When Felicia Campbell’s The Food of Oman landed on my stoop, I lit up. I’m a passionate cookbook lover, but I tire of the yawning sameness of many of the titles that cross my desk. I therefore applaud those publishers willing to back well-written and beautifully-researched books on niche culinary topics, even if the audience is a bit smaller. Quality over quantity! Quality over quantity! Always and forever.
So I sat down with The Food of Oman and read it cover to cover. Despite the fact that I myself lived in Eritrea, a country few Americans have ever heard of, I still needed help finding Oman on the map. Perhaps sensing our collective ignorance of this country of only 3.6 million people, Campbell orients us from the get-go.
South of Dubai, East of Saudi Arabia, North of Yemen, and across the gulf from Iran, Oman derives its culinary influences from its unique positioning at the nexus of historic Indian Ocean trade routes. This means Persian flavors, Indian flavors, and East African flavors exhibit strong sway, and as a result, yogurt shows up fairly often.
YOGURT'S ROLE IN OMANI CUISINE AND CULTURE
When we spoke, Campbell explained that the Omanis adopted the traditional foods of these other cultures – the Indian biryanis, tandoori dishes, and chutneys, for example – to suit their own palates. “The chutneys come from southern Oman,” she says, “from Dhofar Province." This region's foods are unique and therefore different from the food in the rest of Oman.
Omanis also drink yogurt, which is called laban. (Laban also happens to be the generic Arabic word for yogurt, but in Oman it refers specifically to the drinkable form.) “Laban is the essential beverage of the month of Ramadan,” Campbell explains. In fact, it’s one of “an army of drinks” Omanis use to break the daily sun-up to sun-down holy month of fasting. “Traditionally, they’ll start with a few dates and some water, and then they’ll ease into the meal with some yogurt drinks to coat the stomach and get it ready for solid food after fasting all day.”
In India, Campbell says, yogurt drinks may be flavored with spices, sugar, or salt, but Omanis tend to drink it plain. The exception? Strawberry-flavored laban is often served to Omani children. A few different companies make and bottle laban, and during Ramadan, Campbell says carts teem with six-packs of the creamy drink.
While olive oil is often present in certain parts of the Middle East, in Oman, almost every meal includes both a simple salad and a tub of locally made yogurt. (Olive oil is less common here, Campbell says.)
FELICIA CAMPBELL'S MIDDLE EASTERN BONA FIDES
Felicia Campbell has lived in Muscat, Oman’s capital, for only six months, but during the two years she spent researching and writing this book, she took about ten back-and-forth trips between Oman and the U.S. She finally relocated to Oman earlier this year to take over the magazine arm of The Times of Oman, the country’s oldest English language daily. She describes Muscat as very modern and filled with international restaurants and local souks alongside larger “hypermarkets.” The sizeable expatriate community hails from the Philippines, the UK, other parts of Europe, and South Asia.
And though her love for Oman is strong, and, relatively speaking, rather recent, Campbell is no stranger to the Middle East. She has traveled widely throughout Lebanon, Turkey, UAE (Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Dubai), Kuwait, Iraq, and Pakistan, and when she was just nineteen, she served for a year in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq. In 2011, she studied Arabic at the American University of Beirut and earned a Master’s degree in Food Studies with an emphasis on the Middle East through New York University.
A RECOMMENDED READ
Those of you interested in exploring world cuisines would do well to pick up a copy of The Food of Oman. It’s a glorious and deeply personal exploration of a country about which most of us know far too little.
|Try a recipe from The Food of Oman: Sayadiyah with Coconut Mint Yogurt Chutney.|
| Photograph of Ms. Campbell Courtesy of the author |