920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis MN 55407 (map); 612-874-0756;
Cooking Method:: Grilled
Short Order: A burger flavored with East African spices that makes you forget you're eating camel meat
Want Fries With That? Comes with average fries. Definitely get a sambusa ($1.50 each), fried triangle-shaped appetizers filled with ground beef, spices and herbs
Prices: Camel burger (w/fries and drink), $8.49; sambusa, $1.50
Scanning the menu of Safari Express in Minneapolis, my eyes stopped at "Camel Burger."
"Is that with actual camel meat not mixed with any other meat?" I asked.
"Yep. It's just camel," the cashier said.
The first bite into the camel burger brings a cascade of cumin, cinnamon, and other spices I can't place. For a few minutes, I forget I'm eating camel. It's the spices that elevate the burger beyond the dare of trying something exotic.
Jamal Hashi, the 29-year-old chef/co-owner of Safari Express, introduced the camel burger last year at the East African takeout restaurant in the Midtown Global Market. Known as the "king's meat," camel is reserved for weddings and other special occasions in East Africa, said Hashi, who was born in Somalia and came to the United States when he was 11 years old. He and his older brother Sade also own Safari Restaurant and Banquet Center. Jamal Hashi decided to offer a camel burger after getting an overwhelming response from Minnesota State Fair goers who were curious enough to try "Camel on a Stick." He recalled thinking, "You know what? People are hungry for something new."
Hashi wanted to make camel meat more accessible to those not familiar with East African cuisine. "It's not so strange to have a burger," he said.
He's right. It's the novelty of eating a camel burger that compelled me to try one. Hashi said the camel meat is rubbed with the East African spice blend of Berbere and Mitmita, which he describes as a spicy paprika. The restaurant has its own Berbere blend, a mixture of cumin, coriander, fenugreek, black pepper and other spices. The meat, imported from Australia, is left to marinate overnight before being put through a grinder and made into patties. Hashi spent about two months getting the recipe right.
The eight-ounce burger comes with lettuce, tomato, cheese, red onion, and a mildly spicy chipotle mayo sauce on a beautiful, soft, brioche-like milk bread bun made by Salty Tart Bakery, another Midtown Global Market vendor. Tucked in between the layers is a small pineapple ring whose sweetness pairs well with the meat, but I have to take a few bites before I taste the pineapple in the middle. (Earlier photos of the burger show much larger pineapple slices. Hashi explained the restaurant's pineapple supplier cuts the slices to the current size.) Although the very lean camel meat is cooked well done, it's still juicy. Taste-wise, Hashi compares camel meat to bison. Never having tried bison, I can't really explain the taste of camel—it's not pork, nor beef, nor chicken. I can detect a slight gaminess if I think really hard while eating the burger, but just chomping down, it tastes like meat.
The thick fries that come with the burger are just average. If you want something fried, go with the sambusa, a Somali samosa, one of the best items on the menu. The deep fried sambusa features a crisp golden brown shell, like a thick egg roll wrapper, stuffed with ground beef that's generously seasoned with Berbere and served with a jalapeño dipping sauce. This little pocket of goodness is the type of snack I would take out of the fridge and eat cold late at night.
Although Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, Hashi said the toughest part of his job is customers' lack of familiarity of East African food. The cuisine was influenced by Italy, Britain, France and other European countries that colonized East African nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many centuries earlier, trade routes between East Africa and the Middle East and India also left an imprint. At Safari Express, employees encourage customers to try samples of dishes like Chicken Fantastic or chicken in Alfredo sauce.
Since customers have so many Chinese, Italian, and Mexican restaurants to choose from, Hashi said, "When you think of African food, it has to be different. It has to come out really good." Any chef could have ground the camel meat, stuck it in a bun, and sold it as a gimmick. But Hashi took the time to develop a sound burger.
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