Foodways – Images of Galley Kitchens

All houses have one large kitchen for the household. However, sometimes a married couple will have their own, small kitchen as larger and newer houses may have small suites for each married son. This will usually consist of a bedroom with attached bathroom and a sitting room which might have a galley kitchen with a small sink and microwave so they can make tea and simple meals for themselves. Below is an example of a galley kitchen taken from a social media posting about a newly-wed’s room.

 

Foodways – Images of Interiors with Food: “We are Ready” and “Good Words”

In general, there are three times in which photos of house interiors are send out to friends, which are then sometimes forwarded on to general social media: newly-weds’ rooms, “we are ready” and “good words.”

Visiting other people’s houses is usually done between relatives and is almost always confined to the salle or majlis so sending out photos of the room prepared for newly-weds means that Dhofaris can share images of a room that normally only close relatives would see.

What I call “we are ready” photos show food that is prepared for a (birthday, graduation, promotion, received an award, special person visiting, etc.) party – this informs other people of a special event.

“Good words” images are commonly sent between friends and relatives in Dhofar. Some are images of flowers, nature (usually water or green trees/ fields), incense burners (as most Dhofaris burn frankincense (luban) in the house in the early morning and sunset), and/ or cups of Arabic coffee (qahwa). The texts can be a simple “good morning/ sabah al khair,” words of encouragement or a religious maxim.

All three types of images allow friends to see parts of the house that are usually not visible. If posted on social media, strangers can also see, but without knowing whose house it is so privacy is protected. The primary purpose is to increase bonds of friendship but these sorts of pictures can also be used to help gather design/ food preparation ideas. Home- and food-styling magazines are not common in Dhofar, so people use social media to get inspiration for their next party.

Examples of “good words”

 

 

 

Examples of “we are ready” photos

Foodways – Where to Eat: Kitchen, Salle, Majlis

As part of my Foodways in Southern Oman project, this is the one of several planned posts using photos with commentary to explain aspects of how food/ meals are cooked and served in the Dhofar region. Again, I would like to thank all of my Omani friends and informants who took and allowed me to use these photos. I am very grateful for your support of me and this project.

Many Omani families in Dhofar eat while sitting on the floor of the salle or majlis. When the food is ready and the person in charge of the meal has decided it is time to eat, instructions are given to lay the “table” (light plastic drop-cloth that comes in roll) and people will clear the area, moving toys if they are in the salle, brushing sand off the mat if on a picnic. The cook puts the dish on a platter and brings it to the eating place; everyone else grabs whatever is necessary such as Kleenex, limes, bottles of hot sauce or drinks and washes their hands.

Usually there is a round platter of rice and protein (camel, cow or goat meat, fish or chicken) in the middle and small plates with bread, salad or chutney set around it. Food such as rice is eaten with the right hand; bowls and spoons are used for soup, cut-up fruit, etc. If the food, for example baked vegetables, can’t be eaten by hand, a stack of plates are placed on the drop cloth and the woman in charge of cooking will ladle the food onto the places and pass them around.

Those who are eating gather in a circle around platters of food which are usually placed on the floor, with women bringing small children next to them to hand feed. Usually four to six people share one round platter, depending on its size. Men will either sit cross-legged or with one knee up and one tucked underneath them; women sit cross-legged or resting on one hip with legs to the side.

If there are guests, the men will eat in the majlis (the men’s sitting room); women will eat in the salle (the sitting room for women and close male relatives). Sometimes guests are put in the majlis alone, so they can “feel free” to eat as much as they want.

If the family eats at a table, there will usually be a glass and silverware at each setting, napkins/ Kleenex and a table cloth/ placemat on the table with a stack of plates in the middle or at one end where the platter of food will be placed. The cook or senior woman will serve up the plates which will be passed along the table.

When everything and everyone is in place, one of the senior people will say bismallah (in the name of God) and either start eating or begin putting food on plates. The others will say bismallah, signally that the meal has started and any food may now be consumed. 

When people are done, they say Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), stand up and wash their hands. The time for eating is devoted to eating; there is usually no drinking water, soda or fruit juice until the food is finished. Drinking is usually, like eating, done with concentration.

