Cooking in a Chair?!? – Abductive Reasoning and Foodways in Khareef

In “Ethnography Is an Option,” Yadav discusses abductive reasoning, which she describes as:

an iterative process of “sense-making.” Rather than beginning with a research question and testable hypothesis, abductive inquiry rests on the articulation of a puzzle, where what “makes a puzzle ‘anomalous’ is a misfit between experience and expectations.”

This is good way of thinking about how I try to understand foodways and cultures, although I don’t always get to “sense-making.” Sometimes I end up still confused as I try to catch and hold onto those moments in which my expectations are not met; sometimes a new level of understanding opens up. A week or so after I moved into a villa, I heard loud thuds and rustling from outside my window. I forced myself to open the curtain and look – there was nothing in my yard, but the sound was loud and frightening. I decided the safest thing was to go up on the roof, so I could look down at whatever it was. It was a herd of donkeys eating the grass on the other side of my garden wall. Once I saw them, the sounds which were discordant and scary coalesced into stamping, breathing, tearing grass and rubbing against the wall.

So when those moments of perplexity come, I need to stop and reflect. For example, in this video a man is pouring honey on small brown objects.

honey on dates 1

Certain things I can ‘read’ – that’s a man’s hand, he’s wearing a dishdash, that mat is typically used in Dhofari picnics, the background looks like Dhofar in khareef. Certain things I can guess from experience: the man is not from Dhofar because Dhofari men on picnics will usually take off their dishdash and wear t-shirts and wizar, a sarong-like item of clothing made of thick cotton with a plaid pattern. The honey is in an unlabeled, Vimto-style bottle which means it is local honey, from the mountains, perhaps from Yemen. It is expensive and not commercially produced, hence probably not bought in a store but at a roadside stand or from a local contact.

It’s slightly odd to me that there is nothing else in the photo. There is a habit of showing a cup of tea alone (as above), or a tea kettle with cups, but usually shots of eating during khareef have more food items (like the photo below, which has its own mystery: why are there potato chips with the ‘good morning’ sign and pancakes, which signify that this is breakfast. Is it because they are ‘Chips Oman’ and the photographer wanted to emphasize that this is Oman?)

bkfst khareef1

But the biggest question is – what is he pouring the honey on? It that dates or meat? I asked an Omani friend who said, “dates, people from the north do that.” But when I sent the photo to another friend, I got the response, “honey and meat.” So this is something I need to do more research on.

More moments of abductive reasoning come up when looking at photos of foodways in khareef and I have to catch myself when I think, “Why are they doing that?” For example, seeing a video of a man cooking meat while sitting in a chair made me surprised. Cooking in a chair?!? How odd. Then I had to process my surprise – I have never seen a man cook while sitting in a chair in Dhofar, why was that?

A partial answer is in what is cooked and how. In Dhofar, most food I have seen prepared is time-, but not labor-, intensive for cooks. Fish or lobster, for example, can be wrapped in foil, placed in coals and left to cook. Curries require a lot of cutting and then stirring for a few moments, but then can be left to simmer. Cooking meat on heated rocks (madhbi) requires that the cook be next to the rocks, sitting in a chair would be too far away. But visitors in khareef often cook 1) on gas rings or with small metal BBQs, not a fire, and 2) prepared foods which need careful watching such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, and meat kebabs. Further, when Dhofar men have a picnic, they are usually stream-lined: in addition to the food stuffs (meat, vegetables, salt, tea bags, sugar, bottled water, rice and/ or bread) one needs a mat, some wood, a tea kettle, cups, a pot, a knife, and a round plate to cut meat and vegetables on and to eat off of. A big spoon to stir is helpful, but the knife can be used in a pinch; extras like canned milk, fruit, limes, spices, spicy sauce, biscuits etc. are welcome but not necessary. Thus what strikes me as odd in the photo below is not the cows, but the windscreen for the fire. What a luxury to have a metal windscreen instead of tearing cardboard from the box holding the water bottles and propping it up with rocks to screen the fire!

