Field Notes from a Rapidly Disappearing Way of Life

Drinking Camel Milk with the Raika

In the encampments of the camel nomads, there is an unwritten hospitality ritual: The guest is ushered to the arrangement of baql, the camel hair rugs laid out to denote the temporary residence of the nomads, made to sit down and urged to feel comfortable.  A make shift “cushion” is hastily assembled, usually from a camel saddle and a piece of bedding. While the guest leans backs and relaxes, one of the herders grabs a vessel and rushes off to milk a camel.

Extracting milk from a camel demands a relationship of trust. Unlike modern cows, camels don’t just share their milk with anybody; they need to feel calm and comfortable with their handler. The Raika never tie up their camels, nor do they even use a halter.  In some cases, when their baby has died, female camels have adopted the herder as their calf and give milk to him whenever he approaches. But most can only be milked when their calf is present. So in preparation for milking the herder will nudge the calf to suckle from its mother on one side and then proceed to milk two teats from the other side. While being suckled and milked, the mother goes into a trance which only lasts about a minute, then the flow of milk stops. However, it can be induced again after a short period. The more often you milk, the more you get – camels don’t store milk in their udder like cows do, they let it down on demand. But they only let it down if they are at ease and confident.

The herders present the milk with reverence, in the manner of a gift that one has gone to great length to tailor to the taste of the recipient. They carefully pour it from the milking vessel either into a cup folded from the leaves of the aak bush, or into one of the well-polished brass bowls that they carry along on migration. Then they eagerly watch the expression of their guest while imbibing the milk, ready to replenish as many times as requested.

Camel milk fresh from the udder has a thick layer of froth like a cappuccino. I don’t really remember the taste of my first swig of camel milk in the winter of 1990/91, but I must have felt squeamish about ingesting raw milk, as I succinctly remember my Raika guide Dr. Dewaram Dewasi telling me “The milk of other animals – cow, buffalo, goats, sheep – we boil, but camel milk we traditionally always drink fresh – that must be because it is free from diseases and because only then it unfolds its healthy qualities.”

The taste of camel milk is as variable as that of wine or champagne and depends on the “terroir”, the local botanicals the camels have browsed upon. Like a sommelier, experienced camel herders can tell from the aroma and flavour of the milk which shrubs and trees have gone into its making. Some plants like bordi and unt-kantalo render it sweet, while neem gives it a bitter note. If the camels have been “salted” recently, then this is reflected in the milk also.  Moreover, the camels add their own individual taste note too. Camel milk is not a standardized potion, its fat and water content fluctuates according to season, vegetation and state of lactation. Just after having given birth, its high in fat, by the time the calf is a year old, the milk is less nutritious and much more watery.

For the Raika camel herders, the camel milk is their main sustenance. Its constant availability frees them from carrying supplies beyond some tea leaves and sugar necessary to prepare an even more powerful concoction:

camel milk chai, made without water, just by brewing milk and tea and a liberal amount of sugar on the fire made from twigs and camel dung. They complement their diet with rotis and chutney made from green peppers given to them by the farmers on whose fields the herds stay overnight in exchange for the camel dung that is a valuable organic fertilizer with a long lasting effect.

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