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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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Beyond the Veil (originally published in Wings of Oman)

8 Dec

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In contrast to the no-looking-back modernity of Dubai and Kuwait City, Muscat is strongly in touch with its past. The Sultan himself takes a personal interest in heritage and laws exist to stop the building of skyscrapers lest they ruin the city’s historical character.

Enclosed by 400-year-old fortifications and a steep mountainside, the Old Muscat district is like a basket into which many of Oman’s finest heritage attractions have been placed. Whether you want to learn about the country’s role in the 19th century arms trade, its Bedouin handicraft traditions or how its citizens lived aeons ago, Old Muscat’s museums, military buildings and restored houses have all the answers.

The standout museum is Bait Al Zabair, a complex of elegant and angular cultural houses detailing the history of Omani arts, crafts, architecture, industry, fashion, agriculture and cartography.

Starting life in 1914 as the sumptuous home of statesman Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali, two-storey Bait Al Bagh (House of Gardens) boasts gleaming khanjar (ceremonial daggers), muskets and fine examples of traditional dishdasha (men’s gowns), sirwal (women’s gowns) and lihaf (headdresses). The elaborate silver and gold al-hirz (necklaces) were designed to carry small copies of the Qu’ran. The hand motifs symbolise Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. The original furniture in Bait Al Bagh – tea trays, gramophones, pearl-handled chests of drawers – bespeaks 1930s England, although the beautifully carved al-sandouq (chests) blend Persian, South Asian and North African styles, while the flat, high-legged bed is distinctly Arabian.

A faraj (ancient irrigation channel) snakes through the garden towards the ultimate tribal scene: a barasti (hut made from palm fronds lashed together with rope) containing Bedouin rugs handwoven from goat hair. Next to this is a fascinating scale diorama of Old Muscat as it would have appeared in the 18th century. Little model soldiers roam the fortifications and fisherwomen kneel beside the pond-simulated sea.

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Bait Al Nahdhah (House of the Renaissance) is a tribute to the Omani cultural renaissance that began in 1970. Its collection of art works – the largest in the country – range from modernistic portraits to traditional etchings, conceptual sculptures to Muhammed Al-Zabair’s series of celebratory photographs, ‘My Beautiful Country’.

Bait Al Oud (Grand House) is done out in 19th century Islamic style and is remarkable for its dozens of early – and often inaccurate – European maps of the Arabian Peninsular, black and white photos of Muscat and antique Arabian coins. The model ships with curved prows are based on the sambuq (pearling ships) originally built in Sur and likely derived from Portuguese caravels.

Given the insight Old Muscat offers into military history, it’s apt that there’s a martial feel to its streets. Road barriers, gold spikes jutting from walls and zigzag patterns on the curbs surround the robust Muscat Gate on Al-Sadiya Street, used from medieval times until the 1970s to repel land-based invaders.

The Muscat Gate Museum makes a panoramic sweep across civic history from Neolithic times to the present, taking in the development of the city’s mosques, forts, souks (markets) and distinctive neighbourhoods.

Looming from a rocky headland on the harbour are the mustard-coloured turrets of the Al-Jalali fort, erected by the Portuguese in 1587 to defend against Persian naval attacks. Over the following centuries, the fort was modified and strengthened by successive Sultans. The only publicly-accessible section of it today is a small museum containing cannons, matchlock rifles, incense burners and a priceless old map showing Portugal’s colonial presence in Oman.

Al-Jalali comes to life during royal ceremonies when bagpipers fill the battlements and fireworks are let off overhead.

On the opposite western headland is Al-Mirani Fort, built at the same time as Al-Jalali. Legend has it that, in 1649, an Indian trader tricked the Portuguese in charge – who had fallen in love with the trader’s daughter – into removing all weapons and gunpowder from Al-Mirani. The local imam, Sultan bin Saif, promptly sacked the fort and this marked the end of Portuguese influence in the region.

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The Omani-French Museum is housed in the handsome white former French consulate on Qasr Al Alam Street. Its archive of treaties and proclamations, pictures of the first French diplomats to visit Oman and assortment of clothes and jewellery tell the story of the long-standing relationship between these two nations.

