A Gastronome’s Guide to Oman (originally published in Wings of Oman)

24 Jan

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As soon as you arrive in Oman, you’ll be struck by its truly global range of cuisine. While you can find everything from cannelloni to croissants, bagels to biryanis – and often on the same street – no visit to Oman is complete without trying the fine local fare. We take a look at some of the nation’s signature snacks and defining dishes.

Juicy Hunks of Meat

If you find a man dressed in white slicing at a juicy hunk of meat rotating on a spit in front of a vertical grill, you’ve probably come to a shawarma stall. Some of these establishments are so popular that their queues of patrons – both on foot and sat in cars – occupy entire streets. There is something highly addictive about these succulent lamb and chicken kebabs. No-one can be sure whether this is down to the meat itself, or its marinade (often including garlic, lemon juice, cardamoms and pepper), or the other possible fillings: zesty pickles, lush tomatoes, onions, olives, French fries. Garlic sauce adds richness to the taste; chilli sauce adds piquant excitement.

An Ancient Delicacy

The customary lunch of the Muslim festival of Eid, harees is as perhaps as old as Islam itself. It’s a lip-smacking porridge of roughly-ground wheat slow-cooked overnight with butter and cuts of chicken. Both tart and hearty to the taste, harees is energy-rich and the ideal fuel for a wander in the desert.

All Things Spice

Similar in consistency to harees, but blessed with a nutty and bracing bouquet, kabouli is a goat and rice-based stew completed by cashews, pine kernels and lemons. The panoply of spices used – cinnamon, cardamoms, saffron, cloves – date this titbit back to the era when Oman was one of the world’s spice trading centres.

A Subtle Confection

The Omani sweet tooth is legendary. Fruity scents and treacly aromas ooze from souqs, restaurants and cafés across the land. A time-honoured symbol of hospitality, halwa is a filling yet dulcet and subtle confection of cooked dates, clarified butter, caramelised sugar, starch and spices. The perfect accompaniment is a cup of strong black Omani coffee, earthy on the nose yet with a sweet and warming finish thanks to the sugar and cardamoms within. Halwa also goes well with Omani tea which, unique amongst the Arab nations, is prepared with plenty of milk, sugar and spices such as cloves and cardamoms. At colder times of the year, ginger is added for its cosy and warming tones. Head to an event like the Muscat Festival and you can watch men toiling over huge steaming cauldrons, preparing halwa in the traditional fashion. The full-bodied taste of fresh, hot halwa is something else again…

The Need for Greens

If Omanis have a weakness for sweets, they also do healthy greens rather well. In most local restaurants – not to say plenty of curry houses and Western-style eateries – a fresh and beautifully-arranged salad is often served before the main order. Expect to find tomatoes, onions, olives, cucumbers and spring onions, all drizzled with paprika and a tangy lemon dressing.

Balmy and Versatile

Newcomers to the Middle East are often amazed by the versatility of what seem to be simple and unpromising ingredients. Thus the humble chickpea can be converted into the wonder that is hummus, albeit with a little help from tahini (sesame seed paste), oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Whereas Westerners may be used to hummus as a dip or spread, Omanis use it creatively in a dazzling variety of toothsome dishes. Drop into a budget coffee shop at lunchtime and try chicken liver and hummus. The brackishness of the liver is a lovely counterpoint to the balminess of the hummus. The best way to enjoy this slightly sloppy delicacy is by scooping it up with a round of hot guruz al gamar (handmade flatbread).

Treasures of the Sea

In the old days, the bountiful seafood of Oman’s Arabian Sea coast added variety to the rice, goat and vegetable diet of the interior. The festival-time ritual of delivering dried fish to a wadi (fertile valley area) by camel may not be so common nowadays, but you can still find dried shark meat – often in soups – that tastes so exquisitely briny as to be almost smoky.  Samak pablo (fish in a turmeric and coconut milk gravy) is harder to find, but equally as appetising, recalling the exotic mellowness of certain Indian dishes.

A Three Day Event

You’re more likely to find showa in a family home than in a restaurant, partly for reasons of practicality: it can take up to three days to cook. Another Eid favourite, it’s essentially an entire lamb, pungently-spiced and cloaked in banana leaves cooked over charcoals to tender perfection. It’s often served with lemon chutney and salt-dried shark.

(Originally published in the December 2012 edition of Wings of Oman, Oman Air’s in-flight magazine)

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