Landing in Muscat at the beginning of summer in a group that also included three vegetarians necessitated the immediate adoption of survival foods, like the paper-thin khubz rakhal (a simple crepe-like flatbread) available at street stalls across the city. At its peak, a typical Omani summer can sizzle at temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius, which makes the ubiquitous Middle Eastern limonana (frozen mint lemonade) a life-saver. While my vegetarian friends took to the khubz rakhal (a simple crepe-like flatbread) with gusto, for me it was the beginning of a delicious meat-filled culinary exploration.

A spread of traditional dishes. Photo: Dinodia
A spread of traditional dishes. Photo: Dinodia

Grilled meats and old souKs

Over dinner at Kargeen, a shisha restaurant set in a lush garden, I got an opportunity to watch the making of the khubz rakhal. The sticky, messy dough of flour and water is stretched out by hand on a hot pan, smeared with a light layer of cheese and honey or egg.

I had been waiting to dig into shuwa, Oman’s national dish. When it arrived, the pit-roasted lamb wrapped in banana leaf was tender, but the flavour was predominantly of its spice rub and both me and my meat-loving friend agreed that it was definitely an acquired taste. My favourite from this meal was the tangy mishkak (skewered chargrilled chicken and beef). This street food classic is also highly recommended by Felicia F. Campbell, a city-based food and travel writer, who has authored The Food Of Oman: Recipes And Stories From The Gateway Of Arabia, a book that was my culinary guide for the trip. She’s also a fan of the sambusas (a triangular fried pastry stuffed with a variety of fillings) at the entrance of Muscat’s Old Muttrah Souk. I picked up half-a-dozen crispy cabbage-and-potato-filled triangles which are more influenced by Zanzibar than India and gobbled them up while trawling the souk for souvenirs.

Omani tea is often paired with dates. Photo: iStockphoto
Omani tea is often paired with dates. Photo: iStockphoto

Land of dates and seafood

Travelling to the ancient city of Nizwa, a 90-minute drive from Muscat and on the way to the majestic Jebel Shams mountain range, we stopped for the obligatory chai karak break. The Saudi version of masala chai is made with condensed milk, cardamom and sometimes a hint of saffron or za’atar.

Before we toured the historic fort and its neighbouring souk, we made a kahwa stop at a shop selling dates. Omani coffee is slightly bitter but light, and served with dates on the side. In souks and other shopping centres, guests are often plied with fragrant kahwa and large dates to ensure they are hooked and don’t leave without buying large quantities of these delicious home-grown dried fruit. The sultanate boasts of over 250 indigenous varieties and after trying at least a dozen, I settled upon the reddish-brown khalas variety. Apart from being Oman’s most popular produce and omnipresent across desserts, dates also played a more deadly role back in the day. I learnt more about this at the 17th century Nizwa Fort. At the entrance leading up to each tower, we saw signboards pointing to the turret above, with slits known as murder holes. Legend has it that soldiers used to pour boiling date syrup through these holes on to the unsuspecting enemy soldiers below.

If there’s anything that beats Oman’s obsession with dates, it’s the love for seafood. With a 1,700km coastline, fishing is an important industry in the sultanate. On our way back from Jebel Shams, we stopped at a roadside food shack which yielded a surprise. Apart from rice, yogurt and a local fava bean curry, there was fresh fish displayed at the counter, which could be prepared according to taste. I picked the local Sultan Ibrahim or threadfin bream, which was quickly grilled with lashings of lemon, garlic and butter and was absolutely delicious.

On to Salalah

Our next stop was at Salalah, the capital of the southern province of Dhofar. Apart from being the country’s largest producer of frankincense, Salalah yields a rich crop of vegetables and fruits that find their way up north. From fleshy and sweet coconuts to loomi (dried limes), there is much to be sampled and brought back as food souvenirs from Salalah. Most of this is to be had at the food kiosks peppered around the city. There are muthbe stalls, where an assortment of meats is grilled over heated wadi stones. During the annual Salalah Festival, all manner of offal is available at the street stalls. From grilled goat head (which you have to crack open to get at the brains) to hubshah, a soup-based meal made with goat innards and vinegar, things can get quite adventurous.

My last dinner in Oman was back in Muscat, a fitting end to my culinary journey. I was at Al Loomie restaurant in the garden of the grand Al Bustan Palace. The restaurant’s philosophy marries traditional Omani produce with contemporary culinary techniques and every dish is eminently instagrammable. The star of the meal was a risotto which paid tribute to the beautiful Omani kingfish. I valiantly tried the pit-roasted lamb shuwa again in the restaurant’s Shuwa Surf & Turf Risotto, but it was a miss yet again. Ah well, never say never, for I will surely return to eat my way through Oman and who knows, I might even find a shuwa I like.

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