Food Terminology: Life is not Life, Curry is not Curry, Chutney is not Chutney

As Al-Hamad (2016) states, “The Arabic for rice is riz/ruz, but in the Gulf it is ‘aish,” the Arabic word for living or life. In other countries such as Egypt, bread is called ‘aish but in Oman, rice is the most important staple.

In Dhofar, almost everyone has rice for lunch. The rice might be plain white and served with dates and fried or grilled fish; biryani with fish, meat* or chicken placed on top; a “curry”; a salona; or one of the dishes seen as traditional including qabooli, kebsa, maqboos, and mandi. “Curry” is used locally to mean a stew of vegetables and meat, chicken or fish (not necessarily made with curry powder) which is poured onto a platter to be eaten by being scooped up with bread. Salona is usually locally to mean a thin soup with chicken, meat or fish, usually with purred tomatoes as a base which makes it dark red. It is served in bowls or tin-foil containers. People either simply dip bread in the soup or position bread between thumb and two forefingers and, using a pincher action, tear off a piece of meat. Qabooli, kebsa, maqboos, and mandi are considered traditional, local rice dishes in several Middle Eastern countries. It is beyond the power of the author to adjudicate origin, ingredients or recipes.

The main dish is served with one or more condiments called “chutney.” “Chutney” is not the same as chutney from India which is usually cooked with fruit. It is a condiment whose exact composition varies from family to family but usually made from blended spices with uncooked vegetables. A common one is made from pureed tomatoes, onions and spices and is similar to salsa. A more traditional one is made from pureed garlic and ginger with vinegar. When I showed several Dhofari men from my research group a small dish of Indian-style mango chutney and asked “Is this chutney?” all of them said no.

* Meat means cow, camel or goat, rarely sheep.

Al-Hamad, Sarah. (2016). Cardamom and Lime: Flavors of the Arabian Gulf, the Cuisine of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the U.A.E. Singapore: IMM Lifestyle Books.

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.

 

Snack is ready!

Fatayer (فطير) is the Arabic word for “pie/ pastry” and can also be used to mean “pancake.” In southern Oman it is used primarily in two contexts. One as a thick pastry (with dough similar to but lighter than pizza dough) that is rolled out into a oblong shape with the dough pinched into two pointed ends usually 8-12 inches long and 4 to 6 inches wide. This is topped with processed cheese spread and a variety of savory toppings, such as chopped hotdogs, and sweet toppings, usually honey. It is baked open-face and then covered in tin foil. They are sold in many Arabic restaurants and by a few stores (some belonging to a chain) that specializes in them. Usually cooked upon order, they are available throughout the day and seen as a perfect between-meal snack or as part of a meal, especially picnics as they are easy to transport.

The second fatayer is very different – it is a very thin batter, similar to a crepe, which is spread on a heated, round, oiled cooking surface. When the bottom is cooked, a filling (usually processed cheese) is spread over the surface. The sides are then turned in until it is rectangular-shaped, then it is flipped over. When cooked, it is transferred to a paper plate and cut into 12 square pieces and usually drizzled with honey. They should be eaten immediately as the dough becomes rubbery and gummy when cold. They are usually for sale at small stalls at festivals or road-side stands and since they are not readily available or transportable they are seen as a ‘treat.’ People buy them and eat them quickly, usually with tea or fruit juice, either standing by the stall or sitting at a table or in their car.

 

 

Lunch is ready!

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Lunch is the main meal of the day and usually eaten between 1:30 and 2:30pm after kids return from school and adults return from work. In almost every Dhofari household rice is served. The rice might be plain white and served with dates and fried or grilled fish; biryani with fish, meat or chicken placed on top; or one of the dishes seen as traditional including qabooli, kebsa, maqboos, and mandi. The main dish is served with one or more condiments called “chutney” and a chopped salad, often made with fresh vegetables such as onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers and (sometimes) lettuce; the salad is served without a dressing. Quartered limes and small plates of chili peppers are often set out; some families use bottled hot sauces such as Tabasco.

Although not all families eat with all house members at one time, it is usually to eat at home. As lunch is after work and before the nap/ relaxation time of late afternoon, lunch is generally eaten quickly without the social time that usually precedes and succeeds dinner. When the Dhofaris say “lunch” they mean “rice with meat, fish or chicken,” however sometimes lunch is eaten on the fly – at work or while driving.

