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Oman Culture - Food

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The Omani people are well known for their hospitality and offers of refreshment. To be invited into someone's home will mean coffee kahwa, a strong, bitter drink flavoured with cardamom, and dates or halwa, a sticky sweet gelatinous substance which is made from brown sugar, eggs, honey and spices. It can be flavoured with many different ingredients, such as nuts, rosewater or even chocolate. Lokhemat is another accompaniment to coffee, which are balls of flour and yeast flavoured with cardamom and deep fried until golden then served with a sweet lime and cardamom syrup. The sweetness of this dish often counteracts the bitterness of the kahwa.

More substantial meals often have rice as the main ingredient, together with cooked meats. The main daily meal is usually eaten at midday, while the evening meal is lighter. Maqbous is a rice dish, tinged yellow with saffron and cooked over a spicy red or white meat. Aursia is a festival meal, served during celebrations, which consists of mashed rice flavoured with spices. Another popular festival meal is shuwa, which is meat cooked very slowly in an underground clay oven. The meat becomes extremely tender and it is impregnated with spices and herbs before cooking to give it a very distinct taste. Fish is often used in main dishes too, and the kingfish is a popular ingredient. Mashuai is a meal comprising whole spit-roasted kingfish served with lemon rice. The rukhal bread is a thin, round bread originally baked over a fire made from palm leaves. It is eaten at any meal, typically served with Omani honey for breakfast or crumbled over curry for dinner.

Traditional Omani Food

It is fairly simple, but by using various marinades and impregnating meat with spices, the result is a mouth-watering concoction which stimulates the tastebuds. Chicken, fish and mutton are regularly used in dishes. A favourite drink is laban, a salty buttermilk. Yoghurt drinks, flavoured with cardamom and pistachio nuts are also very popular.

Although spices, herbs, onion, garlic and lime are liberally used in traditional Omani cuisine, unlike similar Asian food, it is not hot. Omani cuisine is also distinct from the indigenous foods of other Arab states of the Persian Gulf and even varies within the Sultanate's different regions. The differences between some of the dishes prepared in Salalah, in the south, and those prepared in Muscat, in the north, are so marked that it is difficult to find anything common between them. However, one delight that remains a symbol of Omani hospitality throughout the country are the ubiquitous dates, served with khawa, or Omani coffee. Khawa is prepared from freshly roasted ground coffee mixed with cardamom powder.

Special dishes are prepared for festive occasions. The Islamic world celebrates two main religious festivals - Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha. Eid Al Fitr is celebrated following the Holy Month of Ramadan when people complete their obligatory fasting for 30 days. Eid Al Adha is celebrated on completing the Haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham. Dishes prepared during Ramadan are very seldom cooked on other occasions.

Food cooked on important occasions, such as Eid, is of an infinite variety. Omanis across the country serve an array of dishes. In Dhofar and Wusta, the festivities start with ruz al mudhroub, a dish made of cooked rice and served with fried fish, and maqdeed, special dried meat. In Muscat, Al Batinah, Dahira and Sharqiya regions, muqalab, a dish of tripe and pluck cooked with crushed or ground spices, dominates the menu. Other dishes served during Eid festivities include arsia, a dish of lamb meat cooked with rice, and mishkak, skewered meat grilled on charcoal.

Lunch on the first day of Eid is usually harees, which is made from wheat mixed with meat. Lunch on the second day is mishkak, while on the third and last day, shuwa forms the whole day's meal. However, it is during Ramadan that one can experience Omani food at its best and two of the most popular traditional dishes served at Iftar, the breaking of the fast include sakhana, a thick, sweet soup made of wheat, date, molasses and milk and fatta, a meat and vegetable dish, mixed with khubz rakhal, thin Omani bread, made out of unleavened dough.

Shuwa is a typically Omani delicacy prepared only on very special occasions. Whole villages participate in the cooking of the dish which consists of a whole cow or goat roasted for up to two days in an special oven prepared in a pit dug in the ground.

The method of preparing shuwa is elaborate. The meat is marinated with red pepper, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cardamom, garlic and vinegar and then wrapped in sacks made of dry banana or palm leaves. These sacks are then thrown into the smoldering oven, which is covered with a lid and sealed so that no smoke escapes. In some villages, the meat is cooked for 24 hours while in others it is believed that meat tastes better after 48 hours.

Everyday Omani cuisine includes a wide variety of soups - vegetable, lentil, lamb and chicken. Salads are also popular and are usually based around fresh vegetables, smoked eggplant, tuna fish, dried fish or watercress. Main course dishes are extensive and range from marak, a vegetable curry, to assorted kebabs, barbecued, grilled and curried meat, chicken and fish dishes.

Rice is used widely and is served in a variety of ways, from steamed to elaborate concoctions bursting with meat and vegetables. Breads rage from the plain to those flavoured with dates, sesame, thyme and garlic. For desert, Omani halwa, or sweatmeat, is a traditional favourite.

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