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Omanis are obsessed with food and, after a visit to the Arabian Peninsula, it’s easy to see why. The unusual ingredients and centuries-old traditions make eating local in Oman an unmissable culinary experience.
I had my first ever taste of camel milk on a hot morning in the sand-blasted wilderness of Oman’s Rub ‘al Khali (Empty Quarter). The milk, from a Bedouin camel breeder, was frothy, creamy, salty and sweet, but thankfully didn’t taste of fish. And why should it? You may well ask.
When the 14th-century Arabic explorer Ibn Battuta arrived on Oman’s Dhofar coast, he remarked at the vast numbers of sardines and how the Omanis fed them to their camels during arduous journeys through the hostile Empty Quarter.
Feeding fish to herbivores is unusual, and articulated lorries have long since replaced camel-trains, so I was surprised to find that camels are still big business in Dhofar, and their diet still has a sardine supplement.
The dried fish, the camel breeder explained, encourages the animals to produce more milk as he urged me to drink more from his warm tin pan, implying it would help my breeding potential.
Sardine-eating camels are just one example of how little life in the oldest independent Arab state has changed. Its Dhofar governate on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsular is one of the country’s most undiluted regions in terms of traditional culture.
Dhofar has recently been earmarked as a tourist hotspot, thanks to mile upon mile of pristine beaches and the Khareef, the region’s extraordinary mid-summer monsoon. For six weeks from the end of July, while the rest of the Arab world broils with extreme heat, a blanket of cool drizzle settles over the coast here, turning the landscape green.
But we have enough drizzle of our own in Europe, so I was there for the winter sun and to investigate the new breed of lip-smackingly luxurious hotels colonising these shores.
Although the hotels would prefer visitors stayed and ate at their restaurants, I would add Dhofar’s unique local cuisine to your list of cultural attractions. Not so much for the food itself, but for experience that comes with it.
With the help of a guide, I travelled along the coast, through banana belts and coconut plantations where spring water gurgles through irrigation channels. A lot of the labour in these plantations comes from India and Pakistan, and kerbside kiosks serve delicate glasses of sweet cardamom-scented tea, chai karak, along with fresh crisp pancakes or dosai, with cheese or honey.
Nor have Ibn Battuta’s sardines gone away. My first sight of them was when I spotted the catch had been laid out to dry in glittering stinky strips, under taut anti-bird strings that hummed in the wind.
You can buy 17 freshly caught fish in Salalah’s market for a dollar and, in accordance with local tradition, I took my haul to a grill house around the corner, only managing to eat five and giving the rest away.
Sardines are still big business for the fishermen in Fazayah, southwest of Salalah, where the coast rises up in rolling ridges of rock, like an Omani Big Sur.
These fishermen were seated in the shade cooking a leisurely lunch, but when I asked what was in the pot, it turned out that they weren’t interested in eating their own catch. Their fish, they explained, had already all been loaded into refrigerated trucks for the long drive around the edges of the Empty Quarter to the restaurants of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, 11 hours away.
Instead they were stewing camel meat, as beachcombing dromedaries looked on, blissfully unaware their cousin was in the pot.
My last local meal was in a humble, unnamed restaurant in Salalah’s port, where the fishing boats came in. The decor may have been plastic, but the menu of grouper, king fish, and cuttlefish was first class and the price ridiculously low.
Paying extra for plastic spoons seems to be the only thing that’s changed since Ibn Battuta’s day, with the Dhofar coast still very much a slice of Arabia as it used to be.