On an Omani food trail...
“Why do you keep watching all these food shows?” asked the husband, a frown on his face. “The channel is about travelling. Why don’t you concentrate on that?”
“Because I love knowing about a region’s food culture, its cuisines and the history behind that,” I tried to explain. “Food plays an important role in discovering the different facets of a place, you know.”
I wonder if he was convinced by my rather prosaic reply. But that is how I gauge a region – by its food. One who knows how to appease a guest with good food will always be a good host. My belief, of course. And I am talking about a nation here.
Oman, going by what I have been reading, seems to be a perfect host. It is said that in Oman they believe in eating to live rather than living to eat, which is somewhat my philosophy as well. The country offers an interesting blend of Arabian and Indian influences, with local cafés mostly serving shwarmas, biryanis and other Middle Eastern mezze and grills.
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Well then, would you want to go ahead and sample the culinary traditions of Oman? Here, come along with me and I will sum it up all for you!
Where would I go:
There are a number of places to eat in Oman, the cafés being the most popular and preferred. They are not fancy affairs and serve a limited range of food and drink, although some cafes do offer a larger menu to choose from. You can usually get a filling meal, choosing from a range of shwarmas, kebabs, biryanis and mezze at any of these places for around 1.5 OR.
In case you rather favored a restaurant, there are several of them catering to the tastes of those with heavier wallets.These might have slightly swankier decor and a somewhat wider range of cuisines.
In Oman, particularly in Muscat, many people also dine at hotels. The variety of cuisine on offer surpasses the menus in restaurants and includes Arabic, Indian, Oriental, European and other international dishes.
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What would I eat:
Omani food tends to be less spicy than typical Arabic food although a number of spices, herbs, onion, garlic and lime are liberally used. Marinades play a major role in the preparation of a dish and the food served is in generous portions. Chicken, fish and mutton are the typical ingredients in traditional Omani cuisine. Dates are a symbol of Omani hospitality throughout the country and served with kahwa, or Omani coffee.
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Some of the traditional cuisines of Oman on my wish-list include*:
• Shuwa (meat cooked slowly for up to two days in underground clay ovens, marinated with herbs and spices).
• Mashuai (spit-roasted kingfish served with lemon rice).
• Maqbous (rice dish with saffron cooked over spicy red or white meat).
• Halwa (sticky, gelatinous sweet made from dates or sugar and flavored with saffron, cardamom and rosewater).
• Lokhemat (balls of flour and yeast, flavored with cardamom and deep fried, served with sweet lime and cardamom syrup).
However, these traditional dishes rarely make it to restaurant menus and you may not be able to partake of them unless you get yourself invited into someone’s house or you are visiting Oman during the festivals of Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha.
So, what can we taste at any point of time while in Oman?
Shwarma – I am a big fan of these ‘Arabian rolls’ even in Bangalore. Chunks of spit roasted chicken, carved and wrapped in bread with pickled salads – they are your best bet for a light meal in Oman.
Kebabs - Lebanese and Turkish-style grilled kebabs are also fairly common in Oman. Popular dishes include the Lebanese chicken shish taouk and Turkish-style lamb kofte kebabs, which are served with soft Arabian-style flatbread (khubz) and a bowl of creamy hummus.
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Biryani – Biryani is one of the staples of Omani cuisine. But don’t expect them to be greasy like the ones we get here in India. They are usually mildly spiced rice, flavored with bits of roasted onion and vegetables, and served with a leg of chicken or a hunk of lamb. If going by the laham mandi that we get in Bangalore is any indication, then those in Oman should be even more impressive. Other similar biryani-style dishes available include the Afghan-style kabuli and the Saudi kabsa (also known as maqbous).
Kahwa (or gahwa) - This traditional Arabic coffee is unlike its European counterparts and is served in delicate handle-less cups, without milk and sugar. It is usually flavored with cardamom and/or cloves, which lends an aromatic and slightly bitter aftertaste. The serving and drinking of coffee is an important element of traditional Omani hospitality, and coffee-pourers can be seen roving in public places with a metal coffeepot (dallah) and a tray of dates.
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Halwa - Similar to our own suji halwa, this classic Omani dessert is traditionally made with semolina, ghee, sugar and rose-water, flavored with cardamom and almonds and slow-boiled over a wood fire. They are sold all over the country in beautiful old-fashioned ceramic bowls, or stacked up in plastic tubs in the fridges of cafés and grocery shops.
Where would I eat:
The restaurant Ubhar, located in Muscat, is named after an ancient city which is buried under the southern quarters of the city. It strives to take the diner back into the regal era of the past, and the decor and the food are a medley of modern and age-old Omani cuisine. Their menu puts a modern twist on traditional Omani recipes in a way that it still remains completely authentic. Diners with adventurous taste-buds can order camel biryani here while the restaurant is also known for its traditional creations like halwa and the slow roasted shuwa.
The nationwide Bin Ateeq chain has been doing its best to revive local culinary customs and provide a dining experience that resembles traditional homes of yesteryear to visitors from all over the world. There is floor-level seating, with exquisitely patterned Majlis cushions strewn about. Guests here can try delicacies such as mutton maqbous and harees (cracked wheat and meat, cooked in ghee)
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The choice of vegetarian restaurants in Oman is very limited. Fusion, also located in Muscat, is one of the few restaurants that strive to fill this very significant gap, although they do have non vegetarian options as well. Vegetarian diners here are offered a veritable choice of mostly Asian tandoori items and sweet desserts. By sheer co-incidence this restaurant is situated next to the old Indian embassy. For the non-vegetarians, there are on-the-table meat grills, and in case you are travelling with friends and family this could be your very own miniature barbecue party.
Things to remember:
- If offered kahwa in a social-do, it is considered polite to accept a cup as a symbol of accepting the offered hospitality. When finished, shake the cup gently from side to side and say “Bas, shukran” (“Thank you, I am done”).
- Although Muslims are barred from consuming alcohol, most hotels and restaurants have a bar for guests. Visitors are only allowed to drink alcohol if they purchase drinks from licensed hotels and restaurants. The legal age for drinking is 21 years.
- Tipping is not expected but 10% should be given in hotels and restaurants with licensed bars. In casual restaurants, tipping is not quite mandatory.
So there you are – the cuisine of Oman served on a platter. I am sure there is much more to Omani cuisine than what I have just recounted. A melting pot of several cultures, the country holds a culinary treasure in its fold, waiting to be unraveled.
I would want to visit Oman and savor this ancient regal cuisine, how about you?
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(This was written for http://www.omantourism.gov.om)