A favorite for a fast lunch is to spread processed cheese on pita or white bread; open a bag of Chips Oman (spicy), crush them and sprinkle on the bread, splash on some hot sauce and bon appetit! A variation is spread processed cheese on a warm partata, add a fried egg and a bag of crushed Chips Oman, with hot sauce if you need more heat.

In case it’s not clear how important processed cheese is….

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(first image from social media, unknown photographer; second and third photos by author)

Breakfast is ready!

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This is not a typical breakfast – breakfast is usually a light meal eaten at home and is just for family and overnight visitors, almost always family. Any Dhofari man or woman is welcome to eat any meal at the house of any close relative, but usually they only share breakfast if they are staying in the house.

The timing varies from after the dawn (fajr) prayer to 11am on weekends and holidays. School children are fed before they leave the house, with the mother(s) eating before or after feeding younger children when they wake up and perhaps sharing tea and bread with a neighbor in the mid-morning. Eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled) are often set out and children often eat cereal and sometimes pancakes.

Almost everyone drinks tea, either plain, with a lot of sugar, with milk and/ or spices. In houses, thermoses are made by or under the direction of senior women and set out throughout the day. Some Dhofaris simply have tea or tea with toast (sliced bread from a loaf); pita bread (khbus lebnani) with butter, jam, honey and/ or processed cheese; round, thick traditional bread (called variously tanoor or kak in Arabic or godom or thakin in Gibali/ Shahri); store bought biscuits; a parata (plain or with dal or eggs inside) bought from a small, road-side restaurant or brought to the office by the “messenger,” a man who brings tea, light food, newspapers and runs errands.

The photo above shows a picnic breakfast with prepared omelettes, boiled eggs, cereal, bread, cheese, fruit, a thermos of tea and various condiments including hummus.  This would be eaten on a holiday or weekend morning with the eggs prepared in the house and all the food packed into the car, then the family driving to a scenic spot to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.

 

 

 

quote on entertaining from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853)

The Cranfordians had that kindly esprit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty. When Mrs. Forrester, for instance, gave a party in her baby-house of a dwelling, and the little maiden disturbed the ladies on the sofa by a request that she might get the tea-tray out from underneath, everyone took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world, and talked on about household forms and ceremonies as if we all believed that our hostess had a regular servants’ hall, second table, with housekeeper and steward, instead of the one little charity-school maiden, [and]… who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up, though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes.

 

Foodways and Society in Oman – Pragmatics of When and What to Eat

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Pragmatics of When and What to Eat

Breakfast is usually a light meal. The timing varies from after the dawn (fajr) prayer to 11am on weekends and holidays. Almost everyone drinks tea, either plain, with a lot of sugar, with milk and/ or spices. In houses, thermoses are made by or under the direction of senior women and set out throughout the day. Some Gibalis simply have tea or tea with toast (sliced bread from a loaf); pita bread (called khbus lebnani) with butter, jam, honey and/ or processed cheese; round, thick traditional bread (called variously tanoor or kak in Arabic or godom or thakin in Gibali); store bought biscuits; a parata (plain or with dal or eggs inside) bought from a small, road-side restaurant or brought to the office by the “tea-assistant.” Eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled) are often set out and children often eat cereal and sometimes pancakes.

Lunch is the main meal of the day and eaten around 1:30 or 2pm after kids return from school and adults return from work. In almost every Gibali household rice must be served.[i] The rice might be plain white and served with dates and fried or grilled fish; biryani with fish, meat or chicken placed on top; a “curry”; a salona; or one of the dishes seen as traditional including qabooli, kebsa, maqboos, and mandi.[ii] The main dish is served with one or more condiments called “chutney” and a chopped salad, often made with fresh vegetables such as onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers and, sometimes, lettuce; this is served without a dressing.[iii] Quartered limes and small plates of chili peppers are often set out; some families use bottled hot sauces such as Tabasco.

When the Gibali men I know say “lunch” they mean “rice with meat or fish.” There is no other definition. Although they will sometimes eat chicken, older Gibali men will usually not. More than one male Gibali friend told me that his father had never tasted chicken in his life; this is mentioned in Thomas (1929 103).

