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Food and drink in Oman and the UAE | Insight Guides Blog

Food and drink in Oman and the UAE

The UAE and Oman provide an eclectic crucible of Arabian, Indian and European culinary traditions. Here, our local experts guide you through the most delicious dishes to savour on your trip
Omani food
Omani food

A sample of Omani food. Photo: Shutterstock


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The Gulf stands at something of a culinary crossroads, midway between the classic Middle Eastern cuisines of the Levant to the west and the spicier cooking of the Indian subcontinent to the east, with a dash of Iranian and European influences thrown in for good measure. Both Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines are both well represented throughout the region, as are a range of other global cooking styles, although traditional Emirati and Omani remain considerably more elusive.

Ingredients and influences

Given its largely hostile climate, food production in the UAE and Oman has traditionally been limited, with nutrition usually at subsistence levels and based around readily available foodstuffs like dates and fish. Fish was particularly important around the coast (and was also dried and sent up into the mountains both for human and animal consumption), while inland there was a heavy reliance on the ubiquitous date – an unusually rich, concentrated and durable source of food (which was perfectly suited to the nomadic Bedu lifestyle), supplemented by simple flatbreads cooked over campfires and considerable quantities of coffee. Roasted meat – wild oryx and other animals – was eaten when available, although it was usually something of an uncommon luxury, and the hunting of such animals remained a difficult and highly prized skill amongst the Bedu, at least until the advent of 4x4s and semi-automatic machine-guns. Camels were also occasionally slaughtered and eaten on important occasions (camel remains a popular food in Dhofar to this day). Bananas, papayas, mangoes and citrus fruits were also cultivated, while the cooler heights of the Jebel Akhdar produced a supply of temperate produce – peaches, pears, grapes, apples and pomegranates, along with a wide range of vegetables and the area’s famous rosewater. Such foodstuffs remained scant, however, and by and large, the region had neither the wealth nor the natural produce to allow the development of a classical cuisine like that of North India, Iran or the Turkish Ottomans.

External influences brought to the coast by merchant dhows or overland by trading caravan introduced new outside elements: spices from India became an established feature in Gulf cooking, while dishes were adopted from the cuisines of other countries around the Gulf, Iran, the subcontinent and, of course, the Arab lands around the Mediterranean to the west.

Traditional regional cooking

Traditional Gulf cuisine is poorly represented in restaurants, although a few establishments are doing their best to revive local culinary traditions, such as the Bin Ateeq chain in Oman along with places like Kargeen and Ubhar in Muscat and the Khan Murjan Restaurant in Dubai.

Regional Emirati and Omani cuisine provides an interesting, lightly spiced blend of Indian and Arabian cooking traditions, most of them centred on biryani-style baked rice and meat concoctions – local offshoots of the better-known Indian biryani or Iranian polo.

Local variants include dishes like fouga (a kind of Emirati-style chicken biryani) and goboli (rice cooked with lamb, spices, onions and raisins). Other similar biryani-style dishes you may encounter (particularly in Oman) include the Afghan-style kabuli (or qabooli), the Saudi
kabsa (also known as maqboos or machbus) and the Yemeni mandi. In theory, each of these regional variants has its own distinct character and style of preparation, although it’s difficult to generalise.

Other old-fashioned recipes include harees laham (lamb with wheat in cow ghee); shuwa (slow-roasted meat cooked in a clay oven, like the classic Yemeni mandi); mashuai (whole spit-roasted kingfish served with lemon rice); and marak (traditional vegetable curry), although these rarely make their way onto restaurant menus.

Chicken (dijaj) remains the staple ingredient in most biryanis, kebabs and curries, although various other types of meat are also available going under the name laham (literally “meat”), which usually means beef or lamb, but might also conceivably mean goat or (in Salalah) camel.
There’s lots of top-quality fish available along the Omani coast, although to see it done justice you’ll have to shell out for a meal at one of Muscat’s upmarket seafood restaurants – or go to Dubai, which is where a lot of the catch ends up. The local kingfish (kenadh), shark (qersh al samak) and lobster (sharkha) are particularly good, as is the ubiquitous hammour (grouper), a versatile white fish which can be found on menus across the region.


