My research explores the foodways of Omanis who live in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. My interest in food and cooking evolved from a contradiction, observed over twelve years of anthropological research, that Dhofaris both hate to waste food and usually make more than is necessary in case anyone unexpectedly shows up to share the meal.
My research focused first on how food is used to define and enhance social relationships, specifically in relation to how food is given away to show personal generosity and how what one eats in which locations delineates connections between people.
My current research examines changes in food purchasing and cooking during Dhofar’s rapid modernization after the mid-1970s. This includes looking at differences in cooking methods (wood to gas), the expanding selection of foods, and changes in culinary practices as a result of having expats cook in middle-class homes. I am particularly interested in how men and women view these changes given that the ease of hiring non-Omanis to buy food, cook, serve and clean-up in the home means some Dhofari women no longer view cooking as something they do not need to know how to do and allows other to monetize food through selling dishes to other women at festivals or via Instagram.
Most writing and visuals about food in the Middle East concentrate on one of four topics: food memories connected to loss (e.g. cookbook memoirs of displaced people), food scarcity (in areas of war/ poverty), elite food (extravagant meals, gourmet cuisine, social media photos) and sharing food at Ramadan (photos of giving away food and communal Iftar at mosques). I am interested the often not-seen, not-discussed topic of everyday foodways: what is procured, produced, cooked, eaten, shared and disposed of by Omanis who have neither an insufficiency nor a super-abundance of food.
In addition to over a decade of observations of foodways in southern Oman, I use the works of scholars from the area of food studies in general (e.g. Coleman, Counihan, Gilette, Goody, Julier, Klein, Mintz, Sutton, van Esterik, Watson, Yamani etc.) and specifically about Omani/ Southern Arabian food such as cookbook writers and bloggers (Al Hamad, Campbell, Popp, Yasmeen) and those who write about foodstuffs that are related to medical practices (Lebling and Pepperdine, M. Morris, Rodionov). I also use writers whose work is not specifically about foodways, but who mention culinary practices and give background context, such as anthropologists of Southern Arabia (Caton, Maclagan, Meneley, Webster), Janzen who studied land-use in Dhofar in the 1970s and travelers to Dhofar such as ibn Battuta in the early 1300s, the crew of the Palinurus which visited Dhofar in 1834-36 and 1844-46, the Bents in 1895, Thomas in the 1930s, Thesiger in the 1940s, and J. Morris in 1956.
My research so far has resulted in one book about foodways in southern Oman being accepted for publication (Routledge), a conference presentation (BRISMES 2019), an article submitted to an academic journal and a series of short essays on different aspects related to cooking/ food in Dhofar. The 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. Lastly, when I talk of “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.
[The dish in the foreground is ‘saffron cake’ – usually white sheet cake set into a container with walls an inch or two higher then the cake. A smooth, liquid custard infused with saffron is then poured over the cake and decorative, artificial, white whipped cream is piped over it. The cake in the photograph was decorated with a few saffron threads.]