khareef cows

The last photo stunned me: tables! for a picnic! and bolster pillows! My first thought was ‘I want to go on a picnic with you!’ My second was ‘good grief, it must take ages to get the car unpacked and then packed again, and to get those pillows dry.’ This led me to considering the connection between food and relaxation in Dhofar: what is needed to make one comfortable while cooking and eating? Why do I see spartan picnics as preferable? It’s partially because that’s what I am used to, but also a factor of time. I once watched a group of western expats take over an hour to set-up a camp site: foldable picnic table, table for food, table to cook on, tent with groundsheet, chairs, multiple mats. The pièce de résistance was a wooden caddy with two kinds of ketchup, 2 kinds of brown sauce and 2 kinds of mustard.

meal khareef

In Oman, hospitality is linked to speed – the good host gives everything that is available happily, quickly and gracefully. A guest who arrives should not have to wait for the host to produce something intricate or expensive, a simple cup of tea served with kindness is the mark of generosity.

(photos from social media)

Yadav, Stacey Philbrick. Ethnography Is an Option: Learning to Learn in/through Practice. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190882969.003.0014

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

This is the first of a few posts about what kinds of food are eaten/ served to guests on different occasions in Dhofar. These short essays are not meant to be exhaustive or prescriptive. From purchasing food, cooking, eating and doing formal interviews with Dhofari informants for over ten years, as well as academic inquiries, I am attempting to build up a general picture of Dhofari foodways, with the understanding that there are elements I am missing and there is a wide variety of practices between house-holds (n.b., when I write “Dhofari” I am referring to Omanis who live in Dhofar, although there are many people from different countries who live in Dhofar with their own food traditions). For more details, see: Foodways and Society in Dhofar, Oman

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 given 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. [see images at the end of this post]

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) (see images below). 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. [see images at end of this post]. 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.

Images of drinks

Stills from a Ramadan greeting video in which a man is taking a heated stone from the fire (left) and placing it into a pan of fresh camel milk (right)

Processed milk

The “beer” in Root beer and Ginger Beer  are changed to “Bev”

IMG_2474

Various drinks packaged in ways that are similar to alcoholic beverages.

 

 

 

 

I will be presenting “Foodways and Society in Southern Oman” at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Annual Conference, University of Leeds, June 24-26, 2019.

add mrr

“Foodways and Society in Southern Oman.” British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Leeds, June 24-26, 2019.  http://www.brismes.ac.uk/conference/

This paper combines research from the fields of anthropology and food studies to examine the connections between food and culture in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman.  Mauss famously said that discussing gifts affords insight into “all the threads of which social fabric is composed.” Similarly, food connects “all the threads” of a society, particularly religion, family, wealth, traditions, self-worth and culture.

I will discuss the practices and perceptions of buying, making, presenting, sharing, eating and disposing of food among one group of Dhofaris. The presentation will cover details of food preparation (who makes what kind of food in which location), as well as when, where and how food is eaten. I will also compare Dhofari food traditions with anthropological accounts from Yemen and explain recent changes in food culture including expanding selection of foods, hiring people to help with cooking, dieting, monetizing food and cooking methods. I am particularly interested in how people make food choices to be generous, while attempting to deny any personal generosity. The information discussed has been gathered from formal interviews and countless social events with Dhofari informants and friends over the past 12 years.

 

Excerpts from “Issues of Autonomy in Southern Oman”

(photo by M.A. Al Awaid)

Abstract from “Issues of Autonomy in Southern Oman” by Dr. Marielle Risse

Gibali (also known as Jibbali, Śḥeret, Shari and Eḥkili) is a non-written, Modern South Arabian language spoken by several groups of tribes in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman. While teaching in Salalah for more than ten years, I have been working with several Gibali-speaking men researching the culture and life-ways of one particular group of tribes, the Qara. Gibalis, both in interviews and from my long-term observations, see their culture as giving both men and women opportunities to craft their own lives and, specifically, to gain a positive reputation for wisdom.

This paper will explore how the Gibalis create and maintain an atmosphere in which both men and women are seen as having access to positive virtues and some control over their own lives. In addition to my observations and interviews, I will include examples from the fields of political science and anthropology, as well as stories from the first set of written texts in the Gibali language.

The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of and sympathy with a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb into the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern developed Euro-Atlantic culture. (Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan, 174)