Freshly made Omani halwa - a traditional dessert in decorative wooden boxes. Photo: ShutterstockFreshly made Omani halwa: a traditional dessert in decorative wooden boxes. Photo: Shutterstock

 

Middle Eastern cuisine

Mainstream Middle Eastern cuisine – often referred to as “Lebanese” (although “Levantine” might be a more accurate description) – is widely found throughout both the UAE and Oman. Many of the most typical dishes originated in the countries of the Levant, around the eastern end of Mediterranean, during the Ottoman period.

The classic Middle Eastern meal always opens with a selection of meze – small dishes, shared amongst a group of diners, rather like Spanish tapas. Many of these have established themselves in mainstream world cuisine – bowls of olives, along with hummus, falafel and tabouleh. Others remains less well known outside the region, including classics such as fattoush (a type of salad with toasted bread), kibbeh (deep-fried lamb balls mixed with cracked wheat), fatayer (triangular pastries filled with cheese or spinach), as well as dips such as foul madamas and baba ghanouj (made from fava beans and eggplant respectively, blended with lemon juice, oil, chilli and garlic).

Grilled meats, or kebabs, form the basis of more substantial dishes. Easily the most common form of Arabian food is the ubiquitous shwarma – spit-roasted chicken and/or beef carved off and served wrapped in bread with salads – the Gulf version of the doner kebab (also served laid out on a piece of bread on a plate with chips and salad – the so-called “shwarma plate”). You’ll never go far in the Gulf without seeing a local shwarma café, with dripping haunches of meat enveloped in clouds of temptingly flavoursome smoke. Other common dishes include the Lebanese shish taouk (chicken kebabs served with garlic sauce) and Turkish-style kofte kebabs. Most kebabs are served with Arabian-style flatbread (khubz) and a bowl of hummus and accompanying salad.

Lebanese food can be found across the region, from humble cafés in backwater Oman and the UAE through to glitzy establishments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – more upscale places often double as impromptu party venues, with live music and the ubiquitous belly-dancer, often not getting going until past 11pm, and then cracking on until the small hours.

Subcontinental spices

Indian food, in one form or another, forms the mainstay of modern Gulf cuisine – a result of both long-standing historic links between the two regions and the presence of huge numbers of subcontinental expats in the region. In the major cities, upmarket restaurants offer superb renditions of classic North Indian dishes, on a par with anything you’ll find in the West (or, indeed, in India itself) – Indego by Vineet and Nina’s in Dubai offer particularly good and innovative contemporary Indian cooking, while the much-loved Mumtaz Mahal in Muscat can’t be beaten for traditional classics in a relaxed atmosphere. For a true taste of Gulf-style Indian food, nothing beats a visit to one of the downmarket – but often surprisingly excellent – Indian and Pakistani cafés, which cram the streets of Bur Dubai in Dubai or Ruwi in Muscat, offering a wide range of dishes stretching from classic North Indian Punjabi and Mughlai dishes through to feisty South Indian masala dosas, uttapam and thalis.

Elsewhere, a kind of low-grade pseudo-Indian style of cooking remains the staple of down-at-heel cafés across both the UAE and, especially, Oman, featuring ubiquitous biryanis and other Indian- or Pakistani-style chicken or mutton curries – although these bear little relation to the food served up in the West, or, indeed, in the sub-continent itself.

International influences

Many of the cities of the modern Gulf now boast surprisingly exalted culinary credentials. Dubai, in particular, has established itself as the Middle East’s major culinary hotspot, attracting celebrity chefs ranging from Pierre Gagnaire, Giorgio Locatelli and the late Santi Santamaria to Sanjay Kapoor and Vineet Bhatia, India’s first-ever Michelin-starred chef. Abu Dhabi and Muscat also boast a fair roster of top chefs, mainly based at the restaurants of top-end hotels such as the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and the Al Bustan, Shangri-La and Grand Hyatt hotels in Muscat.

