Date sellers in the fruit and vegetable souq on Muscat’s Corniche
I was in the Omani capital, Muscat, last week. It’s a properly ancient Arabian city with layers of history to peel back. And as you would expect, Oman’s rich and varied history has also influenced its food culture.
The legacy of being a desert-dwelling people – where survival might well once have depended on a friendly welcome and offer of refreshment – is that hospitality remains massively important to the people of Oman. So I had high hopes for the food being fantastic – and it was! I can’t wait to share some of it with you here.
– Omani Food Culture and the Iftar Meal
– Dishes for a typical (Iftar) dinner in Oman:
– (i) To break the day’s Ramadan fast: Dates and Laban
– (ii) Starters: Labneh (soft cheese) and Moutabel (aubergine dip)
– (iii) Main Course: Samak Bil Narjeel (fish in spicy coconut sauce)
– (iv) Pudding: Umm Ali
– (v) Coffee: Omani Halwa and Qahwa
– Recipe for Labneh soft cheese
– Recipe for Moutabel aubergine dip
Omani Food Culture and the Iftar meal
Fasting during Ramadan
It was Eid al Fitr last Sunday, which marks the end of the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, during which people fast – not even taking water – during daylight hours. I was lucky enough to be in Muscat, the beautiful old Arabian capital of Oman, during the last week of Ramadan.
Ramadan fasting is a religious observance, intended to direct attention away from worldly activities and towards the spiritual, and to be a way of achieving understanding of the burdens of those less fortunate. In Middle Eastern countries, while Ramadan continues to fall in the summer, fasting for a whole month during the longest days of the year, in 40°+C heat, is no mean feat. And yet in my experience people do it without complaint. As I went red in the face and sweated and wilted because I hadn’t had a sip of water for an hour, I was in awe of the Omani people – taxi drivers and others whom I met during the course of my day – who seemed completely unaffected by their fast, and said to me that by that stage of the last week of the month of Ramadan, they had long got into a rhythm and got used to it.
It reminded me with amusement of a work colleague when I lived in Qatar, who said the same things to me, but also that the thing she missed most while fasting was coffee. She was the sort of person who did not suffer fools and could be ‘sharp’, shall we say, at the best of times. So, during Ramadan daytime fasts, without her caffeine fix, she was by her own admission best avoided, until necking a coffee at sunset made her human again! I could only sympathise and think that I would have been exactly the same.
Breaking the Fast: Iftar
Iftar is the meal taken at sunset each day in Ramadan, to break the day’s fast. While often taken at home, most good restaurants and hotels in countries like Oman and Qatar also lay on extensive Iftar buffets at which family, friends and groups of work colleagues, gather for a special evening out to break the fast together.
So being in Muscat during Ramadan, I was privileged to be reacquainted with the Iftar meal and to attend two Iftar buffets. These were in The Restaurant at the Chedi hotel and the restaurant Bait Al Luban. I’d thoroughly recommend both these restaurants, by the way, if you decide to take a trip to Muscat. Depending on your budget, The Restaurant at the Chedi is possibly best saved for special occasions, and its main (non-Iftar menu) is a mix of perfectly-executed Omani, Arabic, and high-end international cuisine.
Fine dining in The Restaurant at the Chedi Hotel is great if you’re in Muscat for a special occasion
Bait Al Luban is much more moderately priced, and specifically caters in Omani food. I loved it. It sources fresh seasonal ingredients wherever possible from a network of local Omani suppliers of fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, poultry and honey. The name Bait Al Luban, by the way, means House of Frankincense – and what a beautiful scent that is, picked up all over Muscat. Oman was once the biggest global producer of frankincense and it is effectively the national scent, being sold in the famous Mutrah Souq in Muscat, and at other souqs throughout Oman.
The Iftar buffets I went to at both these restaurants gave me a heart-warming view of Omani culture – of local people dressed up, having a night out, enjoying themselves and sharing in a Ramadan tradition. But of course, I was delighted that they also gave me the opportunity to (re)sample little bits of many exquisite Arabic and Omani-specific dishes. I would not have had the chance to try so much of the food culture in my short trip had I been ordering these things as full dishes.
Traditionally, food is served in Oman on large communal plates, with emphasis on generous amounts and fresh ingredients. Only the right hand is used for serving and eating food.
