Three Things Thursday; Food in Oman

I’ve landed in a totally new destination which has confounded all my expectations in wonderful ways. As always, my best settling-in technique is to dive in mouth-first, so this month here are three more…

Dried food

Dried dates, dried bread, dried fish, dried milk balls, dry black lemon powder

…unusual nutritional items.

Amazing Iranian restaurant

Amazing Iranian restaurant

One thing I’m really enjoying about living in Muscat is what a multicultural city it is. This has its perks and downfalls, but compared to the places I’ve lived in the last five years, there’s greater level of diversity, and this is most easily appreciable in the food on offer. The slowly returning Omani diaspora from Baluchistan and Zanzibar bring fusion Arabian / South Asian and Arabian / African dishes. There’s also a wealth of Iranian food from our neighbours across the Strait of Hormuz, famous for their sweets. My nearest cheap meal out is an eye-popping Iranian restaurant which I mistook for a light fittings shop at first glance. And I’m in my personal food heaven as the huge Indian expat community dominates food outlets and supermarket options.

Thing 1 ~ extreme vegetables

Once again, upon arrival I was transported into raptures by the array of previously unencountered foodstuffs. From the huge to the minute, there were recent discoveries and new adventures in food. I was pleased to see loofah gourd or ‘turai’ in Hindi, which I learned how to use in Thailand, not only because it makes a nice addition to a stir-fry or curry, but also because in my effort to go more green I’m planning to dry one out to use in the bathroom. There’s also the old winter melon, but here it is bigger and called ash gourd. And there’s the all-new stripy, squirly snake gourd, and an immensely long, thin, fibrous vegetable called drumstick, which actually feels like trying to eat a drumstick.

Lady's big fingers

Lady’s big fingers

At the opposite end of the scale from these gourdian giants I’ve discovered tindly, which are like tiny courgette-cum-cucumbers but alarmingly red on the inside. Baby aubergine and green aubergine, firm favourites from my Thai adventure, are also available, the range further expanded to include huge, round, purple eggplant. There are no in-betweens with vegetables here!

OMG! (Oh My Gourd)

OMG! (Oh My Gourd)

Drying plain turai in the sun. I’ll provide an update if I get seeds and a sponge out of this!

Thing 2 ~ herbs, spices and dried foods

Yummy curry

Yummy curry

On a first shopping expedition, I splashed out on a ‘sambar kit’, a plastic bag of veg for making the lentil and tamarind based dish. For 800 baisa (about $2) I got a bag filled with 2 kilos of random vegetable matter which cooked up into a delicious curry that kept us fed for a week. Within, I discovered something small called aravi. A quick internet search informed me this is the Hindi name for taro root. There was a variety of huge squash and what I think may be yam and a big chunk of what I would guess is winter melon / ash gourd. The bag also yielded a quite regular potato, tomato, and more green chillies than you can shake a stick at, all cooked up with tamarind in sambar powder, a mix of curry leaves, asafoetida, coriander powder and turmeric. Delicious.

In addition, there are green, herby leaves aplenty, many of which I haven’t seen before and have yet to investigate, the shelves are awash with spices such as dried black lemon, which smells exactly like lemon sherberts and makes a delicious addition to any spice mix. In fact, dried food is an essential part of traditional dishes in this arid land. From salty, dried milk (comes in milk balls in a packet), to dried fish, to dried flat bread, the flattest I’ve ever seen, everything here is designed to last a long time in hot weather. I could pack the lot on a camel and trek through the Empty Quarter… there’s a holiday idea for the future.

Thing 3 ~ Dates

After the dinner, and before, and in between, there are the dates…. Oh the dates! Probably my favourite discovery has been halwa, a sticky dessert of boiled dates with brown sugar and various combinations of sesame, almond, cardamom or saffron. This, along with Omani coffee, forms the cornerstone of Omani hospitality. Upon arrival in an Omani household, guests are offered halwa and coffee spiced with cardamom and rose water, and a platter of fruit. At the end of the visit,  these are produced once again before the guest is allowed to leave.

Dates are big business. Along with tourism, dates are a cornerstone of Oman’s plan for economic diversification from dependence on the oil industry. They’re one of the few native fruit-bearing plants that can survive in this climate, thriving on sun from above and water from below. In the date-growing heartland of Nizwa, the extensive falaj system has fed a valley of date farms for centuries. The sticky syrup drained from them in storage is also a part of traditional cuisine and is sold in buckets in the suq. Even the trees themselves are useful; I’ve seen benches, tables and chairs in a very particular style from the fibrous palm trunks. Probably better for a shaded terrace than flaking gently on your living room floor!

Omani halwa

Omani halwa

The links

Loofah / luffa gourds: information on growing, drying and harvesting your own bathroom scrubbers.

And a quick video on how to harvest them.

Quick and easy sambar recipe.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Angie
    Jun 02, 2016 @ 21:57:59

    That date dessert sounds amazing!



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