Dinner is more varied. It is eaten between 7pm and 11pm, or even later while camping or at large formal parties. There might be rice and meat, chicken or fish again, but also dishes such as potatoes and eggplants sliced thin and baked in tomato sauce; macaroni or spaghetti mixed with tomatoes and fish (usually tuna), meat, or chicken; macaroni or spaghetti with a béchamel sauce. There is usually a chopped salad, chutney, hot sauce and sometimes yogurt.

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            [i] As Al-Hamad (2016) states, “The Arabic for rice is riz/ruz, but in the Gulf it is ‘aish,” the Arabic word for living or life. In other countries such as Egypt, bread is called ‘aish but in Oman, rice is the most important staple.

            [ii] “Curry” is used locally to mean a stew or vegetables and meat, chicken or fish, not necessarily made with curry powder, which is poured onto a platter to be eaten by being scooped up with bread. Salona is usually locally to mean a thin soup with chicken, meat or fish, usually with purred tomatoes as a base which makes it dark red. It is served in bowls or tin-foil containers. People either simply dip bread in the soup or position bread between thumb and two forefingers and, using a pincher action, tear off a piece of meat. Qabooli, kebsa, maqboos, and mandi are considered traditional, local rice dishes in several Middle Eastern countries. It is beyond the scope of this paper to adjudicate origin, ingredients or recipes.

            [iii] “Chutney” is not the same as chutney from India which is usually cooked with fruit. It is a condiment whose exact composition varies from family to family but usually made from blended spices with uncooked vegetables. A common one is made from pureed tomatoes, onions and spices and is similar to salsa. A more traditional one is made from pureed garlic and ginger with vinegar. When I showed several Gibali men a small dish of Indian-style mango chutney and asked “Is this chutney?” all of them said no.

Foodways and Society in Oman – Changing Food Choices

This moment – like all moments – has food tastes and choices changing with some people (not necessarily from the older generation) lamenting that the change is too fast and others (not necessarily from the younger generations) lamenting that the change is too slow.[i]   In “Notes on the Omani Kitchen: Eating with Tradition” (2018) Popp notes that “Until recently, dates, lemons, a few vegetables, rice, wheat, water and bread formed the basis of the Omani diet in the impenetrable interior of the country” with a goat on feast days, sometimes dried fish and on the coast “fresh fish, fruit, and goods imported by sea.” There are now far more choices than in the 1970s.[ii]

Gibali-speaking informants in my research group are aware of and often discuss culinary changes. Some food, such as locusts, are no longer eaten because the nutrition they provided can be easily obtained from other sources; others, such as wild game like gazelle and bustards, are now forbidden to be killed by the government. Some kinds of bread cooked over the fire are not made because of it is simpler to buy bread; while other kinds, such as qalb, made by pressing dough to the wall of a round, sunken oven, are still eaten frequently. Sometimes there are watershed moments when a significant food change occurs such as the opening of the McDonalds or the Carrefour grocery store which brought certain kinds of Western foods into Dhofar for the first time.[iii]

Another major difference from the 1970s is that almost all families in Dhofar have help with the cooking; with a live-in full time cook, a maid who cleans and cooks some of the meals, a person who comes every day for several hours to cook and clean, or a person who comes in to cook only one meal. Some maids/ cooks will stay with a Dhofari family for over ten years, going home for a month each year; others will work for a few months or a year and then return home or move to a different family. Since the 1980s, having outside help in the kitchen means that while most women know how, cooking is not seen as required skill. Another reason that women spend less time cooking is that now females have equal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education so that some women are able to forego household responsibilities to concentrate on their studies.

There are several other noticeable changes in food use, choice and preparation in the last ten years. One is an awareness of dieting. Several businesses such as “Smart Diet” have opened advertising “scientific” weight loss. There are storefronts which sell supplements and offer counseling, diet plans and weekly ‘weigh-ins’ to help research or maintain a healthy weight. Weight gain, and the often-accompanying diabetes, was never a problem in Dhofar until the advent of selling cheap sweets that occurred from the late 1970s onward.[iv]

A second change is food and medicine. In the past, the most common medical treatments were cauterizing and honey. Medicinal branding is used much less frequently now, but I know several men who have had it done and believe it is efficacious. Honey, especially wild honey from Yemen, was used for many aliments (see Rodionov 2012). Although bottles of honey (usually in used Vimto glass bottles) are still given as gifts, easy access to modern medicine means that honey is now used for lesser aliments such as a sore throat and as a preventative measure.

