Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, discovers dates, dried fish and fine dining in the fascinating city of Muscat.
The Middle East is mysterious to many, mostly because they haven’t visited it. It is diverse and for those who like to discover a place before the tourists swarm, Oman is on the verge of hitting its touristic stride. Developments for the latest Missoni and Louis Vuitton hotels are set to be completed in 2014 and 2015. But if the idea of getting in before everyone else appeals, then the time is before they finish.
Oman’s official name is the Sultanate of Oman and is ruled by monarch Qaboos bin Said al Said. Despite the reputations of their high glamour neighbour Dubai, with the tall buildings and artificial snow fields, Oman is quieter, the buildings smaller and all is not desert in Oman as we would soon learn. Souqs (markets), dates, wadis (lush valleys) would all become known to us.
We arrive in the capital of Muscat. It’s hotter than we’ve ever experienced here and I take a look around. Women are wearing traditional abayas dress with niqab (veils) and men are wearing dish dashas with a tassel hanging down from the collar. These tassels would traditionally be dipped in perfume. On their heads they wear either kumma, a round hat or msarr which are wrapped like turbans. Most people are in traditional dress. Arabic is the first language although English is widely and well spoken.
And what about the food of Oman? We start at the best place to find out about any sort of food, the markets. Our guide Abdul shows us Muscat’s daily vegetable and fish markets which are fascinating. It is late July and it is coming towards the end of the date season. Dates are used extensively in Omani cuisine. Abdul tells us that when his father was growing up in the 50s, he ate only dates, Arabic bread and dried fish. Indeed much livestock is fed on dates and there are countless varieties of dates in Oman. The yellow dates which come last in the season are called khalas and when they arrive, it signifies the end of date season.
Vendors sell boxes of dates outside the markets and there is an abundant supply of them. One of these box of these Omani dates will set you back 1 OMR or $2.50.
We come across fascinating fruit that we haven’t seen before. Looking like an olive, zam fruit has a sweet, chalky taste to it.
The butt fruit (pronounced boot) resemble blueberries in shape and size. They are wonderfully sweet and syrupy with a little hard peppercorn sized pip in the centre. It’s like a very sweet, juicy and round red grape crossed with a syrupy sweet berry. I could eat cups of these little gems.
A friendly vendor offers us tastes of red and yellow dates. Oman dates are different from Medjool or California dates which are large, wrinkled and rich. Omani dates are syrupy inside when ripe and are smaller in size. A bite into the thin skin produces a little spurt of addictively sweet date syrup. The vendor’s stall sells honey in tall bottles, dried limes, piles of dates, dried shark and za’atar which he encourages us to rub between our fingers to smell. He also sells Omani garlic which at 5 OMR a kilo is more expensive than Indian and Chinese garlic but is much more potent.
Our nose leads us to the fish section of the market which is open from early until 10am when the sun becomes too strong.
Skeel is a prized fish with white meat which fetches 35 OMR or about $80 for the whole fish. The vendor proudly shows off its blood red gills to me. We watch a small fish auction which is taking place outside. A man haggles a price with the vendor for a large pile of fish on the tiles.
Another man cuts at kingfish and there’s a bowl of maleh or salted dried fish to his right. Dried fish is a common ingredient in traditional Omani cuisine...
We arrive at the Chedi Muscat. While there are 5 star resorts down to whatever you might like, there just aren’t in the same number as surrounding countries. The Chedi is set against the backdrop of the Al Hajar (The Rock) mountains, a sepia backdrop to the surrounding white houses and low rise buildings...
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A date with mysterious Oman
Unlike some of its neighbours, Oman is still an uncovered gem in the marvellously diverse Middle East, where fruits of the earth and sea are plentiful.
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