Although a separate dining room is rare, sometimes a dining table is set in the kitchen, salle, majlis or, if there is space, in the hall. Tables in the kitchen or hall are for people who live in the house or close friends and relatives.

Images of dining tables:

Foodways – Kitchens, General Discussion and Changes  

There is usually a lot of open space in kitchens. Sometimes there is a table, but often you can find an empty area in the middle of the room that is five feet square or larger. This is so a lot of women can work together for parties and also because some cooking is done on the floor. For example, large pots of meat are sometimes cooked on gas rings set on the floor because it is easier to stir from a standing position than trying to reach into a pot set on the stovetop. Some kinds of bread are cooked using small gas burners set on the floor.

Kitchens are utilitarian; pretty trays might be leaned against the back-splash or there might be a pretty vase to hold wooden spoons, etc., but kitchens are seldom decorated or set up as welcoming/ comforting spaces. As soon as you walk in, it’s easy to visually orient yourself; often the cupboards have glass fronts so you can see inside them.

Most families will have items for hosting in sight and easy-reach: several sets of teacups and saucers, tea and coffee pots, carafes, glass bowls or plates. There are usually several trays as almost all food and eating utensils, plates, cups, etc. are moved on trays. A platter of rice and meat might be carried by itself after having been prepped in the kitchen, but just as one always gives foodstuffs in a bag, one carries everything connected to eating on a tray – rarely by hand. Dishes for everyday use are usually Melamine or brands such as Luminarc or Corelle.

Stoves run on gas bought in heavy cylinders and placed (sometimes in little locked huts) outside the kitchen; a small hole is drilled through the wall for the pipe which connects the canister to the stove

Clean-up is done while cooking or as soon as the meal is finished. Dirty dishes and food are never left sitting on the counter for long. All dishes are cleaned and put away, the counter-top wiped down and floor swept; the garbage bin is usually covered and if mostly full might be put outside on the steps up to the kitchen.

Thus, for most of the time, the kitchen is empty and very clean. Dhofaris normally only go in the kitchen to supervise or cook before meals or to prepare dishes ahead of time for Ramadan/ Eids and to clean up afterwards.

As most houses have over 20 occupants from several generations, larger and newer houses may have small suites for each married son. This will usually consist of a bedroom with attached bathroom and a sitting room which might have a galley kitchen with a small sink and microwave so they can make tea and simple meals for themselves. Thus there will be one large kitchen for the house, with perhaps a few smaller kitchens for couples.

The smell of cooking food is not regarded as pleasing. The kitchen door is closed while cooking and the extractor fan is usually on full time. After eating in the salle/ majlis/ kitchen one must nullify the effect of food – dishes, kitchen, face, and hands washed, scent reapplied through air fresheners, incense, and/ or perfume.

A few changes in kitchens are that in the past the under-counter area was open, it is now always covered with doors. Also, the above-counter space is now usually filled with additional cupboards. Some newer kitchens have the stove integrated with the counters, not as a separate unit and/ or part of the counter projecting out into the middle of the room with stools on either side for casual dining.

Some features that have not changed are that drawers are not common and the counter (even in custom-designed kitchens) is placed much higher than waist-level. One explanation for the oddly high counters is that previously the cupboards underneath had doors made out of aluminum window frames with plastic (not glass) inserts so the counter had to be high enough to have the frames fit. Another is that with high counters, younger kids can’t reach anything on the counter. There are usually small plastic step stools around to help people work at the counters easily and reach the upper shelves, which can be open or closed cupboards with doors.

Foodways in Southern Oman – Images of Kitchens

As part of my Foodways in Southern Oman project, this is the first of several planned posts using photos with commentary to explain aspects of how food/ meals are cooked and served in the Dhofar region.

First, I would like to thank all of my Omani friends and informants who took and allowed me to use these photos. I am very grateful for your support of me and this project. [The photos of empty/ undecorated rooms are from either rental houses or houses that are for sale and the owner put the photos on social media.]