Another noticeable change is women monetizing food. Women often give away food stuffs and prepared dishes to relatives, neighbors and friends, but there are now also chances for women to sell their handiwork. Some women create personal bakery/ catering companies and advertise on Instagram. The local government has set up a series of women-only shopping fairs where women can rent small booths for a nominal fee and sell food meant to be eaten immediately or taken home, in a milieu of small booths selling women’s clothes, beauty products, and oud/ bukhoor. There is also an annual city festival where women can rent booths selling packaged or homemade food, in addition to traditional hearth-cooked breads.

During the khareef (monsoon) tourist season and Ramadan, women often sit under small tents next to main roads. Under the tent there is usually a table covered with food the women have made such as bread, rice and meat dishes, cooked vegetables and/ or sweets such as basboosa (coconut cake) or carrot sweet. Sometimes the women themselves sell what they have made; sometimes the women sit behind the table and male relatives walk to the cars, take orders and accept payments.[v] In addition, some women own and run small store-front businesses which sell, almost exclusively, sweets such as mini-cheesecakes, brownies, cupcakes and chocolates, often with cakes for sale by special order.

Lastly, methods of cooking are changing. In the past, heated rocks were often used to cook meat or fish. Although I have been at picnics where this has been done and most picnic cooking is still done over a fire, most men now use various accouterments such as tinfoil and tongs. Men will still cook in a traditional way, for example burying potatoes in sand and covering them with heated rocks, but they are clear that they are doing something old-fashioned for the ‘taste’ of it.

One aspect of food culture that is not changing (yet, perhaps it will in the future) is that of eating locally and in season. Given the continuing close connections between relatives who live in the mountains and those who live in the coastal villages or Salalah, seasonal delicacies such as wild roots, mushrooms, a local kind of tuber, and seed pods are brought down from the mountain and given to relatives and friends. On the coast, changes in the ocean temperature bring various fish closer to or farther from shore so that people are used to have certain fish at certain times of the year. Further, the government enforces seasons on various seafood, so that abalone and lobster, for example, can only be bought at certain times of year.

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            [i] I was struck by Roseberry’s (1996) comment that some aspects of food culture “could be seen to represent an attempt to re-create, through consumption, a time before mass society and mass consumption” (774). I think of Dhofar as being in a state of pre-food nostalgia in that Dhofaris often talk about how society, people, family relationships etc. were “better” in the past, I have never heard anyone say that the food was better.

            [ii] Writing about Oman, Boxhall (1966) states that “Rice, ghee, dates, and goats’ meat provide the Bedouin’s only sustenance, except (and very rarely) for gazelle meat” (217) and on coast there was, “tunny, king-fish, bonito, and shark…turtle, oysters, clams, sea urchins and limpets” (217, 218). Turtles are forbidden to be eaten by the government, but informants tell me that neither turtles nor sharks were eaten in the past.

                        [iii] The opening of McDonalds led to a certain amount of what Elie (2006) terms “‘let’s save them from modernity’ syndrome” (158) from some Dhofaris and expats. There were huge lines for a few days, then it became of the choices alongside KFC, Subway, ChicKing, etc.

            [iv] In response, the government has created a series of well-maintained, well-lit walking paths next to main roads so that Dhofaris have easy access to safe places to exercise.

            [v] By main roads, women sell prepared food, bread, processed food such as chips, and sometimes small bundles of wood used for campfires. Only men work in the road-side stands selling fruit (such as melons), vegetables (usually potatoes and onions) and grilled meat.

Foodways and Society in Oman – Food and Culture

My current research focuses on the practices and perceptions of buying, making, eating and disposing of food among Dhofaris in the southern region of Oman. I am examining 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 recent changes in food culture including expanding selection of foods, hiring people to help with cooking, dieting, monetizing food and cooking methods.

Living Expat – Large Grocery Stores

Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am again reminded of different the most simple activities are when you live middle class expat in a small town in the Middle East. Shopping here is far more interactive than the USA. You want to know what a soap, air freshener, shaving cream, scented talc or body wash smells like? Open it! Take a sniff – spray some around. No problem.