Much Omani food is similar to that found throughout the Middle East. But some dishes unique to Oman also combine spices and other flavours picked up during centuries of foreign sea-trading, and from its enormous empire, which at its height in the 19th century stretched from East Africa to India. Indeed, it was only when visiting Oman that I discovered to my surprise that the capital of its empire used to be Zanzibar (now a semiautonomous region of Tanzania in East Africa). Consequently, Indian spices and coconut in particular, and country-specific variants of dishes like biriyani, have long been interwoven into traditional Omani cuisine.
Beautifully vibrant saffron is on sale at excellent prices in all the spice souqs
To share just a tiny flavour of all of this wondrous food experience with you, today I’m talking you through six dishes that might typically, among many others, be eaten during an Iftar buffet – or at other lunchtime or evening meals – in Oman. And at the end of this post I have included two very simple recipes for the starters – labneh cheese and moutabel aubergine dip – that I just couldn’t wait to make when I got home.
Dishes for a Typical Iftar Buffet in Oman
(i) To Break the Day’s Ramadan Fast: Dates and Laban
Dates are considered a delicacy throughout the Middle East
Much as with green tea in Japan (which I posted about last month), I was not massively surprised to find dates when I first went to the Middle East, but I was surprised by how prevalent they are. Oman is no exception, and huge quantities of many different varieties of date, in different states of ripeness from yellow to pitch black, are on sale in all the souqs (markets).
Traditionally many people start Iftar by eating two or three dates, which provides the body with quickly absorbed sugar, helping to rectify low blood sugar after fasting all day. The dates are often accompanied by a drink of Laban, made from fermented cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk, and which has been an important food in the Middle East since ancient times, when fermentation was seen as a way of conserving fresh milk. You may be more familiar with its cousins Lassi and Kefir. Although it is made now in modern dairy plants, many Omanis still prepare laban in the home by adding old laban to milk as a starter culture.
Not only are dates especially consumed during Ramadan, but the high end boutique Bateel sells gourmet dates of different varieties – some of which are stuffed with candied peel or nuts, or covered in chocolate – in lavish gift boxes. Bateel is sort of, to dates, what Godiva is to chocolate, and has branches throughout the Middle East, in Harrods in London, and in Michigan in the US. You can even handpick the individual dates that you want in your box, as you might be familiar with doing for special presents of handmade chocolates at chocolate counters.
Many different types of dates in varying states of ripeness are available in the souqs of Oman
Homemade labneh dressed with smoked paprika and extra virgin olive oil
Labneh is Lebanese-style soft cheese with the consistency of cream cheese, but generally fewer calories as it’s made from yogurt. It is also tangier than cream cheese, tasting a bit like mild goat’s cheese. It may appear both as part of a starter platter at Iftar or dinner, and also on the breakfast table.
As far as cheeses go, labneh is quick and easy to make, and its consistency depends on how long it has been left to drain and mature. After 24 hours, it will still be relatively runny, and is often served simply, placed in a bowl, with a well made in the centre of the cheese into which a little extra virgin olive oil is poured, and the edge may be sprinkled with paprika and mint. It is usually served with warm flat-breads, but you could use vegetable crudités or anything else that is dippable.
Alternatively, labneh that has been left to drain for 48 hours will be much firmer and can be rolled into balls and stored in olive oil. I’ve included a super simple and delicious recipe for labneh at the bottom of this post.
Homemade Moutabel dressed with za’atar, pomegranate seeds and extra virgin olive oil
Moutabel is a dip which is also typically served as one of a range of starters with warmed flat-breads. It is made from aubergines which have been rendered smoky by chargrilling them whole, and then scooping out the pulp and mashing it with tahini, garlic, yogurt and lemon. Moutabel is one of my absolute favourite Middle Eastern dishes, and so I’ve included a very simple and hugely tasty moutabel recipe at the end of this post.
(iii) Main course: Samak Bil Narjeel – Fish in Coconut Sauce
Oman’s coastal waters are a rich source of seafood delicacies, and since ancient times there have been fishing villages dotted along all of Oman’s nearly 1,000-miles of coastline. Abundant fish species that turn up in the restaurants of Muscat and other Omani towns are hammour (grouper – my favourite!), shark, tuna, sardines, kingfish, cuttlefish and anchovies, among many others.