Overview – In general kitchen have tiled walls and floors (with a floor drain), high ceilings, a ceiling fan (but usually not AC), an extractor fan and florescent lighting. If there is a window (most often over the sink) it has opaque glass. There is often a door to the outside, which is not decorated as the front doors are.

As it is common to have twenty or more people (from different generations) in one house, kitchens are big enough to make large meals. Like most rooms in a Dhofari house, everything is placed around the sides of the room with an open space in the middle of the room or, sometimes, a table with chairs.

There is usually a lot of counter-space. Although I live an apartment built for one nuclear family, I have 24 feet of counter-space. In one house I lived in, there was 27 feet. Cupboards are built under the counters, with additional counters overhead, often with clear glass or plastic fronts. Accoutrements for entertaining (trays, tea and coffee cups and pots, thermoses, etc.) are always within sight and easy reach.

The refrigerator, stove and washing machine (if it is in the kitchen) are usually set up on a platform about 4 inches high. The below-counter cupboards are also set slightly above floor-level so that the floor can be cleaned by mopping/ sluicing.

two images of same kitchen – left: door to outside, extractor fan, window over double-sink, under-counter cupboards; above: door to the rest of house, fridge up on platform, tiled walls with decorative pattern, florescent light near door (and one on ceiling with fan) gas stove to right of sink

a more old-fashioned type of kitchen with all-over patterned tiles, no cupboard doors or dividers, window over double-sink
the small room to the left is a store-room for bulk foodstuffs and extra kitchen equipment

two other examples – left: note the hot water heater in upper left and clear fronted upper cupboards where tea/ coffee sets would be displayed (as in right photo) – the stoves integrated into the counter-top mark these as newer kitchens

Kitchens (and bathrooms) are set at different level than the rest of the house so that even in the tiles are the same color, the cement base is lower or higher. Left: threshold of kitchen looking towards hallway with 1 inch ‘ramp’ to the white tile border; right: same threshold looking into kitchen, note the ‘ramp’ is much higher (4 inches to 1 inch) so that the kitchen is 3 inches HIGHER than the rest of the house. Thus the kitchen can be cleaned by sluicing water with the raised white tile border acting as a dam so whatever is spilled in the kitchen stays in the kitchen. Kitchens can also be set lower than the house (I have been in one which was set three steps down).

Example of landing outside of kitchen door used to hold cleaning supplies.

Foodways in Southern Oman – Historical Sources

There are several historical sources about what and how people in the Dhofar region ate in the past; here I would like to highlight a few authors.                                                             

(the photo by Salwa Hubais is of bidah, the bulb from the white flower, gladiolus candidus, which is cooked and eaten)

 Bent, James. “Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia.” The Geographical Journal 6.2, 1895, 109-33.

Bent, James and Mabel Bent. Southern Arabia. London: Elibron, [1900] 2005.

Bent, Mabel. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Volume III: Deserts of Vast Eternity, Southern Arabia and Persia. Gerald Brisch, ed. London: Archaeopress, 2010.

Theodore and Mabel Bent were in the Dhofar region from December 20, 1893 until January 23, 1894. During their short stay, they traveled along the coast and a short distance in the mountains; I believe they are the first Westerners to visit the Dhofar mountains and write a description of it. In Southern Arabia (1900/ 2005), they recount that along the coast they saw coconut palms, “bright green fields,” “[t]obacco, cotton, Indian corn, and various species of grain” (233); as well as gardens with “the plantain, the papya, mulberries, melons, chilis, brinjols [eggplants], and fruits and vegetables of various descriptions” (234). During their journey through the mountains, they saw the still-used method of cooking meat on heated stones (250); plant-life including sycamores, acacia, jessamine, convolvulus, maidenhair ferns and fig trees (256); and describe how rice was eaten (275). They also met an elderly sheikh who had 500 head of cattle and 70 camels (250).

Thomas, Bertram. Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Jonathan Cape: London 1932. reprint.

