KARACHI, Pakistan — During the evening rush hour in central Karachi, Nadeem Mutloob can barely keep up with demand at his curbside milk bar, a popular stop for workers on their way home.
Customers line up for cool bottles of what Mutloob and some medical researchers tout as an unbeatable health supplement: camel milk, or as the label says, “the world’s next super food.”
“It’s useful; that’s why they buy it,” said Mutloob between customers.
He and others believe camel milk can treat a range of ailments, including liver problems, hepatitis and diabetes.
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“I use it for ‘man power,’ ” quipped Mohammad Ashfaq, a 36-year-old gas-station employee, referring to virility.
As he bellied up to the Marhaba shop’s counter, Ashaq said his wife drinks the milk and gives it to their children, too.
And there may be something to the hype over the age-old nostrum. The milk is indeed often used by diabetics and hepatitis patients. It has three times more vitamin C than cow milk and is a rich source of iron.
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is at the center of the trend imported from Africa and the Middle East. Several camel-milk vendors have set up shop in the past year or so.
The white frothy liquid’s resemblance to its bovine equivalent does not extend to its flavor or its price.
“Tastes salty,” said Syed Sanaullah, proprietor of the Al-habib shop, when asked to describe the beverage. The 36-year-old shopkeeper sells single-serve plastic bottles of milk at a roadside stand next to his small convenience store.
He said camel milk costs nearly five times more than regular milk because of supply shortages — about $3.60 per kilogram (35 ounces), while regular milk fetches only 80 cents. But customers who can afford it continue to purchase the milk because they are convinced of its efficacy.
Drinking camel milk is becoming more prevalent, Sanaullah said, because hakeems, or local healers, encourage the practice.
Sami, a young accountant, drinks at least a half bottle every morning to ease stomach-acid problems. “I have used the milk as a medicine for the past three months,” he said.
Most of Mutloob’s customers stop in on the way back from work to pick up a supply to take home — but many also just crack open the sealed single-serve bottles and gulp the drink down as they stand on the sidewalk, wiping away milk mustaches before collecting their change and hustling off to brave the evening commute.
Nomadic Bedouins have relied on camel milk as a staple for eons. The animals are known for their ability to survive and give milk even under harsh desert conditions.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has noted the commercial value of camel dairy products, saying they could provide nomadic herders “a rich source of income.”
The organization estimates a potential world market of $10 billion for the product.
The U.N. organization notes that doctors are prescribing camel milk to patients in Russia, Kazakhstan and India and may be recommending it for people living with AIDS in Africa.
Seven years ago, the U.N. experts recognized the potential for a camel-milk boom, and in some markets around the globe it appears to be coming to pass.
The Guardian newspaper recently reported that in Kenya, camel milkshakes and “camelcinos” (camel cappuccinos) are selling in cafes. It said camel-milk production is on par with the country’s coffee industry.
Somalia and Saudi Arabia are the biggest producers of camel milk.
Although consumption has risen in cosmopolitan Karachi, the idea is catching on in cities like the far-less-hip capital of Islamabad. There, individual sellers have been seen parking the lumbering creatures by the side of the road near bustling shopping centers.
While the bottled product is boiled or pasteurized, these dairy entrepreneurs sell the milk in plastic baggies — or even offer doesn’t-get-any-fresher squirts directly from the source.