Omani food journey gave me a taste of belonging at last

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In 1964, following the revolution in Zanzibar, Omani families were given the opportunity to settle in Oman or join the last Sultan of Zanzibar, Jamshid, in England. My grandfather Babu’s family were Omani and Iranian, he was captain of the Zanzibar cricket team and a big fan of the British. They arrived in April 1965 in Portsmouth.

Their reasons for settling in this small coastal city came down to Sheikh Salim Al Riyami, who I would later know as Babu Big, the kind-hearted pillar of our Omani-Zanzibari community. Like my grandfather, Babu Big had been sent abroad by the government for training and happened to be in Portsmouth.

When the Sultan had to flee, Babu Big encouraged him to come to Portsmouth, as he saw vivid similarities between the two places: both were islands and port cities with a naval base and beaches (although Portsmouth lacked palm trees and sand). So Sultan Jamshid headed to the UK.

And, just like that, Babu Big, our Zanzibari friendly giant, created a safe haven for all.

In a bid to give me the life she didn’t have, my mother found a way to pay for me to attend a posh private school. The only issue with this privilege was that I found myself surrounded by hundreds of children who didn’t look like me nor have a home life that was anything like mine. And I always had warm lunches that would not lose their smell no matter how many bags and jumpers I wrapped them in!

During the summer holidays, we would go to Oman. I loved my time there, visiting family. My cousins loved the fact I had a British accent and lived in England, and, although I wanted them to see me as one of them, I appreciated that I didn’t have to hide any part of me.

I must have been at university when I began to understand the details of Oman. My Arab friends at uni had grown up in the Middle East, and poetically wove Arabic words with English as they spoke about similarities shared between their countries, from childhood khaleeji snacks to national anthems sung at assembly.

As I recreated all the scents I had once tried to shed, my appreciative friends showed up for me and my culture

In my quest to fit in, I delved into Omani cuisine. It turns out that every bowl of ingredients I mix together, every meal I plate up and every bite I take leads me on an adventure through family trees and maritime history.

In the summer of 2013, I had my first Ramadan without Bibi and my mother – or their cooking. I began to learn our recipes. I’d call them with a barrage of questions: “How do you make sambusa?”; “How do you do that rice with those little red things”; “How can I tell when my lamb is cooked?”

Little by little, my memories of being with Bibi in the kitchen resurfaced, with recollections of the house I’d grown up in. As I recreated all the scents I had once tried to shed, my appreciative and hungry uni friends showed up for me and my culture. And that’s when I realised that the cuisine of my heritage is who I am.

When I had the idea for Bahari, I naively planned to concentrate on recipes that were truly “Omani”. But I quickly came to learn that Oman’s cuisine is rich and beautiful precisely because it’s a mix of so many places and histories.

As I travelled, I learnt of the different worlds in which the inhabitants of each region live, from the Bedouin in the desert to the communities of the coastal cities. They all have their own foods and traditions, and seem uninterested in what is not theirs. To me, it seemed as if everyone was absorbed in their own Omani bubble. I was curious about all their dishes, and so on I went, full of questions.

Bahari and this food journey have brought me a sense of belonging I once thought was unattainable. It’s been a blessing to have this multitude of backgrounds, my lust for culture and fondness for home comforts. It’s allowed me to bring Bahari to your table, along with a plethora of stories, history and new recipes that represent me and our people.

This is an edited extract from Bahari: Recipes from an Omani Kitchen and Beyond, by Dina Macki (DK, £26), which is available now

Pakora Scotch eggs

Makes four

There is much debate around the Scotch egg – trying to establish its origins is more confusing than learning if the chicken or the egg came first! British history tells us that the snack originated in Yorkshire in the 1800s; Indians will tell you that they, in fact, were making it long before and call it narjis kofta (narjis in Arabic is the name of the narcissus flower, referencing the yellow middle and white exterior). Tunisians also have their own version, called tajine sebnekh, which translates as “spinach tagine”, as they cover the egg in a creamed spinach. Then you have us, the Zanzibaris, who – Bibi says – have always made them, calling them kababu za mayai, which literally translates as “kebab of eggs”. These are made using beef mince and about six spices, and are usually covered in potato before deep-frying.

