There’s much more to Omani cuisine than just sun-dried dates and fresh coffee, finds Sonia Nazareth.
Oman’s reputation as a land of striking contrasts — of desert sands and azure seas — is as well-established as its reputation as a culture of boundless hospitality. Dates and qahwa (strong aromatic coffee that combines a rich blend of freshly roasted coffee beans and pungent cardamom powder) are central to any ritual of welcome.
I remember people shaking their heads at me in despair, at a gesture so uncivilised, as my offering to pay for the aromatic coffee and sun-dried dates in the Bedouin homes I visited.
The capital city of Muscat does the big city thing and offers a variety of international cuisines. But Khargeen Cafe is perfect if you want to try local fare rooted in tradition. The waiter in this low-lit atmospheric restaurant — with its trees glimmering with fairy lights and the music of sizzling kebabs — takes brisk charge to keep pace with the stream of customers flowing in, “You’ll be wanting shuwa, everyone loves our shuwa,” he declares with pride. This traditionally Omani and Eid-celebratory dish of roasted goat or lamb, elaborately cooked in a large fire pit dug in stony earth, lives up to its succulent juicy and exceedingly tender reputation. It needs to be eaten with khubz rukhal, a wishbone-thin bread as light as a feather. Despite the fact that we’re partaking in a meal of shuwa without the accompanying camel races, and dances by men with shields and swords that usually go with this festive food, it sweeps the culinary vote.
The constant in traditional Omani cuisine, whether at home or at a restaurant, is all fresh ingredients and generous quantities. The one meal I ever partook of in an Omani household saw the table shifting uneasily under the weight of the feast upon it. Msanif (small patties of shredded meat, flavoured with a pungent coat of seasonings, covered in light batter and fried), Mishkak (bite-sized pieces of meat, basted in honey or date syrup, marinated in the juice of limes and skewered on date palm sticks); Samak bil narjeel (fish in coconut sauce). Besides being delicious in itself, the fish is a rich reminder of Oman’s sea-faring trade.
“Is there to be a party?” I enquire, astounded at the variety and quantity of the spread. “No,” my hostess says with amusement, “just a few guests.” She informs me that, traditionally, hosts would rather err on the side of excess than be caught with an empty food cupboard. She says with a wink, “The generosity with food, which may have begun in the desert where survival could depend on a gesture of sharing, has now taken on a life of its own.” The coffee and dates, fresh fruits and sweets arrive post the repast. Incense and perfumes are passed around, signifying that the time has come for me to exit graciously.
The souk at Nizwa is my next stop en route a Bedouin camp. If scented candles could be made out of the air here, the candles would smell of an enticing mix of cloves, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon and black peppercorns. These spices when ground together are called bizaar. The man selling them, with pride written all over his youthful face, recalls a time when Omani sailors set sail with cargos of frankincense, horses, dates and copper to trade for spices, silk and porcelain. He offers me, as parting gift, a spot of the local halwa. This is best sampled in souks, for this heavy mixture of sugar, spices, ghee and nuts must be stirred together consistently and vigorously for two hours or more to get it right.
We drive for hours beyond Nizwa through the desert with no sign of habitation, until we come suddenly upon a cluster of tents. In these Bedouin camps, it’s easy to see that dates are still the most egalitarian of foods. Fresh dates may be boiled to a pulp and strained through muslin to make a honey-like syrup. This is then used as a dip or spread for bread. The pulp is added to rice and other traditional dishes.
In the desert camp, our plates have gone within an embarrassingly short period of time from being full to splotches of harees (a key staple made from wheat and chicken in local diet), and shorbat laham (a wheat and mutton porridge spiced with cardamom, especially favoured among children and after a long day of fasting during Ramadan).
To eat or drink ethnic food as close as possible to its cultural context and in the vessels that were crafted for it can transform an everyday encounter into an extraordinary experience. But the feeling of cultural satiation stems from more than good food and drink. It stems from the generosity and kindness, which clearly makes any experience here more than the sum of its parts.