Camel on a stick among fair's new fare this year

Camel on a stick
John Yankovec of Stacy, Minn. samples camel on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, August 30, 2010. Camel on a stick is one of several new food items offered at the fair this year.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

State Fair goers are long used to the eating the unusual -- pizza on a stick, fried pickles and battered candy bars, among other delicacies.

But on Monday, for the first time ever, they could also get the food of kings -- camel meat on a stick.

Jamal Hashi runs Safari Express, a food stand usually in the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. But for the next three days, he's running the market's stand at the State Fair's International Bazaar. He's serving up mangos, a filled pastry called sambusa -- and Australian camel.

"It's a first. It's never been done before. It's the food of kings, it's something that we cherish back home, and it's treated as a delicacy," said Hashi.

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Back home, for Hashi, is Somalia.

Hashi immigrated from Somalia in 1993 and is running, as far as anyone knows, the first East African culinary offering ever at the State Fair. He's actually importing the camel from Australia, where the animals are farmed.

It looks a little like meatloaf. A little.

"If you've never had camel, what I would compare it to is bison," said Hashi. "It's a very, very lean meat ... it's high in protein and doesn't have any of the gamey taste you would imagine from other game meats."

Pig ear french fries
A new taste at the Minnesota State Fair this year is french fried strips of pig ears -- served with chipotle lime ketchup.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Hashi, though, hopes he's offering more than just another takeout novelty at the fair.

He said Somali culture includes a great passion for food, influenced by Italian and French colonial cuisine.

That tradition sometimes gets lost in the strain of starting over in a new land, in stories about conflict back in Somalia, and the recent investigations of suspected local links to East African terror groups, Hashi said.

But food traditions are often a key element of cultural acclimation, and Hashi thinks the State Fair is a great place to start.

"Somali culture is a very welcoming culture. That's what we're all about," Hashi said. "There have been so many negative things that have been going around."

Camel, of course, isn't the only debut at the fair this year. Here's a quick tour of the gastronomical premieres elsewhere:

Mashed potatoes on a stick
Sour cream is the most popular side with the deep-fried cheddar and bacon mashed potatoes on a stick outside the Horse Barn.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Just a block east of the Midway, Mike Olson says he brought a little Los Angeles street food to the Blue Moon Dine-in Theater this year. He calls his offering Korean Moon Barbecue tacos.

"It's a 48-hour marinated chicken thigh, that we marinate in soy sauce and sesame oil and a bunch of different seasonings," Olson said, going on to describe how he wraps it in a corn flour tortilla, and tops it with caramelized onion, green onion cilantro relish, romaine lettuce and a Napa Valley cabbage mixture.

"And on top of that we put a salsa rojo, which is like a blend of Korean flavors and Mexican flavors," Olson said.

A block away, Charlie Torgerson whipped up something a little simpler at the Famous Dave's stand -- deep-fried pig ears. They're sliced thin and look like french fries.

Torgerson said people like the pig ears once they get past the idea of it.

"I think that they think it's a whole ear that I just fried, they're thinking maybe dog treats or something," said Olson. "But once they try it and they get that salty, smoky chipotle and the lime chipotle ketchup, they really like it."

The pig ears were a hit for Gary Njos of Coon Rapids.

"Last year I had the pig cheeks, and this year I went a little bit higher and had the ears. Ears taste better," Njos said.

Near the Horse Barn, you'll find what may be the most gravity-defying fair food of all time -- bacon and cheddar mashed potatoes on a stick.

Tom Bolas runs the stand.

"We take some mashed potatoes, then we mix in some bacon and cheddar cheese a little bit of onion powder and some pepper," said Bolas. "We roll them into balls, freeze 'em, batter 'em, fry 'em, and put 'em on a stick."

You can also get deep-fried bologna, practically unbearably hot Ghost Wings in the Coliseum, and grilled marshmallow, chocolate and banana sandwiches.

The folks at the Tejas stand say they didn't get their equipment in time, so you'll have to wait until next year for the deep-fried avocado they hoped to have this summer.