The Magic of Oman
One of the hidden gems in the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is an enchanting place boasting rugged coastlines, a rich architectural heritage and vast deserts. I, however, fell in love with the region’s cuisine, which brought me back to the familiar flavors of my childhood in India and introduced new, exotic ingredients that I am excited to use in my own kitchen.
Situated at the intersection of Asian, African and European trade routes, the dishes of this small nation combine a number of these influences to create surprising flavors. These cultural influences all come together for ingredients and dishes that defy expectations of what Middle Eastern food can be. It is a food culture that is unlike anything in the Middle East.
My trip to Oman coincided with two national holidays. The first was the 75th birthday of the region’s beloved Sultan. Everywhere I turned I saw roads and cars decorated in his honor. The second, on November 18th, marked the anniversary of Oman’s independence from Portugal in 1650.
To commemorate these joyous occasions, I joined Salim and Amal, an Omani couple and the founders of a well-known catering company in Muscat called Dried Lemon. They were kind enough to invite me to a private foodie event they hosted at the opulent Shangri-La where I celebrated amidst food lovers from the area, indulging in an elaborate three-course menu featuring soup with succulent lamb with hints of dried lemons, marinated kingfish delicately seasoned with Omani spices, and lastly a deconstructed, mouthwatering Loomi Cheesecake with chef’s signature dried lemon cookies.
Inspired by their culinary passion, I devoted the rest of my trip to studying the foods of Oman. As I traveled and ate, I experienced familiar ingredients in exciting new ways. Cinnamon and cloves brought simple chicken to life; red hot pepper and turmeric added spice to seafood curry; even a stew of potatoes and green beans was accented with heaps of black pepper, tomato paste and coriander.
Most of these vibrant ingredients can be found in the Oman spice bazaars, which ooze intoxicating aromas from ingredients like loomi (dried lime) and cloves. While such ingredients are available all over Oman, they are used in different ways and with different proteins depending on the diverse terrain. In some areas, you’ll find chicken and mutton; in others fish. As a coastal country, the seafood in Oman is particularly amazing—my favorite is the dried and salted fish.
I started my gastronomic adventure in Muscat at Souk Matrah, the market’s narrow streets were lined with vendors selling everything from pashminas, hand carved arts, spices, nuts and sweets. It had an old-world feel with local salesmen beckoning me to purchase their wares as I lollygagged the afternoon away.
Next, I walked to Bait Al Luban, a traditional Omani restaurant near the port. At this lovely, humble Bait, I enjoyed a lunch of local specialties like Sahnat Qashe, sundried anchovies with ripe cherry tomatoes, Muradhaf, date bread and Samak Maqli, seasonal fisherman catch with garlic, fiery chilies, lemons, and earthy spices. I relaxed there in the majlis (seating area) that was strewn with cushions, taking in the breathtaking view of the mountains nearby.
From there I made my way to Qantab, an area close to Muscat, to Bait al Bilad. This fully restored village house is now home to a cooking school that offers Omani cooking classes on the beach.
One of the hidden gems in the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is an enchanting place boasting rugged coastlines, a rich architectural heritage and vast deserts.
The classes are taught by two local women, Fatima and Badriyah, with the help of a translator named Anna who is a gifted bridge between their food culture and my own. When it was time for my class, I learned how to prepare local specialties like Chicken Kabuli (chicken with rice) and Marak Samak, a coconut curry with Kingfish. I also prepared green beans in a tomato curry with traditional accompaniments of Raita (yogurt and cucumber salad) and Rokhal, a tasty flatbread.
Fatima and Badriyah were incredibly nurturing and patient as they walked me through how to make this paper-thin bread. I was enthralled by their dexterity—and even worried that I could not make the bread on my first try. But they made it look easy, skillfully taking the elastic dough, touching it to a searing hot pan and letting it crisp. With a paint chipper, they peeled it off. The bread was scalding. I wished my hands were heatproof like theirs.
After hours of cooking, I was finally able to feast on everything we had created together! As I savored each bite, I came to a new appreciation for the culinary traditions of this beautiful land and the proud women from the village that showed such dedication to authentic cooking. Sipping on a cup of Kahwa, Omani coffee, I noted the faint aroma of cardamom and breathed deeply. This was an experience I needed to bring home and share with others.
Born in India and raised in Atlanta, Chef Palak Patel grew up surrounded by traditional Indian cuisine. As her love of all things culinary expanded, she experimented with food, marrying the flavors of her native country with those of her adopted one. Her zest for travel further broadened her flavor palate as she globe-trotted, feasting on everything from local street food to la haute gastronomie. Palak shares these experiences as a TV personality, writer and one of the food industry’s newest and sassiest rising stars, gaining critical acclaim from victories in shows like Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay on Food Network. Palak also battled it out against 24 other seasoned chefs in the Sears Chef’s Challenge, winning $20,000 for the Los Angeles Food Bank. Palak has been a guest on multiple Food Network shows, Marie Claire’s The Fix and Bravo’s Blood, Sweat and Heels. She has been featured in Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and India Abroad, and is a regular food and travel contributor to Table Magazine. Palak also has partnered with high-profile brands such as BMW and Barclays to curate menus for large events, HelloFresh as a guest chef and Mashable about creating a personal brand. Learn more, and contact us to book Chef Palak Patel.