I am so pleased that Salwa Hubais has kindly agreed to let me use some of her photos to illustrate aspects of foodways in Dhofar, Oman. I love her style because she portrays everyday drinks, snacks, and meals in an innovative and stylish manner. When I started working on issues of food and cultures about a year and a half ago, I wanted to explore what Dhofari Omanis typically ate with family, relatives and friends and this is what Salwa does: she finds the extraordinary beauty in ordinary objects.
actions were portrayed in a positive light and that they warned against practices that
placed restrictions on women, such as, choice of husband. Artists’ viewpoints in their
work and during discussions confirmed these findings and revealed particular concern
around continuation into the present of socio-cultural practices that would limit women
and place them in difficult situations. Further research into linkages between different art modalities in relation to folk tales would be instructive.
Bsisu, May. (2005). The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions. New York: William Morrow.
For years, I had only one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, a present from my mother. But after I started to do research on foodways in Southern Arabia, I began to buy cookbooks to learn more about Arabic foodways in general and to compare and contrast with Dhofari foodways. My areas of interest are how “the Arab table” can have various meanings in various locations and what those meanings might be in Dhofar.
My favorite cookbook so far is May Bsisu’s The Arab Table (2005). She is so generous and comprehensive; she lived in several countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, England and the United States so she knows several food traditions and the difficulties of cooking “home” food in a new land. She includes data about which plants grow where (e.g. 252) and recipes for non-Muslim celebrations (299, 303, 345). The photos are gorgeous, the recipes are clearly written and she always gives hints, substitutions and information about where to get ingredients. I wish I had someone who would cook the delicious dishes for me!
I am reading it for cultural data, trying to catch the moments of surprise then exploring and articulating the variances, such as the difference between Bsisu’s threed/ thareed recipe (188, a platter layered with bread covered with sauce, then rice, then chicken and finished with a garnish) and how it is made in Salalah (a soup to which pieces of dried bread is added). Her chicken schwarma recipe (190) calls for pieces, not slices, of chicken. She has Um Khalid (331); in Dhofar the bread-pudding dessert is called Um Ali.
She describes specific foods for New Year’s which indicate happiness (322), something I have not found here. In asking about ‘performative’ food, i.e. food that brings about a change such as good luck, my informants say that is not part of Dhofari cultures, although there are foods for physical changes such as to lose or gain weight. She also discusses foods, such as raw meat (225) and certain cheeses (16), which are not eaten here.
Other difference are that many recipes require a specific cooking environment such as accessories not easily found in Dhofar (especially in 2005 when the book was published, for example fleece blankets 220), the implication that meat is bought from butchers who will prepare meat as requested (207), and the implied need for a fully out-fitted kitchen with spice-grinder, food processor, sauce-boats, plates to invert dishes on, etc.
Thus reading The Arab Table is fun on several levels. First there are great recipes and also I can see how not just the food choices, but the expectations of serving food, vary greatly between cultures. For example, Bsisu discusses putting things of “each guest’s plate” (188) and setting up various “table” or “stations” for dinners (264-6) whereas in Dhofar, almost every main dish is eaten communally and guests sit in one location unless it is a large wedding party with a buffet.
At a party in a private home, there might be a table with desserts, but guests do not choose for themselves. A plate is made up and brought to them. At an Omani wedding party once, the hostess told me that she would bring a plate for me. I told her not to bother and got up and took sweets for myself. Later I realized how rude I had been, to deny her the chance to take care of a guest and to possibly allow others to judge her as not being an attentive hostess, to let a clearly foreign woman fend for herself.
The Arab Table is an excellent, thorough, big-hearted overview of Arab cooking.
(photo above is from social media, I didn’t want to take images from her book without permission)
A lovely poem by a wonderful poet. (complete image is below)
It was never too strong for us:
make it blacker, Papa,
thick in the bottom,
tell again how the years will gather
in small white cups,
how luck lives in a spot of grounds.
Leaning over the stove, he let it
boil to the top, and down again.
Two times. No sugar in his pot.
And the place where men and women
break off from one another
was not present in that room.
