Located on the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is nestled in between Iran, India, Pakistan and the East African coast. Being surrounded by such culturally diverse countries and looking out onto the Indian Ocean, Oman’s maritime history has brought us the warm spices of India, such as chillies, cinnamon, turmeric and ginger. Migration from Iran has brought us the essence of colour, as well as sweet and tart flavours from saffron, roses, pomegranates and figs.
Oman’s home-grown ingredients are dried limes, also known as black limes or loomi, and dates. Much of our cooking incorporates dried limes, as the practice of drying ingredients to preserve in hot and arid conditions is vital. Dried limes mostly play a role in slow cooking and in dishes where they have time to release their pungent citrus notes, which you get in dishes such as machboos. It’s never overwhelming, but just the perfect amount of acidity, and something you appreciate the next day from the same meal. We also use dried lime to tenderise and bring us an instant acidic gratification, like in Bahraini tikka, a beef recipe brought over by the communities who were from old Muscat and have origins in Bahrain.
As much as our ingredients make up the migration of Omanis through the centuries, the culture and traditions of food also came with them. Having such diverse communities in Oman which have heritage from all these places means that food is always the foundation of conversations and bringing us together. Eating for us is never about a quick meal but a chance for us to join one another, share stories, devour each spoonful, appreciate the flavours and make sure everyone is left full and content. From old to young, nobody ever eats alone, hospitality is at the forefront of our food and drinking culture, and an Omani’s front door is always open for someone to join in.
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Machboos (Omani chicken one-pot rice)
Across most of the Gulf and in a few other Arab countries, this dish is known as machboos, meaning ‘to compress’, as the ingredients are cooked in one pot, with the meat compressed beneath the rice. In Saudi Arabia, it’s also known as kabsa, deriving from the root word kabs, which is the act of putting rice on the meat once it’s cooked. My mum has always been fond of making this dish. The traditional method takes much longer, as you would normally fry each element separately, but my mum also loves to make cooking quick and easy, so she taught me a simplified version that still yields the same taste.
Both my mother’s and father’s families have ancestry from Bahrain. In Oman, people with this lineage are known as Bahranis or Baharnas. Having such a small and close community means we are all familiar with each family’s characteristics and cuisines, and so Bahraini tikka is well known and loved among our community in Muscat. There is only one place in Muscat that does a good one – the shop mainly makes shawarmas, and is called Antalya after the city in Turkey, but nestled in the back is a man who makes excellent tikka: succulent, chargrilled skewers with a tender tang. It is essential that you eat this meat with bread, as the dried lime comes in very sharp if eaten on its own. Serve with flatbreads, hummus, raw onions, salad and sliced oranges.
Sherbati (rose, chia and almond milkshake)
Sherbati is a drink we make during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic new year. A big batch is made, bottled up and donated to little kids in Zanzibar. It’s essentially a rose-flavoured milkshake. The traditional version was made much sweeter with condensed milk and basil seeds, which bloom and become gelatinous, like chia seeds. My auntie Rayhana, a very good family friend who was born in Uganda to a Gujarati family, also used to have this as a child. Since she started making it here in the UK, she has found that it tastes much better with almond milk. The most important tip for this is to make sure it’s super-cold when serving, just like a milkshake.
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