adding to these a spicy note with cinnamon or cardamom. In 2015, Al Nassma’s artisan chocolates made their way to Harrods in London.
Nuggets and anecdotes about camel milk emerge from kitchens around the world. Abu Dhabi-based chef Nouel Omamalin, for instance, first encountered camel milk in the Camelccino at the Emirates Palace hotel. This traditional beverage with a local twist combines the rich taste of camel milk with aromatic coffee, which is then paired with a piece of camel milk chocolate. After savouring this unique brew, Omamalin decided to use camel milk as the core ingredient in date muffins in his own kitchen. In 2015, camel milk was the surprise element of the MasterChef India mystery box challenge during the Dubai leg of the competition. Contestants had a hard time imagining a Middle-Eastern dish that used camel milk effectively.
Blissfully cut off from the world of haute cuisine, the NRCC—designated in 1984 to be a repository of information on camel research and development—has also lately focused on processes and value addition, thereby hoping that the commercialization of different camel products and by-products, including milk, happens at the earliest. It works on tweaking indigenous recipes to suit the unique chemistry of milk derived from a 300-strong contingent of four breeds of camels: Bikaneri, Mewari, Jaisalmeri or Kutchhi.
A team of 23 people works together to research on and create camel milk products. “Breeders, biochemists, nutritionists, people who evaluate the milk, health and hygiene collaborate on this," says Patil. A daily yield of 5-6 litres is transformed into foodstuff: While 200ml of the milk costs Rs15, a serving of kulfi costs Rs30 at the NRCC canteen.
I ask Patil about the historical use of camel milk in Bikaner. “Since time immemorial, the local Raika community has had the traditional medicinal knowledge of camel milk," he says. If legends are to be believed, the Raikas were mandated by Lord Shiva to look after camels; their history of consumption of camel milk, too, goes back a long way. Camel milk is commonly used in chai in the region as well.
However, with pastures under pressure of late, the Raikas’ camel count has come down significantly. To protect their livelihood, animal welfare activist Hanwant Singh Rathore and veterinarian-archaeozoologist Ilse Köhler-Rollefson launched a social enterprise called Camel Charisma in 2013 to revive Rajasthan’s traditional camel husbandry. In the process, they inadvertently created awareness about camel milk while exploring its market potential. Today, they sell plain camel milk, camel cheese and natural body soap.
“We have a huge campus near Ranakpur, where we have a herd of 30 camels. But we work with more than 5,000 people across Rajasthan to source milk and other camel products," says Rathore. “On the campus, we produce camel dung paper and wool, and also work towards empowering women from the Raika community." In 2015, Camel Charisma showcased camel cheese, crafted by Austrian cheese maker Robert Paget, at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Camel milk products have also made their way to popular e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Snapdeal and Flipkart. Hitesh Rathi, a young entrepreneur from Bikaner who quit his job on a construction project in Myanmar, in 2015 and founded Aadvik Foods, has been selling camel milk products both offline and online. “A couple of friends and I were having a conversation about new entrepreneurial ventures. The idea of camel milk came up. As I’m from Bikaner, I was aware of camel milk, so I started researching it," he says.
Today, he sells four camel milk products: soaps, chocolate, milk powder and plain milk. “Milk is supplied in 200ml bottles—each between Rs100-200—to all cities in frozen form. As it spoils very quickly, the company has introduced dehydrated camel milk powder, which has the same nutritional properties as camel milk itself but is easier to handle in terms of storage," says Rathi, who receives 4,000-5,000 litres of milk every month from camel breeders in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Aadvik has over 200 recurring customers for milk across the country, with some customers in Delhi and the National Capital Region ordering once a week or once a month.
One of them is Sumit Srivastava, a 32-year-old digital marketing professional based in Indirapuram, adjacent to Delhi. He buys camel milk regularly for his six-year-old son. “He used to suffer from severe constipation while on cow milk. Doctors recommended medication, but I wasn’t keen on it," he says. “Two years ago, after extensive research, I decided to give camel milk a shot. Doctors weren’t too aware of the qualities of camel milk, but they said there was no harm in trying it."
His son took to camel milk immediately, notwithstanding its salty taste. “I have seen a lot of difference in my son’s health since then. Hitesh and his team know of my consumption of 200-300ml per day. I usually get around 15-16 bottles of frozen milk from them at a time. When they are about to get over, I get a message from the team that I need to replenish my stock," says Shrivastava.
Both Rathi and Patil wax eloquent about camel milk’s nutritional benefits. Consider the fat content: Compared to yak milk (up to 9%) and buffalo milk (7-8%), camel milk has only 1.5-3% fat, depending on the season. As mentioned in the FAO report, it is a great source of vitamins B and C, and iron. “Calcium is present in a free form and it doesn’t allow camel milk to coagulate. It has more sodium and potassium (than cow milk), which is why it seems salty to us. Camel milk is helpful in managing diabetes type 2 and heart diseases," says Patil.
“Camel milk is rich in natural insulin and helps in managing diabetes. It increases immunity and suppresses autoimmune disorders," says Lovneet Batra, clinical nutritionist at Fortis La Femme, Delhi, adding that it was still being studied scientifically.
Patil also suggests that a glass of camel milk improves the autism score in children. Indeed, there are a few research studies supporting the claim. “Dr Al-Ayadhi and his team from King Saud University, Riyadh, have conducted randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that indicate that consumption of camel milk is beneficial in reducing behavioural symptoms in children with autism," says K. John Vijay Sagar, additional professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru.
While the exact mechanism of action is not known, it has been hypothesized that camel milk could affect behaviour by regulating the immune system, especially cytokines. “However, with limited scientific evidence available, camel milk can’t be advocated as a first-line intervention for all children diagnosed with autism," says Dr Sagar. “Parents who wish to try camel milk, in place of cow milk, can do so by consulting the paediatrician and without altering the regimen of intensive behavioural and speech interventions."
With the Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) having operationalized standards for camel milk in late 2016, paving the way for wider accessibility, more brands are hopping on to the camel milk bandwagon. Amul is expected to start selling camel milk in 500ml bottles in the next few weeks. To be initially available in Ahmedabad through Amul booths, Amul’s camel milk will be marketed in Delhi and Mumbai next.
“Camel milk should be promoted more. There is a market for it internationally as well. More and more chefs should try using camel milk in their kitchens. We are doing the research, those in planning should take it forward," says Patil.
Get your fix
Be it for health reasons or just because you love the earthy taste of camel milk, tap these sources
Aadvik Foods: Order frozen camel milk or powder online at Aadvikfoods.com or over the phone. It also sells lavender and jojoba as well as peppermint and rosemary camel milk soaps.
Camel Charisma: The retail outlet on Ranakpur Road in Sadri, Rajasthan, stocks camel milk products and souvenirs such as camel dung paper cards, soaps, camel wool mobile covers, and artwork by artist Shariq Parvez on dung paper. Camelcharisma.wordpress.com.
National Research Centre on Camel: The small parlour at the centre in Bikaner offers an array of desserts created with camel milk. You can also buy bottles of milk or powder to take home. And there’s a special tour of the facility thrown in for free.