The hundred disappointments,
fire swallowing olive-wood beads
at the warehouse, and the dreams
tucked like pocket handkerchiefs
into each day, took their places
on the table, near the half-empty
dish of corn. And none was
more important than the others,
and all were guests. When
he carried the tray into the room,
high and balanced in his hands,
it was an offering to all of them,
stay, be seated, follow the talk
wherever it goes. The coffee was
the center of the flower.
Like clothes on a line saying
You will live long enough to wear me,
a motion of faith. There is this,
and there is more.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. (2002). Arabic Coffee. Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Now Classroom. http://www.pbs.org/now/arts/nyepoems2.html
The monsoon season (finally) started yesterday so, in celebration, I went for the first time to a small, cute shop which sells food made by a local woman. I had driven by and seen it but never gone in. With the drizzle coming down at a steady pace, I decided to have a small party, support women who are selling food, and, of course, continue my food research!
As I viewed the sandwiches, cooked food and cakes on display, I discussed the food in a mixture of Arabic and English with the expat man who was working. “Is this strawberry cake?” I asked, pointing to a cake with a pink layer of what looked like jam. He said yes. I repeated the question in Arabic to make sure, then moved on, “Is this cake with coffee flavor? Is this chicken? Is the chicken spicy or normal?” etc. I bought a selection of things, went home and produced them for my guests: this is non-spicy chicken, this is strawberry cake, this is coffee cake.
Wrong. All of it wrong. The chicken was fiery hot, it wasn’t strawberry and the brown cake was ‘Lotus’ flavored, not coffee. Sigh. Last week it was at KFC, I ordered 4 chicken strips and Dew with ice; I got someone else’s order and was told that the Dew, which had no ice, has “ice inside.” Sigh. In these kinds of example, it’s a mixture of linguistics and culture. I would not think of a ‘biscuit-flavored cake’; a white cake with medium brown frosting looks like ‘coffee’ to me. ‘Ice’ to me is cubes the size of cherry tomatoes, not that the soda is cold.
Sometimes it is an issue of what you ask for is not what you get but sometimes it’s a visual and cultural problem, as in the photo above – I enlarged that photo several times, tilting my head, thinking “WHAT is that in the little bowl?” Finally I decided it was walnuts and date maamoul (dates with spices cooked into a paste, surrounded by a heavy sugar cookie dough and baked). I don’t think of walnuts as breakfast food so I had to wait until my eyes could “see” them. Several times I have seen shallow bowls of dates and assumed it was pieces of meat and vice versa. One trick I learned is that if there is a coffee dallah (traditional Arabian coffee pot) it is dates; if there are cups of tea, it is probably meat. [Or in the above photo, the piece of wood doesn’t look like what I expect ‘camp fire wood’ to look like: it’s dark, full of holes, almost insubstantial looking. But from camping in the desert, I know this is typical of wood you can find or buy and it serves as a marker, “we are very far from town.”]
There is another level of difficulties: seeing various food items and not understanding how they fit together. A friend remembers being in a grocery store with me when we were in grad school. As we came around the corner of an aisle and the end cap had: cans of tuna, cans of peas, cans of sliced mushrooms, egg noodles, salt and canned cream of mushroom soup. I looked at her and said how this combination of food was a culturally-bound signifier of middle-class American in middle America, an implied recipe without stated recipe. Everyone who saw that display would know that all these items should be bought and cooked together to create a tuna casserole. But someone from outside that culture would see a collection of disparate items. Such as the photo below: chips, processed cheese and bread. This might be read as “put cheese on bread and eat with chips.” But Omanis know, you open the bag a little then crush the chips. Put cheese on bread, sprinkle on chip fragments and then roll up into a tube.
Eating begins with the eyes and everyone sees food through their cultures, upbringing and experiences. Learning to see again, see new, and re-see is a long process that I am still in the middle of.
