The Gastronomy of Oman
Dina Macki (Dine with Dina)
Oman’s best kept secret. I think that’s what we always say about everything Oman has to offer. However, the cuisine is truly incredible to discover. Many people won’t know that Oman has a rich a food culture that isn’t just made up of the same familiar Shawarma and Kebab dishes that are often associated with the Arab World.
Around the start of the 16th Century, Omani cuisine began to develop outside of the traditional rice, bread and boiled or grilled meat meals. When the Portuguese invaded in 1506 on their way to India, they brought distinct Mediterranean influences. Brief colonisations by the Ottoman Turks and Persians also left their unique contributions to Omani cuisine.
Oman’s maritime history has always been the source of the unparalleled diversity of Omani food. After the overthrow of the Portuguese by the Ya'aruba Dynasty in 1624, Oman established a sea-trading network with the south of Iran, India, Pakistan, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Mombasa and most importantly Zanzibar. Even today, Zanzibar holds the most relevance to Oman and their food - it is integral to the identity of Omani cuisine.
So, what ingredients truly make up the Omani Palette?
Oman is extremely rich in spices. While most of the Levantine region are rich in crops and legumes, Oman only has minimal areas of sub-tropic conditions suitable for arable farming. Exceptions to this, include places such as Jebel Akhdar and Salalah and therefore their traditional meals are noticeably different from other areas of Oman.
Indian trade introduced Oman to warm spices such as chillies, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and coriander while Zanzibar was the global epicentre for the farming of cloves. Cloves are still common in Omani cooking and especially in their Baharat (spice) blend that is used for Omani Shuwa. The influence of Zanzibar also introduced the use of coconut into daily meals. However, this is more of a coastal attribute. The people of Zanzibar were known amongst East Africans as the ‘Coconut People’ or in Swahili ‘Watu wa Naazi' (Watu meaning people & Wa meaning of & Naazi meaning coconut). It almost acted as a substitute for water and is used for bases of bread, stews, sweet dishes and soups.
The influence of Pakistan and India is still very dominant especially with Oman’s large number of expat and labourers from these countries who have been there for decades. There isn’t a corner in Muscat you can’t turn without finding a small shop run by a local Pakistani making tiny Samosas, Kachori (Spicy Potato Balls) and Paratha Bread. They are not the type of place you would look twice at, but I promise it’s the place you’ll find all the Omanis flocking to. I always say it’s the sweat dripping down their face into the food from their intense labour of working in 30-degree heat for long hours that makes the food taste so good. Although, perhaps a slightly unpleasant thought, you must admit that it is really food made with love and passion.
The coastal areas of Oman have truly benefited the most from the variety of food sources - notable for their fish. Famously known for Hamour (brown spotted reef cod, however in Oman, also a type of commonly found white fish), Oman also has incredible tuna, lobster, king fish and unexpectedly, shark. Shark, however, is a delicacy that is not eaten by all and especially not by the Shia’a community of Oman as it is known as a ‘Haram’ fish to eat. While both sides of my family are Shia’a, I must secretly admit that a famous side salad for rice known as Qasha’a, which consists of 40 day dried salted shark, cucumber, lots of onions, tomatoes and filled with lemon, is absolutely wonderful!
So, what are Oman’s most important and well-known dishes?
I always find this question hard to summarise as how do we distinguish between a Zanzibari and Lawati/Indian/Pakistani dish? They have all become one as the people have become one.
If I had to summarise some truly Omani dishes, I would say first and foremost; Shuwa. Shuwa meaning ‘grilled meat’ in Arabic, is a traditional dish cooked on special occasions such as Eid, where a whole goat, sheep or even camel is cooked in an underground oven (Tanoor) in a special spice blend for 24-48 hours and then eaten on the second day of Eid.
Second dish I would say is Qabooli rice. Qabooli rice is usually paired with grilled, boiled or fried meat (my favourite is in when the meat is cooked in Tamarind). The actual rice itself is a true homage to the Silk Road as the rice is cooked in dried limes, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves and Baharat.
Finally, I would say Raghal Bread. A bread thinner than paper and lighter than a feather. You really haven’t had an Omani breakfast if you haven’t had this. The technique is one which the new generation is yet to master as we still turn to our grandmothers and old ladies from villages to make. The technique involves working with a paste like dough in your hand that is wiped over a hot skillet pan. Honestly the most challenging bread to make but, oh so perfect, when paired with cream cheese and Omani honey with a side of Karak Chai.
While I could talk forever about Oman’s rich food culture, I must encourage you to visit and discover it for yourself. However, with all the influence that Oman has gained from their history of trade, the most prized possession across the whole of the country, which makes up 80% of their fruit production and 50% of their food production, is dates. There is nothing as sweet as an Omani date and it has been the one product we truly cherish above all else. An Arabian legend has it, if a family has a date palm in their home, they will never go without food.
‘The Million Date Palm Plantation Project’ by Dr Said Al Shaqsi, gifted by the late Sultan Qaboos, to ensure Oman would always have food security should the country face hardship is a perfect example of how entwined dates are with the very fabric of Oman. It Is estimated that the plantation could grow 96,000 tonnes per annum.