In the popular main course dish Samak Bil Narjeel, fish is marinated with cardamon, fresh ginger, green chillies, lime juice and salt and then cooked over a low heat in a sauce of coconut milk infused with garlic, until it is smooth and thick. This beautiful dish traces its origins back to Zanzibar, and so in its use of fish, spices and coconut, it completely embodies a strong reminder of Oman’s extensive seafaring heritage.
I wish I could identify all the exotic, freshly caught, fish for sale in the Fish Souq on Muscat’s keyside
(iv) Pudding: Umm Ali
OMG, Umm Ali! It’s gorgeous!!
I’ve said before in these pages that I don’t have a massively sweet tooth, but I can’t deny that I like comfort food, and the classic Egyptian desert umm ali (sometimes called Om Ali) is one of its pinnacles! I used to ADORE umm ali when I lived in Qatar, so it’s strange that I’d completely forgotten about it. But it meant I was beyond delighted to discover it again as one of many desserts included in the Iftar buffets at both the Chedi Hotel and Bait al Luban restaurant in Muscat.
Basically, umm ali is the Egyptian equivalent of bread and butter pudding, although it doesn’t include eggs, and so is lighter and milkier. I can’t fully describe how gorgeous this stuff is – although you would not want to be eating it often, if you don’t want to end up the size of a house. Crushed, pre-baked, puff pastry is mixed with pistachios and almonds, sugar, hot milk, and cream, and then baked. As I write this, I’m wiping the drool off my keyboard.
And umm Ali means, by the way, ‘Ali’s mother’. The legend is that this dish was named in the 13th century after the wife of Sultan Ezz El Din Aybak (see here for one internet explanation of how the dessert apparently got its name).
At the end of the Iftar meal, and other meals in Oman, dates may be offered again, this time along with Qahwa (Omani-style coffee), fresh fruits, and sweets, including in particular, Omani halwa.
The Omanis love coffee. Qahwa is a strong brew of coffee beans which, if prepared traditionally, are freshly roasted over an open fire or charcoal, ground with a pestle and mortar, and then aromatic cardamom powder is added, sometimes with a pinch of saffron. It is customarily poured into small cups – like the tea cups you might be familiar with from Chinese restaurants – from a copper or silver coffee pot with a very long spout.
So many beautiful coffee pots full of beautiful cardamom-infused coffee
The halwa that might be served alongside your qahwa is Oman’s favourite sweet. It is fantastically gorgeous. It is not low-carb! Gelatinous – and sweet, but not overly so – Omani halwa is a bit like Turkish delight, but heavier, darker and treaclier.
Omani halwa is exceptionally arduous to make, with sugar, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron, ghee, rose essence, rosewater and almonds being boiled together with water and starch in a copper cauldron, over an acacia-wood fire. The heavy mixture must be stirred vigorously throughout the two hours plus cooking process, and it is best made in very large amounts. After the long boiling and mixing process, it is poured into individual containers while it is still warm (and these make a good souvenir of your trip as the halwa in an individual tin will last a month or two).
Because it’s such a hefty task to prepare, most Omanis prefer to buy halwa rather than make it at home, and traditional halwa makers (like the renowned Al Saifa halwa makers in the picture below that I visited in the Omani city of Nizwa) do a brisk trade in local souks.
Clockwise from top: Omani halwa; Omani halwa tin from Nizwa Souq; copper cauldron and fireplace for making halwa; Omani halwa stall at Nizwa Souq.
At the end of a meal, as a final gesture of Omani hospitality, perfumes like rose water are passed from guest to guest for you to cleanse your hands. It was a lovely touch as I was leaving Bait Al Luban restaurant.
Recipe for Labneh
Homemade minty labneh cheese dressed with smoked paprika and good olive oil
Really extremely minimal effort indeed is needed to make your own labneh cheese at home. In this recipe, mint is an optional ingredient for added colour and flavour.
The one piece of special equipment you’ll need is butter muslin, which can be bought online for around £4. It’s reusable many times – you just need to rinse it in cold water and then wash it as you would a tea towel (without fabric conditioner, I would suggest). Before using it again, you will then soak it in boiling water to sterilise it (as in step 1 below).