And of course you are buying air fresheners because you need them. Old air conditioners, colleagues who smoke, overuse of cleaning products – the only defense is finding a good water-based, pump-spray air freshener. The culture in general is ‘scent based’ as all men and women leave the house wearing either perfume/ cologne or clothes which have been ‘smoked’ with scented incense. During one visit to my Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different incenses, small chips of wood infused with scented oils which are placed on a small piece of smokeless charcoal to produce great wafts of perfumed smoke. This is not a culture for people with allergies!

In most large grocery stores, the aisle with cheap ($3-$10) bottles of perfume is located near the entrance and you walk up, grab a bottle off the shelves, or open a package to try a perfume not on display, spray yourself liberally, then start your shopping.

Next to the perfumes are the ‘personal products’ which is always fun. Men do most of the shopping so you will often see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking loudly into a cell phone with the other. Men will sometimes take photos of several face creams, send them off and then wait for the answering message about which one to buy. As I am looking at shower gel, there is often a man standing disconsolately by the hair conditioners and body scrubs, waiting for instructions.

There are products you learn to avoid. Never buy anything by the company “American Garden” which is supposedly located in New York, New York but everything tastes like, to mix metaphors, something made by HAL for Major Tom. Everything is in the correctly-shaped bottle with the right color and consistency but the mustard/ mayonnaise/ tomato sauce tastes like the makers saw people using the sauce in a movie but have no idea what the flavor should be. I think they have one non-toxic substance and when it is dehydrated and dyed taupe/beige/brown it is bread crumbs and when it is mixed with water and red dye it is ketchup, etc.

It’s also best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection – all the ice cream has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. No one here complains because they have never had normal ice cream – they think it’s supposed to have that consistency.  Of course with a company called “London Dairy,’ you aren’t much tempted anyways; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute. The Americans sigh at the cute little Ben & Jerry containers with mournful faces, tears glistening in the corners of our eyes, but we don’t dare take the plunge.

The vegetable section is pretty safe – you can pick your own produce or ask one of the helpers: just point and say how much you want in, all measurements in kilos. Some people make a huge fuss – bossing around the clerks, “No, not THAT watermelon, THIS watermelon.” I want to kick them in the shins. Sometimes what’s on display is not fresh, so if you ask for some, for example, apples, they will disappear into the back to get you apples from the most recent delivery.

You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant but things like carrots or large potatoes come and go. You can usually not find large onions (only shallots) but there are some new discoveries: jackfruit (yuck), that little fruit with black wiry hairs growing out of it which gives me nightmares, fresh lemongrass tired into bundles, various ‘gourds,’ bumpy cucumbers, locky (?) and aravi (?).

But despite the plethora of new and interesting vegetables and fruits, the biggest difference for me about shopping here is that it is very interactive. First, you need to check each product for the expiration date. I have bought all sorts of things from vinegar to sunflower oil to cake mixes to Pepsi, which were past the sell-by date. Things are put on the shelf and left until they sell. Sometimes in October you can find Valentine’s hearts the candy aisle.

Secondly, even if you only need two or three things, you should walk every aisle in the store as what’s on the shelves changes all time. You simply don’t know what will show up (garden gloves, windshield de-icer, hoisin sauce, mint plants) or what will disappear for months at a time (French’s mustard, Diet Coke, croutons, Swiss cheese). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro products, absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain, and then it will be gone forever. Also, given that few people who work in the store speak English, they can’t help you find things and will sometimes shelf things in odd places. No one knows the word ‘popcorn’ so you are on your own for finding that; when salsa appeared on the shelves a few years ago, it was usually mixed in with the spaghetti sauce. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle, and coconut milk is next to the salt.

So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has cheddar cheese arrived? You can’t rely on that what you saw before will ever be there again.

The constant flux has two effects. One is stockpiling. I make it a rule to never take ALL of anything, but I have been known to horde 10 cans of black beans and take most of the Bitter Lemons. The second is that over time you get a sense of what your friends like so there is a fair amount of calling and messaging friends to let X know that there’s root beer, Y know that there’s cherry yoghurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (it’s all rather first cuckoo sighting for the Times) about when candy canes show up in December.