Ok, before anyone gets defensive, I'd like to say that this post is in no way a commentary on the lack of Platetrotter-worthy food in Oman.
I'm sure there is plenty of it out there. I've definitely read enough about the mix of Arab, Indian and African ingredients and techniques that shape the country's cuisine. And I've definitely had enough people praise the halwa or the tender shuwa meat that falls off the bone after being slow roasted for two days to want to try some.
I've heard about the delicately spiced rice and meat dishes like maqbous and arsia. And the sweet wheat, date molasses and milk soup called sakhana that's traditionally used to break the fast during Ramadan....
I've just never found anywhere to actually sink my teeth into any of it! Despite visiting Oman five times - more than any other country I've ever been to - and driving through some of the country's largest cities as well as several remote towns.
Two of these visits were during Ramadan and Eid - possibly the best time to try out some local delicacies - and I still came out empty-tummied!
For this and this reason alone, Oman has been a personal Platetrotter failure.
I have come close to having a few successes. I have tasted harees (the wheat and meat porridge that makes an appearance in some form or the other on local menus of several of the Gulf states). Sadly, the first thing I noticed about said pot of harees was a big black splotch right in the middle that looked suspiciously like a fly (I convinced myself it was cardamom because the people offering it to me were two tottering old men whose feelings I didn't want to hurt) but it was almost literally a case of finding a fly in the ointment - or in this case harees - that ruined my enjoyment of the dish.
The second potential success was finding an Omani village preparing for an Eid feast of shuwa. Sadly, the shuwa was in a rather early stage of preparation (read more blood and guts than tender, succulent beef) and we couldn't stick around for the lengthy roasting process.
Still, with a trip to Muscat on the cards this weekend, I'm hoping the curse of the non-appearing Omani food will finally be broken.
If anyone has any tips on where to find the best Omani food in the country's capital - or names of dishes I need to try - I'm definitely taking notes :)
As a child growing up in Goa, studying in a predominantly Christian school, Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is called back home) never really made its presence felt. I had a vague understanding of the day-long fasting aspect - grasped from a couple of Muslim classmates who had once mentioned the pre-dawn meal (suhour) although I didn't know what it was called at the time. But beyond that, I was pretty much ignorant of what Ramadan involved and remained so until I moved to the UAE.
But having lived in a Muslim country for close to seven years now, it is still a revelation to see how much Ramadan actually affects every single aspect of life for those who practice it. And personally to see it evolve - from my first impression of it being a pretty restrictive period for those of us who don't have to fast (created mainly by overzealous warnings of "Don't be seen eating or sipping water in the street", "Don't chew gum, you will be fined" and "You won't be able to eat a hot meal in the office for an entire month") to my current impression of the season - one marked by convivial iftars with friends and colleagues, generous boxes of dates being passed around on hearing the adhan, and long evenings filled with sheesha and good company at all those incredibly social suhours.
So, in the spirit of the season which starts in a couple of days, here are some of my favourite Ramadan memories over the years.
Glimpses of khao galli in Mumbai (2004)
The year before I moved to the Middle East, I had my first taste of the transformatory aspects of Ramzan. As a student living in South Mumbai, I would sometimes take a bus from Marine Lines (where I lived) to Lovelane in Mazagaon to visit family. The bus route went along Mohammed Ali Road and through Bhendi Bazaar - a predominantly Muslim area of town - and on one trip during Ramzan, I was stunned to see how the whole area had come completely alive. There were people praying on mats on the road, green fairylights and lanterns strung over the mosque, streets and buildings and a line of food stalls (khao galli) that had cropped up to feed the fasting thousands crammed onto the street. Needless to say, traffic was slow, which meant an excellent opportunity to observe the celebrations.
Fasting and feasting in the UAE (2005-2012)
I moved to the UAE in summer, during Ramadan, and the transition couldn't have come as a greater shock to the system. Moving from Goa in the midst of the monsoons - green, wet and lush, to Dubai - searing hot and filled with ominous warnings about not being caught with a bottle of water in my hand - seemed strange to say the least, especially as the complete day-time fast is not imposed in India as it is in the UAE.