Bibi taught me how they used to make them on the island, using desiccated coconut instead of breadcrumbs when they didn’t have bread to waste. While her way is fabulous, I’ve kept her mince recipe the same and changed the exterior to something more exciting. My mum and I love to experiment in the kitchen, and one of our favourite things to do is to see what random ingredient we can add to a pakora. It just so happens that on one of these occasions, we dipped a whole Scotch egg in the pakora batter. It was very messy, but so worth it!

Ingredients

4 fresh eggs

400g minced meat (I use beef or lamb)

1 red onion

1-2 fresh red chillies (optional)

1 tbsp baharat spice blend

35g coriander

2 tsp salt

Vegetable oil, for deep-frying

For the pakora batter

135g gram flour

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

1 onion, thinly sliced

Method

Begin by boiling the eggs. I usually bring my water to the boil in a saucepan, then add my eggs and boil for exactly five minutes, then transfer to cold water to stop cooking. This will give you perfectly runny yolks. Set aside.

To prepare the pakora batter, combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, followed by 120ml of water. As you mix it, the mixture should come together as a thick mess/paste. Add another four tablespoons of water and whisk until there are no lumps; aim for the consistency of pancake batter. Now stir through the onion and set aside.

In a food processor, combine the mince, red onion, chillies (if using), baharat and coriander. Season with the salt and blitz until everything is finely chopped and you have a smooth texture. If you don’t have a food processor, you’ll need to chop the chillies, onion and coriander as finely as possible, then use your hands to mix everything together.

Now everything is prepped, pour oil into a deep saucepan to a depth of 15cm and place over a high heat.

While the oil is heating up, carefully peel your boiled eggs, then take a handful of mince and flatten it out in the palm of your hand, making it as thin as you can without it breaking apart. Place one of the peeled eggs in the middle and wrap the mince around it, being careful not to squeeze the egg too much. Make sure the egg is completely covered. If the mix is loose around the egg, you probably have too much, so just pinch off some of the mince.

Check that your saucepan of oil is hot. You can check that the oil is ready by dropping in a small dollop of the batter; if it cooks instantly, the oil is ready.

Now dip the wrapped eggs into the pakora batter, ready to fry. With this, you want to get an even layer of batter and onion around the egg. Instead of trying to roll it around in the batter, sit the egg in the batter, then pick up some onion slices and place them on top. As you lift each egg out of the batter, catch some of the onion slices underneath it too, and quickly transfer it to the hot oil. Once the eggs touch the hot oil, the onion batter will instantly stick and cook, and it should come out with an even coating of pakora batter.

Fry the eggs for two to four minutes until golden. This will be long enough to cook the mince, as it should be just a thin layer. Repeat with the remaining eggs, meat and batter, then enjoy.

Auntie Dalia’s mutahfy salmon, tamarind & aubergine curry

Serves 3-4

Mutahfy is eaten by people who are originally from Muscat, usually Shia Muslims who grew up by the Mutrah Corniche. The sauce base is so full of flavour that you can make it without fish as a vegan dish. I sometimes serve it like this as a dip, too. Traditionally, it is made with tuna, so if you live somewhere with delicious fresh tuna, go for that! I usually serve this with white basmati rice.

Ingredients

500g salmon fillets or tuna steaks (cut into small cubes after the skin is removed)

2 heaped tsp ground cumin

2 heaped tsp ground cinnamon

2 heaped tsp ground coriander

2 heaped tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 heaped tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp salt

240g tamarind block

350ml + 1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 aubergines, sliced into 1cm rounds

1 tbsp garlic paste

1 tbsp ginger paste

2 green chillies, sliced

3 tbsp tomato puree

400g can chopped tomatoes

Handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Crispy dried onions, to garnish (optional)

Method

In a large bowl, combine the salmon or tuna with one heaped teaspoon of each of the ground spices, along with the salt. Stir well, then cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour.

In a separate bowl, soak the tamarind block in 400ml of warm water for at least an hour until the seeds have separated and the water has diluted the tamarind into a pulp. Strain the pulp through a colander to remove the seeds, making sure you don’t lose any of the liquid. It should have quite a thin consistency; if not, add a bit more water.

When you’re ready to cook, combine 250ml of the oil with the onion in a medium-sized saucepan (starting from room temperature rather than heating the oil first). Place over a high heat and fry for 15 minutes until golden.

Meanwhile, arrange the aubergine slices in a frying pan and pour over the remaining 100ml of oil – it should be enough to almost cover them. Again, we’re starting at room temperature. Place the pan over a high heat and fry for five to 10 minutes on each side until golden in the middle and turning slightly black at the edges (the second side will cook faster). Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper to soak up the excess oil, and set aside.

