THE TRADITIONAL & NON-TRADITIONAL FOODS OF OMAN
Hey y’all! It’s me Heather, better known as The Nappy Expat. What was that you asked? Yes, I’m from the USA and… wait, what was that? Why yes, I am a Southern Gal. How did you guess? Hahaha… Anyway, let me begin by letting y’all know, I LOVE FOOD!!! Yeah I know, people say that all the time. But, no really, I… LOVE… FOOD… So much so, that before I choose a new place to live (city, state, or even country), while most people research the climate, culture, traffic rules, etc., I’m hunting down the most amazing foods and restaurants that place has to offer. Yes, I am serious about my grub!
So, when I researched the country of Oman before relocating here in October 2015, I was ultra-thrilled to find that almost every culture on this side of the planet and beyond is represented by the cuisine offered here. From shawarma to sushi, BBQ to biryani, curries to casseroles, ugali to onion rings and pizza to pupu platters. You name it, they have it, or at least a very close facsimile thereof. Needless to say, I was happy.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Oman, mixed and mingled with the Omani people (who are the nicest, most hospitable people in the entire GCC, I must add) and made life long Omani friends, that I was able to peel back all the layers of the international influence, and become pleasantly acquainted with a rich and soulful culinary tradition that is uniquely Omani.
Imagine a momentous three day feast of food and drink that is offered after a month of intense summer fasting. That is the Eid al-Fitr (ʻĪd al-Fiṭr) Feast of Breaking the Fast Holiday, celebrated at the end of the Ramadan fasting month. I was honored to be invited to celebrate this holy holiday with a most precious Omani/Tanzanian/Zanzibari family. That was the moment I was privileged to witness and savor the Traditional Omani Dishes, that I had so been longing for.
The meal began with a cornucopia-worthy array of sweet, succulent, ripe, exotic fruits and Al Khalas dates. Al Khalas dates are a sinfully sweet, almost caramel flavored variety of date that is grown here in Oman. These dates are absolutely the most scrumptious dates that have ever passed though my lips. I can honestly give credit to these dates for adding a good 10 pounds onto my back-side since living here in Oman. To compliment these little treasures, a very robust, piping hot pot of Arabic Coffee was served. Usually when visiting an Omani home, the ladies of the house will greet you with ripe fruits, dates, and this type of very strong coffee. This gives balance to the sweet and sour flavors.
While I and all the other guests were nibbling and chatting, a wonderful aroma swept through our sitting area, and we were summoned to the dining hall. WOW! We were in complete awe of all the beautifully prepared colorful dishes just waiting for us to devour. The first dish I sampled was a chicken and rice dish. Now, this ain’t your everyday chicken and rice. This dish is called Arsaya, which is chicken cooked with a variety of spices like cinnamon, cardamom and coriander; then it’s combined with rice and vigorously blended in a food processor or blender until it’s the consistency of a thick pudding or mash. I love this dish, because it resembles a chicken and gravy-like soul/comfort food you’d find down south in the States where I’m from. This dish was served with a salad of freshly cut parsley, cucumbers, tomatoes and purple onions with lime juice and a pinch of salt and pepper. Fantastic!
Next, I made my way to the different Omani breads. Omani breads are exceptional, as they are all prepared on the stove top, not the oven. The edges are crispy and the inside is soft and warm. My absolute favorite Omani bread is the Khubz Rakhal (a crispy, paper thin stovetop flatbread that can be eaten with a variety of spreadable tasty fillings, or alone). This is the perfect accompaniment to the savory dishes with the rich, creamy and spicy sauces that were served, like Lamb Maraq. Maraq is a basic, but very flavorful stew that is made with vegetables and either lamb or chicken. It is served with sliced lemon and either rice or bread. But it’s the sauce that makes this dish pop! Garlic, coriander, tomato paste and dried limes give this sauce a powerful burst of flavor. And because the family I was celebrating with is deeply connected to their Swahili heritage, as well as Omani, there was the sensational kick of hot green chili pepper in every delectable bite. My sinuses were completely cleared out by this dish.
Just when I thought the meal couldn’t get any better, the man of the house enters the hall with an enormous pan wrapped in aluminum foil. Everyone around me began cheering in great anticipation. He then placed the pan on the table, and removed the foil. The children at the table cheered in delight. The Shuwa had been served! Shuwa is meat, usually lamb, goat, or on very special occasions like today, camel, marinated in sweet herbs and savory spices, and slowly roasted for two days in an underground clay oven. This dish is always the main attraction during Omani celebrations. On that day the meat was camel, and it was the sweetest, most tender, well-seasoned meat I had ever experienced. Bay leaves, masala spices, clove, and a veritable bevy of amazing flavors danced a jig in my mouth as I took bite, after bite, after bite. I was in heaven.
After dinner, we sat in the sitting area again to enjoy two more traditional Omani delicacies, Halwa and Karak. Halwa is a traditional Omani dessert, similar to a gelatin. It’s made from a combination of dates, rosewater, saffron, sugar, cardamom, clarified butter and honey. Dried fruits and nuts are sometimes added as well. This is usually eaten with Arabic Coffee, or an exceptional Omani beverage called Karak, a creamy sweet tea concoction, made with black tea leaves, condensed milk, saffron, wild thyme leaves and cardamom. This is the Omani version of Indian Chai tea.
What a perfect way to end a perfect meal. For me, that day solidified my feelings about Omanis. As a people, they go beyond hospitality when they entertain their guests, and I’m proud to say I’ve experienced that first hand.
I was ultra-thrilled to find that almost every culture on this side of the planet and beyond is represented by the cuisine offered here