Most writing and visuals about food in the Middle East concentrate on one of four topics: food memories connected to loss (e.g. cookbook memoir of displaced people), food scarcity (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 in the often not-seen, not-discussed topic of everyday food: what is procured, produced, cooked, eaten, shared and disposed of by Omanis who have neither an insufficiency nor a super-abundance of food. These short essays on cooking/ food in Dhofar 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 people from different countries who live in Dhofar with their own food traditions). For more details, see: Foodways and Society in Dhofar, Oman
Drinks – offered by waitresses/ groom’s relatives
- Coffee (qahwa/ Arabic or Nescafe/ instant)
- Juice, fresh or bottled
- Laban (also spelled Leben; in English, buttermilk)
- Tea (“red” [chai ahmar] black tea with only sugar added, “milk” [chai haleeb] black tea with canned milk and sugar, or karak is loose tea with spices and canned milk)
Snacks offered before dinner
- Finger food such as mini-pizzas, spring rolls (filled with vegetables or cheese)
- Fruit – Bananas, Grapes, Oranges, Watermelon or chopped as a salad
- “Sweets” – see below
Meals – at a rented house or hall, usually served 8pm – 2am, after the bride has arrived
- appetizer selections: hummus, fattoush, baba ghanoush, etc., with pita bread
- rice and meat – usually qabooli, rarely/ never chicken or fish
Meal – at the bride’s house if she will be taken directly to the groom’s house or a hotel, usually served anytime from 5pm – 11pm
- rice and meat – usually qabooli, rarely/ never chicken or fish – served with side salad and sauce, extra rice and meta is distributed to neighbors and relatives
- Basbousa (usually flavored with coconut)
- Cheesecake (either slices or mini individual ones)
- Creme Caramel
- Custard مهلبية
- Dumplings (stuffed with cheese, soaked in lemon and sugar syrup with cinnamon)
- Halwa (the Arabic word for sweet), Omani specialty made with sugar, water, clarified butter, cornstarch and flavorings such as cardamom, saffron, sesame seeds, almonds and cashews. Served with a thin, plain cracker-like bread (khoubz raqaq/ raqeeq or kak)
- Kanafeh/ Kunafa
- Luqaymat/ Loqeemat/ Loukoumades لقيمات/ لقمة القاضي (sweet dumplings dipped in sugar syrup)
- Pancakeخبز حوح
- Swiss Roll
- “Traditional Sweet” (pita bread soaked in milk and sugar and cardamom).
- Dream Whip
Typical Foodways at Wedding Celebrations
The party for men is usually held on a Saturday (second day of the weekend) morning; it is best if the date is close to the end of the month, after the salary has arrived. The groom’s family will usually arrange a marquee near their house, near a mosque or at a space outside of town. The marquee will be rented for the day and be furnished with rugs and chairs, arranged in a circle. Sometimes there is a secondary tent to the side where the food is prepared. In many Dhofari tribes, the brothers, close friends and cousins of the groom will usually butcher the camels/ cows the night before, or very early in the morning; some meat is then distributed to close relatives and the rest given to restaurant workers to cook. The quantity of food shows the respect for the guests. No one is expecting (or would like) a new recipe or dishes. The two most important components are tea and meat with rice; Omani coffee, Omani sweet (halwa), fruit, soft drinks, water, salad are also served. Brothers and close friends come and go but there is always a core group next to the groom, i.e. he is never without a good friend and a brother or cousin to keep him company and help with the guests. The event ends at the ‘asr (mid afternoon) prayer when all the guests and the groom leave.
Sometimes the bride’s party will be quite simple. The bride’s friends and sisters help her get ready at home and serve dinner to female relatives and friends, while male relatives sit with her brothers and father outside the house or in a nearby relative’s house.
Then the bride is brought to the groom’s house by her relatives in a procession of cars. The groom’s sisters and her sisters take her to her new room. Her sisters help arrange her; then the bride’s female relatives come in to see the room and the groom’s female relatives come in to see the bride. She usually does not speak, and never smiles in keeping with the expected cultural ideal that she is “shy,” sad to leave her parents. Sometimes items bought with the mahar and gifts, especially of gold and perfume from friends and relatives, are put on display in the room.
The groom’s family gives the bride’s relatives dinner in the salle and majlis or in an open space near the house, then the bride’s family leaves except for the bride’s mother and/ or a close (older/ already married) sister or aunt. Then the groom, usually carrying a gun as a symbol of his ability to protect her, and his father will come into the room where her mom and (perhaps) sisters are sitting with her. After a short ice-breaker sort of conversation (the bride does not speak), everyone leaves the bride and groom alone.
