Wednesday, March 6, 2013

searching for omani flavours

From both talking to people and looking around, it seemed as though it would be a challenge to find Omani food in Oman— there were fast food joints, the horrible, ubiquitous American restaurant chains, options from the subcontinent, and lots of shawarma. I theorized that real Omani food was to be found in a real Omani kitchen, and if you can get authenticity at home, why go out for it? Nevertheless, we were determined to find flavours unique to the Arabian peninsula, at the very least.

Consulting the traveller's faithful oracle, Lonely Planet, I had read that beach side vendors in Al Seeb were known to offer squid kebabs. This was all I needed to unfold a map and tell Pedro to head west. We passed through the bustling town centre, and in a minute or two, reached the end of Al Seeb. Nothing seemed to indicate the presence of these squid kebabs— but we passed a dodgy looking restaurant that called to us, promising dubious décor and an unforgettable experience. We hoped it would be the good kind of unforgettable.

Upon entering, it became evident by the stares I received, that a foreign female tourist with her hair uncovered must have been an unusual sight. Nevertheless, we were greeted hospitably by a man in a red, collared t-shirt, from behind a large display of fish on ice. There weren't any squid kebabs, but there was squid in red sauce, and enormous fish and prawns for grilling. We pointed to the smallest fish available, which was a little over half a kilo, and ordered the afore-mentioned prawns and squid.

The dishes arrived with a surprise bowl of mutabbal, bread, and salad— no cutlery in sight. This was going to be a feast truly experienced with all senses. My students in Nepal love to tell me how food tastes better when eaten by hand; that silverware changes the flavours of the food. While I am not sure about that, I definitely prefer eating with my hands— it's certainly more pleasurable. The fish was blackened with mysterious spices— I could only identify the cumin, peppers, and a hint of lime, but it felt like a happy marriage between Arabic and Indian, or Pakistani... Could this be authentic Omani cuisine? The squid was ok, but the hero of the meal for me were those prawns.

Oh my...

Words cannot accurately describe these flavours— oh no. Grilled to perfection, the little bodies were slathered in some kind of curry and lime, with a generous dose of chili. I secretly hoped they did not meet Pedro's fancy, but they surely did. Lucky for me, he is generous, and I got to devour an extra one.

Unforgettable, indeed!

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