Once the onion is golden, add the garlic and ginger paste, followed by the chillies, tomato puree and canned tomatoes. Stir to combine, then leave to cook for about five minutes. Add three-quarters of the aubergine slices and stir to combine, slightly mashing them as you stir. Now stir in the tamarind liquid, along with all the remaining spices. Leave to simmer over a medium heat for 15 minutes until the stew thickens.

Remove the fish from the fridge. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, then add the fish and fry for two minutes on each side until it is sealed and slightly crispy and golden on the outside. Add the fish to the curry mix, stir and leave to simmer for a further five minutes (or up to 10 minutes if you’re using tuna).

Before serving, stir in the fresh coriander, along with a little water to loosen if needed. Serve topped with the reserved aubergine slices and some crispy fried onions, if you like.

Khaliat nahal (Honeycomb bread)

Makes 20 pieces

Qaranqasho is an Omani celebration that takes place on the 14th day of Ramadan, mainly across the north coast. Children dress up in traditional clothing and mothers prepare lots of nibbles and sweet baskets, then open up their doors to all. We call it Omani Halloween, where all the children go “trick or treating” – but without the tricks! Everyone heads out after prayer time to visit friends, family and neighbours and collect sweets, little gifts and sometimes, if we’re lucky, money. I got to celebrate one Ramadan as a child in Oman, and I still remember the excitement as we ran through the streets, looking to see how many sweets we could collect.

Ramadan, specially on Qaranqasho, is the only time of year you’ll see khaliat nahal. My Auntie Nasra always made this bread instead of sweets. She’d set out whole trays of it on a table and wait for the children to run up, tear away their part and eat it on the go. Even as adults, we still want this bread at Ramadan; we know what’s hidden inside, but there’s still a joyful element of surprise. Khaliat nahal is a sweet, yeasted bread known for its honeycomb shape. This recipe is found in both Oman and Yemen; it’s always filled with cheese, but the syrups drizzled over it differ from family to family.

Ingredients

400ml + 2 tbsp warm milk

14g fast-action dried yeast

650g plain flour

130g caster sugar

2 eggs

Sesame seeds, for sprinkling

Sea salt flakes

For the syrup

200g caster sugar

2 tbsp runny honey

Juice of 1⁄2 orange

4 cardamom pods, crushed

For the filling

200g mozzarella

200g soft cream cheese (I use Laughing Cow)

Method

To make the syrup, combine all the ingredients in a saucepan with 170ml of water. Place over a high heat and bring to the boil. Once it starts bubbling, boil for exactly 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool completely. Do not stir the syrup while it’s boiling, and make sure it’s entirely cool before you use it; the idea is to pour the cooled syrup over the hot bread.

Pour the 400ml milk into a bowl. Add the yeast and leave to sit for five minutes.

In a mixer or large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and eggs. Add the milk and yeast mixture, then combine. Knead until the dough is soft and smooth – this will take 10-12 minutes in a mixer, or 15-17 minutes by hand.

Cover with a clean damp cloth and leave to rise for an hour and half or until it has doubled in size.

Once risen, divide the dough into 20 even-sized pieces and shape into balls. Take the first ball and press it flat, then place a little mozzarella and soft cheese in the middle – use about five to 10g of each, as you don’t want to overfill. Bring the rest of the dough around the cheese to encase it, pinch the edges together to seal, then roll back into a ball and flatten very slightly. Repeat with the remaining dough balls and cheese.

Place the balls on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Ideally, use a pizza tray, so you can arrange them in a honeycomb shape. Make sure to leave a little space between the balls so that they have room to spread as they rise.

Cover with a clean damp cloth and leave to rise for 30-45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan / 400°F / Gas 6).

When the balls are ready to bake, brush them with the remaining two tablespoons of milk and sprinkle over the sesame seeds. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden.

As soon as bread comes out of the oven, pour the cooled syrup over the top – or you can brush it on if you don’t want too much. The syrup will seep into the dough. Sprinkle over some crushed sea salt flakes to finish. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then serve while still warm so the cheese is melty and delicious. These are definitely best served freshly baked and warm, but will keep for one to two days in an airtight container.

All recipes are from Bahari: Recipes from an Omani Kitchen and Beyond by Dina Macki (DK, £26)

Updated: March 14, 2024, 10:02 AM

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