A more elaborate wedding will be celebrated at a hotel or “hall,” basically an big empty enclosed space. Sometimes this is an issue of wealth but it also happens when there is more than one wedding (e.g. two brothers marrying), or if the bride and groom are from different tribes. In this kind of wedding, the women are invited by phone and sometimes given a ‘card’ for entrance by the groom’s family (who are paying for the event).
Close female relatives of the bride and of the groom show up in finery – often shimmering dresses they have designed themselves. They start to gather about 7 or 8pm; finger-food, sweets and drinks are passed around by waitresses. There is usually water, fruit and maybe snacks laid out on the tables, but no name cards – people sit where they like. The bride makes a triumphal entrance (think the fan fare from 2001: A Space Odyssey) late in the evening, perhaps 12 or even 1am. The main meal is usually served after the bride arrives. Then, with the bride seated on a sofa on the elevated stage, various women dance for her in an open space in front of her or on the elevated stage. At the end of the event, the bride will be brought in a procession of cars to the groom’s house, or the groom might actually come into the room (a very new innovation) and escort her out.
(image from Instagram account of Tiny Spoon, tiny_spoon, full image below)
Food Practices in Southern Oman – My current research focuses on food practices in the Dhofar region, specifically how food is used to show personal generosity and how eating together defines and enhances social relationships.
[this post reflects my current reading – the permanent link for my updated food/ culture bibliography is: Selected References for Research on Foodways and Society in Dhofar]
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Appaduari, Arjun. (1985). Gratitude as a Social Mode in South India. Ethos 13.3: 236-245.
Boxhall, P. G. 1966. Socotra: ‘Island of Bliss’. The Geographical Journal 132.2: 213-222.
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Campbell, Felicia. (2015). The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia. London: Andrew McMeel.
Clements, Frank. (1977). The Islands of Kuria Muria: A Civil Aid Project in the Sultanate of Oman Administered from Salalah, Regional Capital of Dhofar. Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 4.1: 37-39.
Cleveland, Ray. (1960). The 1960 American Archaeological Expedition to Dhofar. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 159: 14-26.
Ciezadlo, Annia. (2011, April 25). Eat, Drink, Protest: Stories of the Middle East’s Hungry Rumblings: Buying Peace, One Feast at a Time. Foreign Policy 186. https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/04/25/eat-drink-protest/
—. (2011, March 15). Eating My Way Through the Cedar Revolution (excerpt). Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/03/15/eating-my-way-through-the-cedar-revolution-2/
Coleman, Leo, ed. (2012). Food: Ethnographic Encounters (Encounters: Experience and Anthropological Knowledge). Oxford: Berg.
Counihan, Carole and Penny van Esterik, eds. (2012). Food and Culture: A Reader. London: Routledge.
Crowther, Gillian. (2018). Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. Toronto Press: University of Toronto Press.
De Regt, Marina. (2010). Ways to Come, Ways to Leave: Gender, Mobility, and Il/legality among Ethiopian Domestic Workers in Yemen. Gender and Society 24.2: 237-260.
—. (2009). Preferences and Prejudices: Employers’ Views on Domestic Workers in the Republic of Yemen. Signs 34.3: 559-581.
Deeb, Lara and Jessica Winegar. (2012). Anthropologies of Arab-Majority Societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 537-558.
Elie, Serge. (2006). Soqotra: South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33.2: 131-160.
Ferguson, Priscilla. (2011). The Senses of Taste. American Historical Review 116.2: 371-384.
Fieldhouse, Paul. (1998). Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture. Cheltenham, UK: Stanley Thomas.
Fisher, Jennifer. (2003-2004). “Arabian Coffee” in the Land of Sweets. Dance Research Journal 35.2: 146-163.
Fox, Robin. (2018). Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. Social Issues Research Centre. http://www.sirc.org/publik/foxfood.pdf
Gilette, Maris. (2019). Muslim Foodways, in The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. Jakob Klein and James Watson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 48-73.
Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine and Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Julier, Alice. (2013). Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2013.
—. (2013). Meals: ‘Eating In’ and ‘Eating Out’ in The Handbook of Food Research. Anne Murcott, Warren Belasco and Peter Jackson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Julier, Alice and Lindenfeld. (2005). Mapping Men onto the Menu: Masculinities and Food. Food & Foodways, 13:1–16.