Labneh cheese before dressing, made with (optional) added mint. I hung this for 48 hours so it was firm and a little crumbly, and could be rolled into balls to be stored in olive oil. Hang for 24 hours only if you want a more liquid consistency.
Find somewhere to hang your labneh in butter muslin so that it won’t be disturbed for 24-48 hours
Makes 140g cheese, enough for 2 (you can make double the quantity at once if you like)
- 500g tub of natural yogurt
- 1tsp salt
- 1 tsp dried mint (optional)
For garnish (to taste):
- Smoked paprika
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Pour boiling water into a bowl and soak the butter muslin for 5 minutes to ensure that it’s sterile.
- Extract and wring-out the butter muslin by hand. Pour away the water, line a sieve or colander with the muslin, and sit it on top of your bowl.
- Wait for the muslin to cool, then put in all the yogurt.
- Add 1tsp salt, and the 1tsp of mint, if using. Stir until evenly mixed.
- Gather together the four corners of the muslin and tie together to form a bag. Hang it over the bowl, somewhere where it can be left undisturbed, for the whey to drip out of the cheese.
- Leave to hang for at least 24 hours before scraping out of the muslin into a bowl and dressing with smoked paprika and olive oil. But leave it for 48 hours if you wish to create a tangier and firmer cheese (and definitely leave it for 48 hours to have a firm enough cheese to work with if you intend to make labneh balls – see next step).
- There are two ways to store the labneh. It will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for 5 days. Alternatively, use the traditional Lebanese method of rolling it into balls, putting them in a glass jar, and fully submerging them in olive oil. The labneh balls will then keep for 2 months in the fridge.
NB: you don’t need to waste and throw away your whey(!), which contains protein, vitamins and minerals. Some of the ways that you can use it are in soups or in bread-making, in place of water; to soak pulses; or for boiling vegetables/pasta/rice/potatoes. And it freezes well.
Recipe for Moutabel
Homemade moutabel dressed with za’atar, extra virgin olive oil, and pomegranate seeds
- 2 aubergines
- 85g tahini (sesame paste)
- 75g plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon of salt, to taste
- Juice of one lemon
- I crushed garlic clove
- 1 tablespoon date molasses or pomegranate molasses (optional)
For garnish (to taste):
- Za’atar (Middle Eastern spice blend with sesame seeds)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Chopped parsley
- Pomegranate seeds
- Roughly chopped walnuts
- First you need to blacken the whole aubergines, and how you do this will determine how much of the traditional smoky taste you achieve in your end dish. To get the optimum traditional smoky flavour, push a skewer all the way through each aubergine and grill over an open flame, on your barbecue or the naked flame of a gas hob. Keep turning the aubergines until the skin is wrinkled and blackened all over, and they have started to collapse slightly and the inner pulp has softened (test with a skewer).
- Alternatively, it is easiest to prick the aubergines all over with a fork and then roast them in the oven at 200°C/180°fan/Gas mark 6/400°F, for around 45 minutes to one hour, during which you can go off and do something else. You can also deep or shallow fry the whole, pricked, aubergines until golden. But with all these methods, the resultant moutabel, while still delicious, will not taste smoky.
- Whichever cooking method you have used, when done, place the aubergines in a sealable plastic food bag and leave them to cool for half an hour until they are handleable. The condensation created in the bag will help loosen the skin from the inner pulp.
- Peel the burnt skin from the aubergines and scrape out the pulp into a sieve. Discard the skin, roughly chop the pulp in the sieve, and leave it to drain for an hour or more to remove excess water and bitterness.
- Give the aubergine pulp a final squeeze into the sieve with the back of a spoon and then place in a medium bowl, and add the tahini, yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Mix well to ensure that everything is combined evenly.
- Give the mixture a few blasts with a handheld stick blender, but don’t overdo it – moutabel is nicest with a little texture left, rather than being totally smooth.
- If you prefer a slightly sweeter taste, at this point you can choose to stir in a tablespoon or so of date or pomegranate molasses if you wish. (If you’re watching carb intake, these will have a few, but you’re not using much, and they will be dispersed across the whole dish and they are both natural sweeteners).
- Place the moutabel in a serving dish and smooth it out. Make a well in the centre and drizzle in extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle the edge to taste with za’atar, chopped parsley, pomegranate seeds and/or chopped walnuts.
- Leftover moutabel will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days covered with cling film.