The crowning glory of Old Muscat is Al-Alam Royal Palace, the official residence of the Sultan of Oman. Although the public can’t go further than the gates, the view from here of the vaulted arches and the umbrellas-blown-backward cupolas is magnificent. Outside the palace walls are orderly beds of Burmese grass and delightful avenues of palm trees. During the era of the Arab Slave Trade, a flagstone stood on the site of the modern palace. It was believed that any slave who kissed the stone would be granted freedom.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman, October 2012)

Serene Sharqiyah (originally published in Wings of Oman)

20 Nov

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Meditation. Sobriety. Peace. Al-raha (relaxation). These are the words you’ll hear about the Sharqiyah Sands. After enjoying the urban pleasures of Muscat – its coffee shops and souks, malls and boutique hotels – step down a gear and get ready for the desert.

Start by boarding a bus at Ruwi Station for Al-Mintirib, a town on the edge of the Sands. You leave the city fast, black rock mountains and desiccated trees suddenly visible through the window. Nearer the highway, goats scurry around mini pyramids of bright earth.

The landscape stays like this for two hours. You might worry that this is as desert-like as the desert gets, especially if you’ve been imagining a Lawrence of Arabia scene of dramatic dunes and roving camels.

But then slashes of khaki start to appear between the black rocks. The terrain flattens out and the trees, plants and stones grow thinner. Everything is drying out into sand, a whole world of sand that’s twice the size of Devon or Delaware.

The best way to experience this remarkable environment is at one of the many desert camps in the region. Al-Raha camp offers a pick-up service from Al-Mintirib. You’ll typically be met by a large man in a dishdasha and wraparound shades. As soon as you’re inside his 4WD you off-road it at 120 mph, gouging and wheelspinning through the sand. Your trail looks harsh compared to the light paw- and hoof-prints all around you. If you see what looks like an oil spill up ahead, don’t worry about getting wet – it’s just a mirage.

Al-Raha has a military feel to it: barbed wire fences, camouflage jeeps and satellite phones. But the huts are done out in authentic Bedouin style, their barasti (palm frond) walls like a giant brush.

The tall dune beside the camp is too bright to look at without sunglasses. At its highest point wild camels sniff at branches turned almost to charcoal by the heat. Climbing the dune is hard work. Like some anxiety dream, every step you take you sink deeper into the sand. You can take off your shoes but that hardly helps. Three quarters of the way up, the sand gets even looser. By the time you reach the top, you’re drenched in sweat and hyperventilating.

Look out across the mysterious contours and sublime cambers of the Sharqiyah Sands. The silence is unbreakable. You go into a trance.

You snap out of it when you hear the rumble of vehicles. 4WDs are thumping toward the camp, delivering more guests. Children zip about on quad bikes, pursued by clouds of dust. Nearer to you, black Mazdas skid and slide all over the dunes, their passengers hooting with laughter. This is called ‘dune-bashing’ and any climbers in the vicinity should watch out.

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It soon becomes clear that the desert is both beautiful and dangerous, like an Oriental temptress from colonial literature. She’ll seduce you with her warmth, her curves, her smooth complexion. Then she’ll kill you. The desert has many ways to kill you, from thirst to quicksand, snake bites to crazy driving.

Back at the camp, refresh yourself with halwa and strong coffee. When dusk comes the temperature cools to perfection and the air is at its freshest. A perfect crescent moon forms in the darkening sky.

After a make-your-own shawarma dinner, you’ll probably be ready for bed. But the staff will insist you come over to a roaring camp fire surrounded by bean bags and sheesha pipes. A musician sits cross-legged, singing and strumming the rebab, a sonorous string instrument.

His friends start dancing in an oddly camp way. They cannot stop laughing. Two of them place towels over their heads, link hands and blow kisses at one another. Another wiggles his bottom. The dancers try to persuade tourists to join them. A short Omani kneels down and limbo dances under the volunteer’s legs. The laughter amplifies, bounces across the dunes.

The music and the dancing goes on till past midnight.

By the time you go to bed, smoke from the camp fire and the sheesha pipes has obscured the crescent moon.

In the desert, relaxation means one thing in the day and another at night.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman September 2012)