Until recently dates, lemons, a few vegetables, rice, water and bread formed the basis of the Omani diet in the impenetrable interior of the country. On festival days a goat would be slaughtered and sometimes merchants would bring dried fish to the oases by camel. On the fertile coast the menu was enriched with fresh fish, fruit and goods imported by sea. Nutmeg and other spices and fruits from India, east Africa and the far east were imported to Oman and so found their way into the country’s kitchens.
Culinary culture has to be seen with the historic background and current social structure in mind. Even the way tea is drunk separates Omanis from other Arabs. Omanis drink tea with a lot of milk, sugar and spices such as cardamom and cloves. In winter fresh ginger is added so that the tea has a more warming effect. This manner of preparing tea is typical of the Indian subcontinent and is seen by many other Arabs as a crime against their national drink.
If you’re invited to eat in a traditional Omani household, you will be received at the appointed time in the reception room, the Majlis. You sit comfortably on the floor with a glass of juice and talk about family, God and the world; you make conversation before the meal. Eventually a large tray is brought in with fresh fruit, which the host has cut into mouth-size pieces and hands out to the guests. Because you eat with your hands, you always wash them first in a bowl of water which is handed around the circle. As a rule each time the tray is to be passed around there is a lengthy dispute as to who should receive the first piece of fruit. The host would always like it to be the eldest. The eldest would like the honour to go to the rare guest, who of course tries to refuse with exaggerated gestures, which means that the whole ritual has to begin again from the start. The key word is always “fadall”, “help yourself”.
For the main course there is almost always rice which has been spiced with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. It is served on a large plate placed on the floor in the centre of the group. More bowls contain various dishes from which you take something and place before you on the large communal plate. A chicken is often served, roasted or boiled with tomatoes, onions, garlic and vegetables (chicken saloona); lamb with dried lemons, on ions, tomatoes and green peppers, cardamom and cinnamon (maqboos) or fish in coconut milk and turmeric (samak pablo).
The following dishes are also original Omani: Laham haris is a wheat and meat paste which requires the cook to pound the wheat—which has been soaked overnight—till it turns mushy and then boil with lamb for several hours. It is handed around at the end of a meal. Kabouli consists of rice with pine kernels, cashews, cinnamon, cardamom and dried lemons with lamb or goat meat. By far the most time-consuming dish from the Omani kitchen is showa. A lamb is strongly spiced, wrapped in banana leaves and laid in an earth oven over charcoal. Cooking time varies according to the size of the animal and can be between 20 hours and 3 days. This elaborate dish is a favourite at Eid festivals. With every meal there is salad with tomatoes, cucumber, onions, paprika and spring onions. A favourite side dish is pickled lemon. Less often you may find dried shark with onions. The main dish is followed by fruit and then dates. As a sweet dessert there is a confection of boiled dates, clarified butter and sesame seeds, or halwa the national sweet made of sugar caramelised in clarified butter and starch. Halwa’s flavour can be refined with cardamom and saffron. At the end of the meal you perfume your hands with rose water or another scented water and drink coffee before taking your leave.
Unfortunately you’re only likely to receive such a traditional Omani meal if invited to an Omani household. Hotels and restaurants tend to be either Indian, Chinese or European oriented. Real exceptions that are to be recommended are the Bin Atiq restaurants in Salalah and Muscat and the Seblat Al Bustan, an “authentic Omani night-time Bedouin tented dining experience“ provided by the award-winning Al Bustan Palace hotel in Muscat. The latter may sound like the usual gaudy tourist trap but is actually completely authentic when it comes to the food and music that is on offer. After initial difficulties with his own cooks the hotel’s French master chef commissioned women from the neighbouring village of al Bustan to take care of the menu and its preparation. The dishes, served in tents in the open air, are both substantial and superb. Here you will not just be among tourists – Omanis themselves are also amongst the clientele.
The numerous small restaurants are usually Pakistani or Indian and generally frequented by guest workers. Omanis like to cook with spices from the far east but are not great fans of very hotly-spiced food. The Indian restaurants in which Omanis can be found have spicy food which is not so hot. A standard menu in small restaurants consists of soup of the day, mixed salad and rice with a side-dish, usually cooked vegetables in a small bowl or fried pieces of lamb, fish or chicken. This is followed by fresh dates or melon. This rice dish is known throughout the country under the Indian description of Biryani.
Omanis seldom go out to eat and their private menus have other influences. As a result of the enormous economic boom of the last thirty years almost every middle-class household employs a housekeeper from southern India or the Philippines. They ensure that there is always something to eat readily available. Indian cooking can be found everywhere, especially curry and coconut in all varieties as well as unleavened bread, chapattis. Eggs and chicken are other essential ingredients in the Omani kitchen. A normal breakfast consists of an omelette with paprika and tomatoes, tea and chapattis.
The extension of agricultural production, the revival of trade and the variety of groceries of all kinds that are available today, combined with personal prosperity after so many years of isolation and privation, unleashed a wave of consumption across the country, comparable to that in Europe after the end of the Second World War.
The country is once again prosperous and one can enjoy the fruits of the years of reconstruction. A diet increasingly rich in calories and cholesterol increasingly worries doctors in the country. Ever more Omanis suffer from hitherto unknown illnesses and symptoms such as high blood pressure and high levels of cholesterol, diabetes and obesity.
Excerpt from OMAN (www.oman.de) - the travel guide by Georg Popp, Arabia Felix Synform GmbH