It was a sad and awful day the day I saw okra in the grocery store. Oh for Pete’s sake, okra! OKRA! the bane of my existence as a child: slimy and tasteless and, it turns out, quite the favorite here. Sigh. When I complained to my mom on the phone that I had to share this lovely country with that awful vegetable, she recommended that I could make a casserole with it and bring it to on a picnic.
I love going on picnics, but I have never brought a casserole or anything I have made, a fact I have been considering this week. One problem is that I don’t have cookbooks, another is that I am not a great cook. Also my oven has about a 20 degree temperature difference between the left and rights sides and I can’t always find things I want, especially herbs and spices.
But there are larger issues at play that make the food exchanges between me and Omanis I know so uneven. One factor is I don’t know how to make what they like to eat. Rice is a staple of Dhofari cooking and most Omanis in Dhofar eat it every day; I have cooked it perhaps twice in my life. Local favorites like asseda (cooked wheat flour with samn, clarified butter) and harees (boiled wheat with meat cooked and blended into porridge-like consistency) have only a few ingredients but need a lot of time and effort to be made properly. I am not fluent in the spices used here. I use rosewater and orange water as perfumes, not to cook with; I prefer olive oil to samn.
And I am hesitant to bring foods which had different flavors and textures than food normally eaten here: dill, brie, hollandaise sauce, pumpkin spice, sharp cheddar cheese, bitter orange marmalade. When I offered a Dhofari friend nachos, I got the same look as when I am offered cow’s stomach or goat’s intestines: “I am so happy you like that, please don’t try to make me eat it.”
There is also a worry when I bring something home-made that it might have something haram (proscribed in Islam). Dhofari friends know that I understand and respect Islamic dietary rules but, well, anyone can make a mistake. There might be a sauce I brought from outside Oman and I didn’t KNOW that there was something haram in it and… So it is better if I bring packaged food such as cookies or dates. When bringing presents back from trips, I make sure gifts such as chocolates have a clear list of ingredients and/ or are labeled halal (permissible to eat in Islam).
Foreign restaurants are opening in Dhofar – Mexican, Thai, Sushi – and there are expanding types of food in the grocery stores such as organic and gluten-free. But this food diversity is under the umbrella of government control which ensures that all food sold in grocery stores and restaurants halal.
I love eating Omani food – white rice with freshly grilled fish and dates is one of my favorite meals. Their macaroni dishes are wonderful. All the dishes with meat, rice and spices are delicious: mandi, kabsa, makbus. I could eat halwa (see below) and basbousa (cake made with semolina, usually flavored with coconut in Salalah) every day. It’s not fair that I get enjoyable meals while only contributing Pringles, cookies, juice, soda and water but then I remember the reaction when I handed over oatmeal cookies. From politeness a few people took a nibble. The pain in their eyes was the same as mine when confronted with okra, liver, cooked carrots or bread pudding. It’s good to try new things but it’s also good to stick with what you know.
Halwa – (the Arabic word for ‘sweet’) is the traditional dessert of Oman. It’s 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 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 eat both together. Halwa is in the center of the photo above in the clear, square container.