Recipe for Omani Shuwa (in the Oven):
Preparation and cooking time: Marinating: 12-24 hours, Cooking: 5-6 hours
- 1 Leg of Lamb or 1 Sheep Shoulder
- 4 TBSP White Vinegar
- 2 TBSP Red Vinegar
- 2 Fresh Limes (or Omani Lemons)
- 1 TBSP Black Lemon Powder
- 1 TBSP Salt
- 3 TBSP of Garlic Paste or 10 Cloves (Mashed)
- 2 TBSP Ginger Paste
- 100 ml of Vegetable Oil
- 60g / 5 TBSP Baharat
- 2 TBSP Chilli Powder
- 4 Banana Leaves (I buy from Amazon, however don’t worry if you can’t get them)
Baharat spice mix*
- 2 TBSP Black Peppercorns
- 1 TBSP Coriander Seeds
- 1 Cinnamon Stick
- 1 TBSP Cloves
- 2 TBSP Cumin Seeds
- 5 Cardamom Pods
- 1 TBSP Nutmeg Powder
- 2 TBSP Chilli Flakes
*Alternatively, if you can obtain it: 60g of pre-made, shop-bought Baharat mix
Making the Baharat
- In a frying pan, combine all the spices and dry fry on a medium to high heat, just till it begins to smoke and you can smell a strong aroma.
- Ensure you keep stirring the spices. Do not leave on the heat on for too long as the spices can burn easily and you’ll be left with a bitter taste.
- Place the mixture in a blender and blitz until you have a fine powder.
Marinating the Meat
- Combine the baharat mix with the vinegar, limes, salt, garlic, ginger, chilli and oil.
- Mix them together well until you have formed a loose paste (I use a pestle and mortar)
- Place your meat inside a roasting tray that is covered in foil or with two layers of your banana leaves..
- Using a knife, cut small slits all over the meat to allow the marinade to get inside.
- Pour the marinade over and massage with your hands into all the creases, folds and cuts of the meat.
- Don’t worry if you have excess marinade left over. Just pour it all over.
- To finish, pull the foil (or banana leaves) from the bottom and wrap it over the meat so it is sealed like a parcel. If you are using leaves, use the extra two to wrap round again ensuring it is sealed, then take some foil and create an out casing ensuring there are no holes in it, when sealed)
- Leave to marinade in the fridge for a minimum of 12 hours.
Cooking the Shuwa
- Take the meat out of the fridge and allow it to reach room temperature.
- Heat the oven to 200°c.
- Once you place your meat into the oven reduce the temperature to 150°c.
- Cook for approximately 5 hours.
- Do not open the foil till after the time is up, trust the process.
Smoking the Shuwa
- Just before the five hours has come to an end, take two pieces of charcoal and burn them on your hob to heat them up.
- Place them in a small piece of foil, but don’t close them up.
- Open the oven and make a slight slit in the foil of your meat and place the charcoal on top.
- Close the oven and allow it to cook for a further 30 minutes.
- This creates the same smoke effect you achieve in the underground fire pits in Oman!
Recipe for Omani Date Bread:
Makes: 22 Small or 10 Large
- 525g Plain Flour or Chapati Flour (plus extra for dusting)
- 200-250ml of Warm Coconut Milk
- 200g (Roughly 20 Dates) Dates
- 1 TSP Salt
- 3 TBSP Hot Ghee or Hot Vegetable Oil if you want them Vegan
- 200g Warm Ghee (For Rolling & Frying)
- Begin by de-pitting your dates.
- Add the dates to 200ml of warm coconut milk and using your hands begin to massage (macerate) the dates into the milk.
- Keep macerating them till they have completely broken down and you are left with a caramel coloured milk with flecks of dates.
- Either in a large bowl or stand mixer, combine the flour, date coconut milk mixture, salt & ghee. Leave the extra 50ml of coconut milk for once you have begun mixing and kneading, as you may not need it, if your dough isn’t binding then add it in slowly.
- Mix the ingredients together by hand or on a low speed (in your mixer) until it all comes together in a ball.
- Then knead for 15-20 minutes by hand or knead 10 minutes on a medium speed in your mixer.
- After kneading, your dough should be soft and smooth. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes - 1 hour.
- After the rest, divide your dough into 12 balls (if you want large breads) or 22 (if you want smaller breads).
- Taking one ball at a time, roll them out as thin as possible, ideally trying to keep them square, but don’t worry too much.
- If you are struggling to roll them out thin, place a bit of warm ghee on your surface and on the dough and it should help to spread.
- Once you have spread it out as thin as possible (ideally till you can almost see through to the surface), drip two teaspoons of warm ghee onto the dough. Using your hands spread it all around, making sure there are no dry parts.
- We now want to fold it into a small square. So take the right side and fold it into the middle. Then take the left side and fold it into the middle and top of the right side. So you will be left with a rectangle.
- Then take the bottom of the rectangle and fold into the middle, followed by folding the top into the middle.
- Flip over and you should be left with a neat square.
- Place on a plate, cover with cling film or a cloth and repeat this with all the rest of the balls.
- Once you have rolled and folded them into squares, begin again doing the exact same process, but you don’t need to roll them out as thin as the first time, but you need them big enough to fold.
- You want to roll out your squares, keeping the shape, and refolding to create extra layers.
- Repeat with all of your squares and then leave to rest for at least 30 minutes.
- Heat a non stick frying pan on medium - high heat.
- Take one dough square and roll it out, keeping the square shape, till it is about a coin thick.
- Place in your frying pan and take a teaspoon of hot ghee and spread it round the edge of the dough.
- Allow the bread to fry slightly so you can pick it up and flip it over, and then take some more ghee and put around the edges of the other side.
- Press down on the edges so they begin to fry well - we want them to be slightly crunchier with a softer middle which is why you put ghee there first.
- Flip over the bread and put some ghee all over, then flip again and also spread a bit of ghee all over. We don’t want try bread!
- Using your spatula press down on the bread, and rotate it in the pan at the same time, to make sure that it browns evenly on all sides.
- Flip it over do the same thing. If they are browning too quick, make sure to reduce the heat in case it cooks too fast on the outside.
- Once you are happy that they are fully browned and cooked through, place on a plate and repeat with the rest!
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