What We Talk About When We Talk About Drinks and Sweets in Dhofar

(the first of a few posts about what kinds of food are eaten/ served to guests on different occasions)

All of my informants agree that guests should immediately be offered drinks and sweets, but what are “drinks and sweets”? Even saying “coffee” or “tea” is not that specific because there are several kinds.

There are three main kinds of coffee. The most important and most traditional is qahwa (in Arabic) or “Omani coffee” which is made from roasted coffee beans that are ground, then boiled (plain or with spices), then other spices and flavors (cardamom, ginger, rose water, etc.) are added. In the northern parts of Oman, it is required to serve this with dates; this is also offered in Dhofar, but tea with cakes or qahwa with halwa (see below) can also be served.

“Coffee” can also mean instant coffee, sometimes called Nescafe although there are other brands of instant coffee for sale, which is usually served with canned milk and sugar. “Coffee” can also mean a drink from one of the several kinds of recently introduced coffee-capsule machines. For example, a guest might be offered a caramel macchiato, cappuccino, latte or mochaccino.

Tea is usually “red” tea [chai ahmar] which is black tea with only sugar added, “milk” tea [chai haleeb] which is black tea with canned milk and sugar, or karak which is loose tea with spices and canned milk. Green tea is sometimes offered; iced tea (Lipton cans) is rarely offered.

A selection of cold drinks are usually offered; this includes bottled water because tap water is usually not offered to guests. Sodas include Coke and Pepsi products as well as various flavored “malt beverages” which usually have young men playing or watching sports in their advertisements and are packaged in green glass bottles with a shape similar to beer bottles.

Juices come in cardboard packages with added sugar and marketed to children (e.g. Suntop), clear plastic bottles and large jugs from a Dhofari (A’Safwah) or Saudi (Almarai) brand, or freshly blended and served in a pitcher, usually melon. The Omanis I know usually order fresh lemon with fresh mint in restaurants, but I have never seen that served in a home although I assume some families do. Mango juice is also a popular drink in restaurants but I haven’t seen in homes, probably because it is more labor-intensive to make. There is a vast array of powered fruit drinks available; the powered drink section of one grocery store is about five feet high and over ten feet long. These are loved by kids, but not usually given to guests.

Some changes in drinks over the past ten years include the introduction of soy milk, almond milk and commercially produced camel milk in the refrigerator section of stores. There is a limited, but growing selection of specialty drinks, such as root beer, Arizona Ice Tea, coconut milk and drinks from the Philippines.

Processed milk comes from three firms: A’Safwah (Dhofari), Al Razat (Dhofari) and Al Almarai (Saudi). There have been a lot of changes over the last ten years, including offering plain milk in different sized containers and new types of milk such as low-fat and flavored with chocolate and strawberry. A’Safwah (Dhofari) and Al Almarai (Saudi) have a long running competition with milk-based products: if one introduces a new product, the other will have the same within a few months so there are now all sorts of choices such as low-fat and flavored yogurts and different kinds of cooking creams.

Before modernization, the more frequent drink was milk from goats, cows or camels – many families still drink it unprocessed. In the past, and sometimes now on picnics if someone is feeling nostalgic, rocks are cleaned and then put on coals to be heated. Once hot, they were dropped one by one into a bowl of camel’s milk. Camels and cows are milked by men; with camels, the man and camel are both standing. Men usually milk goats, but women will also do so.

Omani halwa (the Arabic word for sweet) is made with sugar, water, clarified butter, cornstarch and flavorings such as cardamom, saffron, sesame seeds, almonds and cashews. It is slow cooked in large batches and then poured into various-sized plastic trays and bowls. The color varies from a light blond to almost black to reddish depending on ingredients. The consistency is like a tough Jell-O. To eat, one scoops out a teaspoon- to tablespoon-sized piece with a spoon and eats it plain or plops the piece on of a small piece of a thin, plain cracker-like bread (khoubz raqaq/ raqeeq or kak) and eats both together. You usually take some mouthful by mouthful.

Snacks for guests include home-made and store-bought mini-cheesecakes, basbousa (usually flavored with coconut), baklava, small pieces of fried dough, mini-pizzas, etc. Fresh fruit is usually also put out, either whole or as a fruit salad with small bowls to take a serving, Whole fruits are usually grapes, oranges, and apples, as well as bananas which are grown in Dhofar. Although guava, mangos, papayas are also grown in Dhofar, they are not set out but found chopped into the fruit salads.