I’ve written two blogs about Oman so far and have yet to touch on one of my favourite writing topics – food and drink. Food is one aspect of many cultures that is deeply entrenched in their history. Oman is no different. Being in a desert, it is not exactly awash with fresh fruit and vegetables – many are imported from nearby India. Indeed, the history of Oman as a strategic stop on major trading route through the age of exploration clearly has had an impact on its cuisine.
As we don’t have access to it in Kazakhstan, Western food was eaten on a regular basis. Much of what we were eating, however, could have been easily been found in a food outlet in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai. The Indian influence on Omani food was very surprising to me. To give an example, biryani was available from almost every restaurant.
One local food which seemingly was not influenced by Indian cooking is a dish made of ground up wheat and pieces of meat, called harees. It is my belief that there is no Indian input in this dish because harees is possibly the blandest and dullest ‘national food’ I have had whilst travelling around the world. I was actually transported back to school for the briefest moment, thinking that I had a bowl of lumpy, tepid porridge in front of me.
Other Omani food is similarly lacking in fire, but at least brings something to alert your taste buds. We experienced much of the purely Omani cuisine at the Muscat Festival, a large annual event promoting Omani heritage and trying to incorporate it into the more globalised capital city. We tried some bread-based foods and hallwa, a sticky, warm goo that was sweeter than the purest honey. The latter was cooked in the rather large vat below.
The festival itself was a bit of an eye-opener. It surprised and warmed us to see how many women and children were present. Women here seem permanently dressed in a black abaya, a robe that covers the entire body. However, many women working at the festival were keen to emphasise their region’s colourful dresses and robes.
Once again, people at the festival were exceedingly kind and genuine, and were a delight to interact with. I have been dumbstruck by the friendliness of the Omani people. Everything is accomplished with a smile, and they have all been generous and friendly without getting too personally involved or making us feel wary.
Oman is a dry country, so what many of these welcoming people do as a social activity is smoke shisha. We had the, ahem, pleasure of this when watching the football. As it was two heavyweight teams playing, Manchester United and Real Madrid, our local café was packed to the rafters with men. Consequently, the room was filled with plumes of flavoured smoke. My apple flavoured one was nice, but made me feel a bit nauseous. Having been told later that smoking one shisha is equivalent to puffing seven cigarettes, I can understand why.
We were given this nugget of information by one of Hannah’s relatives, who lives in Oman. Some of her extended family were also visiting, resulting in some unexpected five-star treatment which was enormously appreciated.
Almost everything about Oman has been a surprise to me – a pleasant surprise. It is very different to its flash, northern neighbour. The country has preserved its heritage and its identity, as shown by the Festival, yet has adapted more than capably to the rigours and challenges of the modern world. A wonderfully peaceful place, and a lovely country to relax in for a week.
Love you all