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”

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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.

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“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)