Jurafsky, Dan. (2014). The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York: W. W. Norton.
Klein, Jakob and James Watson, eds. (2019). The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Lichfield, Gideon. (2010, January 15). A Look Inside the Middle East’s New Weapons of Mass Consumption. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/01/15/food-fight-4/
Maclagan, Ianthe. (1994). Food and Gender in a Yemeni Community, in A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, eds. New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers. 159-72
Mauss, Marcel. (2011/ 1924). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Mansfield Centre, CA: Martino Publishing.
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Meneley, Anne. (2007). Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-De-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks. Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 214–243.
Miller, Anthony, Miranda Morris, and Susanna Stuart-Smith. (1988). Plants of Dhofar, the Southern Region of Oman: Traditional, Economic, and Medicinal Uses. Muscat: Office of the Adviser for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of Royal Court.
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Mintz, Sidney, and Du Bois, Christine. (2002). The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:99-119.
Morris, Miranda. (1997). The Harvesting of Frankincense in Dhofar, Oman. In Alessandra Avanzini, ed. Profumi d’Arabia. Rome: L’Erma Bretschneider: 231-250.
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Rubin, Aaron. (2015). Recent Developments in Jibbali. Journal of Semitic Studies 60: 431–441.
Sadeghin, Farideh. (2015, Oct. 27). The Food of Oman is Too Good to Ignore: Recipe-testing a Middle Eastern Cookbook Gives our Test Kitchen Director a New Love for an Under-appreciated Cuisine. Saveur. https://www.saveur.com/food-of-oman-cookbook-cuisine-felicia-campbell
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van Esterik, Penny, Alice Julier and Carole Counihan, eds. (2018). Food and Culture: A Reader. London: Routledge.
Watson, Janet C.E. (2013). Travel to Mecca in the Pre-motorized Period in The Hajj: Collected Essays. Venetia Porter and Liana Saif, eds. London: The British Museum. 96–99.
Watson, Janet C.E. & Abdullah al-Mahri. (2017). Language and Nature in Dhofar, in RiCOGNIZIONI. Rivisti di Lingue e Letterature straniere e Culture moderne. Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparini, eds. Turin: University of Turin. 87–103.
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Weir, Shelagh. (2007). A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Yamani, Mai. (2000). You Are What You Cook” Cuisine and Class in Mecca in A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, eds. New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers. 159-72.
Blogs – Omani Food
Mariya. Omani Food. https://omanifood24.blogspot.com/
Omani Recipes. (2015). Arabic Recipes. http://www.encyclopediacooking.com/recipes_in_english/omani-recipes-53-1.html
Traditional Omani Food. (2008, March 1). https://ward-traditionalomanifood.blogspot.com/
Yasmeen. (2018). Omani Cuisine. http://www.omanicuisine.com/
Websites – Expat, Tourist and Commercial
The Delicious Cuisine of Oman! (n. d.). Holidify. https://www.holidify.com/pages/omani-food-230.html
Food and Drink – About Oman. (2018). Rough Guides. https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/middle-east/oman/food-drink/
Guide to Omani Cuisine. (2017, June 14). Expat Woman.com. https://www.expatwoman.com/oman/guide/guide-to-omani-cuisine
Medhat, Gehad. (2017, Dec, 27). The 10 Best Coffee and Tea Shops in Salalah, Oman. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/salalah/food-misc/
Medhat, Gehad. (2017, Dec, 27). The Top Restaurants in Salalah, Oman. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/articles/the-top-restaurants-in-salalah-oman/
Oman. (2018). Countries and Their Cultures. http://www.everyculture.com/No-Sa/Oman.html
Omani Food. (2015). Best Country. http://www.best-country.com/asia/oman/food
Omani recipes and cuisine. (2018). Nestle. http://www.nestle-family.com/english/omani-recipes.aspx
Popp, Georg. (2018). Notes on the Omani Kitchen Eating with Tradition. Just Landed. https://www.justlanded.com/english/Oman/Articles/Culture/Notes-on-the-Omani-Kitchen
(image from Instagram account: Tiny Spoon)