In Arabia Felix (1932) Thomas recounts his journey across the Rub al Kahli (Empty Quarter) in the fall/ winter of 1930. His trip started in Salalah, so there are a few food references. For example, at the home of a prosperous merchant, he is given a meal of “beef grilled crisp and black, spaghetti drenched in tomato sauce, and slices of pineapple” (19). During a short trip in the mountains, he explains that the Gibali diet was milk, honey and beef (51) and that hyena, fox and “eggs, chicken and all manner of birds are under strict taboo” (59). He also discusses the custom of killing half of a man’s cows at his death (55-56).

Janzen, Jorg. Nomads in the Sultanate of Oman: Tradition and Development in Dhofar. London: Westview Press, 1986.

Janzen, who did his fieldwork from January to August 1977 and January to May 1978 (xxi), identifies nine bands of vegetation: the coastline belt, grassland of coastal plain, bush and tree vegetation of the foothills and escarpment, grassland of the lower and middle levels of the plateau, bush and tree vegetation of the mountain wadi area, grassland of the upper plateau, desert vegetation of the transition zone to the Nejd, desert vegetation of the Negd and sand desert vegetation (34-35). He notes that there “are many indications that the plateaus were once more thickly wooded than they are now” and that the “last stands of trees” on the coastal plain were cut down in the 1960s (35).

He discusses the traditional “monsoon-rain fields” in which millet and beans are grown along with cucumbers, tobacco, maize, “red” (chili) peppers, and tomatoes in the mountains (107, drawing 106, details of planting 108). In the mid-1950s, when diesel pumps could bring up water faster and cheaper than animal labor, crops included millet, wheat, maize, “watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplants, onions and peppers,” as well as bananas, papayas and coconuts (154). In the mid-1970s, the composition of plantations changed in that cereals were no longer sown given that corn and flour became easily available and that land was given over to fruits and vegetables which were in higher demand (154).

His book also includes important historical data such as balance of trade data for 1896 which lists the top six exports: incense, butter fat (samn), cotton, skins, latex, sharks’ fins; and top six imports: rice, sugar, cotton cloth, dates, coffee, wheat (47) and a chart on the “Movement of  Livestock Prices in Dhofar” for cattle, camels and goats with data from 1965-70, 1971-75 ad 1976-78, showing, for example, the cost of a milk cow as 40-100 OR in 1971-75 and 250-330 OR in 1976-78 (102).

bidah

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting about my ‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ project at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting

I will be presenting about my ‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ project at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November in the session: “Uncovering Truths, Building Responsibility in A Pandemic: Insights from Emerging Monographs at the Nexus of Culture, Food, and Agriculture.”

Cookbook, Coffee and and the “Omani Sandwich”

A few tidbits from my food research:

I recently found a cookbook about Omani food:

Al Maskiry, Fawziya Ali Khalifa. 2004. A Taste to Remember, 3rd edition. Muscat: Al Nahda Press. 

Al Maskiry states that her first edition (2005) was first cookbook in English published by an Omani. She has a practical approach to measurements, instead of the American system (cups), metric system or using weights, she uses “coffee cup” (the small, handle-less cup used for Arabic coffee, finjan), “tea cup” and “mug” in the recipes, with ml, flour ounce and sugar ounce equivalents at the beginning of the book (4).

 

I had socially distanced coffee with two friends a few days ago and after ten minutes, their cups were empty. I always forget this big cultural difference. When I have a cup of coffee it lasts at least half an hour, usually longer. When working, two cups last me about four hours. But most people from Arab countries approach coffee (and tea) drinking as serious business. The cups are smaller and ones focuses on getting the liquid down quickly, then it’s time to talk (or work).

Part of this difference is that Turks and Italians, for example, drink small cups of heavy/ thick coffee while North Americans normally drink bigger cups of weaker coffee. This has lead to the (ghastly) appearance of “Americanos” in coffee shops – an espresso with hot water added. This awful drink combines the worst of both worlds!

 

There is a cute new advertisement about “the Omani sandwich“:  bread with processed cheese spread and crushed spicy potato chips. People may argue about which type of bread to use (pita/ Lebanese or white bread, toasted) and which kind of cheese, but everyone agrees that it has to be Chips Oman!