Thai and Chinese restaurants have also made considerable inroads into the local dining scene in the major cities, although the style of Chinese cuisine served up in many places is a hybridised Indo-Sino style of cuisine, with rather more spice than is authentic. Dubai is also particularly good for Iranian food (evidence of the city’s long-standing links with that country), featuring hearty chelo kebabs and polos (Iranian-style biryanis, traditional featuring slow-cooked meats leavened with saffron and barberries). Moroccan food can also be found throughout the main cities of the region, with signature dishes including the classic spicy harira soup, pastilla (pigeon pie) and various tagines and couscous dishes.

Fast-food outlets have made inevitable inroads into the region, and branches of McDonald’s, Subway, Domino’s Pizza and suchlike are now pretty much everywhere. For a more rewarding take on local fast food, look out for branches of the Lebanese Zaatar w Zeit chain, with outlets across Dubai and Abu Dhabi, offering fast-food Lebanese-style cuisine, including the classic Lebanese manakish (a kind of Middle Eastern-style pizza served with thyme, yoghurt and cheese).


Omani man in traditional clothing posing with his prized weapon while drinking arabic coffee. Photo: ShutterstockArabic coffee is a must-try while you're travelling through the region. Photo: Shutterstock


Desserts

No traditional meal in Oman would be complete without a portion of halwa, the rather sickly dessert that has become something of a national dish, and which can be seen piled up in china bowls and plastic tubs in shops and souks across the country. Halwa is made in a wide range of different styles, across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Omani halwa is wheat-based, which gives it a quite different taste and texture to the nut-based halwas found in Eastern Europe, Greece and Turkey, made from a mix of semolina, ghee (clarified butter), sugar and rosewater, flavoured with cardamom and almonds and slow-boiled over a wood fire.

Umm Ali, a sweet Arabian-style bread pudding, is another favourite dessert, while you might also come across lokhemat – deep-fried balls of flour flavoured with cardamom and served with lime and cardamom syrup.

Drinks and shisha

Coffee remains central to life in the UAE and Oman – not just a drink, but a kind of social adhesive that oils the wheels of traditional hospitality, performed according to the traditional coffee ceremony etiquette. Itinerant coffee-pourers can still often be seen patrolling the lobbies of upmarket hotels, government ministries and other public spaces, dispensing drinks from ornate copper pots, usually with a tray of dates to hand as well. The drink itself is notably different from that consumed in the West, served without milk and sugar but flavoured with spices including cardamom and/or cloves – intense, aromatic and slightly bitter, and traditionally drunk from tiny handle-less cups, like oversized thimbles. 

Tea (shay) is also universally popular, although not of particularly high quality – the classic Lipton’s teabag is ubiquitous, although you may hit upon a local Indian café serving up the classic subcontinental masala chai, sweet and heavily spiced. Fruit juices are also widely available, usually particularly good in Lebanese establishments, as are all the usual global fizzy drinks. You may also come across the traditional laban, a type of sour buttermilk.

Alcohol is widely available across the region (in Dubai and Abu Dhabi particularly), although punitive taxes keep prices high and local laws mean that establishments are usually only found in top-end hotels – independent pubs and licensed restaurants remain a rarity. Most establishments model themselves on ersatz English pubs, complete with faux-British wood-panelled decor and with a stereotypical range of international tipples.

There’s also a tempting selection of more stylish bars in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, however, often offering superb beachside locations or high-rise settings, and with an upmarket selection of cocktails and shots aimed firmly at the expat and tourist party set.

The traditional meal concludes with shisha: Arabian-style tobacco smoked in one of the distinctive water pipes (hookah, narghil or “hubbly- bubbly”), which can be found across the Middle East. Shisha cafés are enormously popular in the UAE (although surprisingly rare in Oman), while many restaurants also serve shisha, although the UAE’s smoking ban means that it can now only be served in outdoor venues or in separate smoking areas. Most shisha cafés will have at least 10 types of shisha to choose from (often more), including unflavoured blends alongside various fruit-scented concoctions such as apple, lemon and grape – much gentler on the throat and infinitely more aromatic than Western cigarettes.


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