“WHAT?” “You mean you eat them?” “I don’t believe it!” “How strange!” This is often the reaction from those encountering people eating a certain kind of desert lizard that is known locally as “dabb.”
A “dabb” is a small reptile, cold-blooded as all reptiles are. This means its blood is the same temperature as the atmosphere surrounding it. With a formidable scientific name — Uromastyx maliensis — the “dabb” is a spiny-tailed desert lizard found in large quantities in the Arabian Peninsula. It is distinguished by its long, rough tail with rings of spiny scales which is used for defense. The tail also serves as fat storage.
Unlike those living on the eastern or western coasts of the Kingdom who have access to fresh seafood, the people of Najd in the Central Region have their own desert food which is found nowhere else. They call the dabb “the fish of the desert” and it is neither new nor strange for those in the desert to eat “dabb.”
“Before the discovery of oil, life was hard in the Central Region of the Arabian Peninsula. Not everyone could afford to have meat in every meal. “‘Dabb’ was an alternative to camel or sheep,” says Ali Al-Saleh, a fan of “dabb,” who adds, “it was also cheap and easy to catch.”
Of course, there are many who do not eat “dabb”; however, they enjoy hunting them in the desert. “I always go hunting ‘dabb’ in the desert with my friends but when it comes to eating them, I don’t,” says Ahmad Al-Mutairy, an amateur hunter in Asyah.
Others boast of their liking for “dabb” meat. “People who are spoiled by today’s luxurious life can’t eat ‘dabb’. Only those who are courageous can,” says an enthusiastic “dabb” fan. As for its similarity to fish, Ali Al-Saleh says that the taste is almost the same as fish. “However, it is more delicious than fish. It scores over fish at least in one way; there is no odor during cooking.”
Expatriates in the Kingdom are on top of the list of those who don’t even want to see a “dabb.” Egyptians in particular are horrified when they see the lizard. “We don’t know them back home,” says Mahmood Al-Sayid, an Egyptian builder who ran away as a young Saudi boy approached with a “dabb” in his hand. “Some boys with ‘dabb’ chase us because they know we don’t like them,” moans a Yemeni trader who left his shop open and ran down the street the moment he saw a young boy swinging a “dabb” in his hand.
As for hunting “dabb,” Ali says, it is not difficult to hunt if one is a strong runner. “You have to chase ‘dabb’ until you finally grab it,” he says. Some people dig tunnels until they reach the animals or simply pour water into the holes to force them out. “Dabbs” are ground dwellers that dig long, deep tunnels where they rest during the hottest midday hours.
“If one likes, one can use one’s rifle to hunt them. In this case, the shot must be at the head because a ‘dabb’ does not die easily,” Ali points out.
A short visit to the desert will usually produce a number of “dabb” sightings, Ali says.
Cooking “dabb” is the same as cooking “kabsa” but with a slight difference — it takes more time. The meat is cooked with rice but must be cooked more than 90 minutes. The pictures above show a dabb feast recently in Al-Asyah desert. Why not join some Saudi friends and have a desert lizard for dinner?