But the next year was completely different; inspired to keep the company of a friend at work who was practising the fast, it meant a whole new perspective on Ramadan. From watching the adhan go off a minute earlier everyday, to driving down to Safa Park (and once even to Sharjah!) to hear the canons fire, to numerous iftars and suhours with friends - living in the UAE has changed the way I view Ramadan and granted me a great deal of respect for those fasting all through the month.
Guts and guns in Oman (2006 & 2007)
I've spent the eve of Eid and Eid itself in Oman on two separate occasions and they are both trips I'll always remember. From attempting a road trip on a near empty stomach (let's just say there were a lot of bananas and packets of crisps
hastily eaten in the back of the car), to watching a goat and a cow being disembowelled for the Eid feast (if you can't handle a visit to the butcher you would be advised not to drive around rural Oman on the morning of Eid!), being invited to share the Eid meals of almost every Omani family we drove past (and then randomly consenting to join two tottering old guards outside Bahla Fort while they ate their simple Eid spread of dates, bananas and wheat porridge) and wondering if the festive gun firings on the eve of Eid may spell the end for those of us who'd very smartly decided to camp out in the open in the Omani interior - they are some of the best memories I have of Ramadan in the Middle East.
Dusk and dawn meals in Beirut (2011)
Last summer, I joined my best friend for a long weekend in her home town of Beirut. As the period of my trip coincided with that of Ramadan, it was fascinating to see a family preparing for iftar and suhour at home. Everyone helped make the food (without actually tasting any of it!) and daughters, sons-in-law, cousins and aunts came together to celebrate. From an absolutely delicious iftar spread laid out by my friend's mum, to an actual early morning suhour in an Ottoman-style tea garden (as opposed to the more commercial late-night versions I'd been to before at hotels in the UAE) - Ramadan in Lebanon was an amazing experience.
I'm pretty sure this Ramadan will bring its own share of great experiences and memories. To all my Muslim friends who've included me in their celebrations over the years, and all those observing the season, Ramadan Kareem!
All this Earth Hour chatter last weekend got me thinking about the magic of dining sans electricity. From desert barbeques and full moon parties (and I'm not talking about the notorious Goan or Thai variety) to candle lit dinners on the beach, here are my top three meal-time memories that would make any Earth-Hour enthusiast proud:
Barbequed chops and burgers in Oman
There's nothing quite like getting lost on deserted roads, having to steal wood from an abandoned construction site and building a campfire from scratch to work up an appetite. Whether the beach, the rocky summit of Jebel Shams or the sandy wadi beds, barbequed meals hastily prepared by firelight and handy headlamps in Oman rank among my favourite outdoor meal memories. Pack an icebox with premarinated lamb chops and beef patties (they'll last a full day of driving even in the height of summer), stock up on the mustard, ketchup, mayo and buns and don't forget a box of matches!
Full Moon Festival in Hoi An
Ravers expecting the drug and trance-fuelled Full Moon parties of Goa and Thailand may be disappointed; I was not. Every month on the 14th night of the lunar calendar, Hoi An shuts off its electricity for a few hours and the sleepy town transforms into a fairyland of floating lanterns, candlelit restaurants and moonlit streets, with traditional games, music and hand-rowed boat trips down the river offering the only forms of entertainment. Pick a table by the river, order a drink and some cau lau and enjoy Hoi An at its bewitching best...
Rum pancakes on the beach in Goa
True, you probably won't be sitting in complete darkness but turn your back on the coconut trees strung with fairy lights, face the sea, let your feet sink into the cool sand and watch the moonlight catch the crest of the waves - there's no better way to spend an evening in Goa than with dinner at a beach shack. Finish off your meal with a flourish and order a flaming rum-soaked pancake. The waiters are generally generous with the booze and will weave through the tables with your pancake spewing blue flames for some extra drama in the dark.
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