Scents of place

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Regulars -

It’s twi­light in Seeb, an old fish­ing town on the out­skirts of Mus­cat, and the souk is back in busi­ness. Even­ing prayer has ended, and men in dish­dashas and kuma caps gather and stroll among the stalls. Pyra­mids of dried an­chovies and prawns and trays of glis­ten­ing cut­tle­fish vie for at­ten­tion with bags of dried limes and fra­grant car­damom, jars of golden ghee and masses of lo­cal dates. We’re of­fered a clus­ter of pale fresh dates still on the stem. They’re crunchy, as­trin­gent, with no more than a hint of sweet­ness.

There’ll be plenty more to try dur­ing our ad­ven­ture in the Sul­tanate of Oman, from the capital hug­ging the serene shores of the Ara­bian Sea to the jagged peaks of the Al Ha­jar moun­tains, and then south, fol­low­ing bone-dry frank­in­cense trade routes, to the in­con­gru­ously lush and trop­i­cal coast of Dho­far. Dates are not just a sta­ple in Oman, used in cook­ing and turned into vine­gar and syrup for mari­nades and cur­ries; they’re the flavour of Omani hos­pi­tal­ity, of­fered as an es­sen­tial ac­com­pa­ni­ment to con­ver­sa­tion and spiced tea or cof­fee dur­ing al­most ev­ery en­counter, no mat­ter how ca­sual.

Oman is an ex­ceed­ingly hos­pitable place, but it wasn’t al­ways so. The fa­bled home of the Queen of Sheba ex­isted in iso­la­tion un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, largely un­de­vel­oped. Un­til 1970, the city gates of Mus­cat were closed at dusk and a cur­few im­posed.

That was be­fore the palace coup, when Sul­tan Qa­boos bin Said, the cur­rent monarch, over­threw his fa­ther and ush­ered in a new era, spend­ing the spoils of oil dis­cov­ered in the mid-1960s on in­fra­struc­ture and open­ing the na­tion to the world.

The oil rush could have turned ugly, but in­stead the Oma­nis have man­aged to em­brace moder­nity and main­tain a strong sense of their her­itage.

The mag­i­cal Chedi Mus­cat, set on the beach­front over­look­ing the Gulf of Oman, beau­ti­fully em­bod­ies this syn­the­sis of old and new. The en­gag­ing door­men wear for­mal tra­di­tional dress: white, an­kle-length dish­dasha, tur­ban and a khan­jar, the short, hook-shaped cer­e­mo­nial dag­ger worn tucked un­der the belt. And while the de­sign is con­tem­po­rary, the re­sort has a be­witch­ing air of the ex­otic. The al­most blind­ingly white suites are scat­tered through eight and a half hectares of tran­quil gar­dens and dec­o­ra­tive pools, where domed pago­das are likely to be oc­cu­pied by dish­dasha-clad guests tap­ping on lap­tops. In­side, the suites have arabesque touches in metal fret­work lamps and sculp­tural sunken stone baths, and that famed hos­pi­tal­ity comes in the form of de­canters of gin, vodka and whisky, along with plates of fresh fruit, jars of nuts – and dates, of course.

On a Satur­day night our guides, Issa and Ahmed, take us down­town to eat like lo­cals. Mus­cat is a lowslung city bound by the sea on one side and moun­tains on the other, its white and sand-coloured build­ings no higher than eight storeys by royal de­cree. Where Oman’s flashy neigh­bours Dubai and Abu Dhabi are forests of high-rises, here the Is­lamic iden­tity is main­tained, most build­ings bear­ing Ara­bic flour­ishes and the broad streets lined with curlicued street­lights.

Be­side a small mosque in the Min­istries District, a café called sim­ply Tea House is the go-to for Oman’s crêpe-like f lat­bread, khubz rakhal. It’s folded over savoury fill­ings such as cheese and egg, or a combination of the two with chips, then grilled, and served along with frothy karak tea, en­riched with con­densed milk and saf­fron. The ta­bles are full, in­side and out, and wait­ers ferry take­away or­ders on trays to a con­stant pro­ces­sion of cars that pull up out­side.

Closer to the cor­niche we try mishkak, the pop­u­lar grilled skew­ers of var­i­ous meats and seafood sold on the streets. Trucks and vans con­gre­gate on road­sides all around the city at dusk, and the driv­ers set up makeshift grills, il­lu­mi­nated by hum­ming gen­er­a­tor-pow­ered lights. We jug­gle sticks of grilled beef and lamb, doused with spicy tamarind or chilli sauce, and watch the pa­rade of pimped-up cars cruise by. It’s Satur­day night, after all.

Like many Oma­nis, Issa is proud of what his country has achieved in less than 50 years. In 1994, he tells us, Omani women be­came the first in the Gulf re­gion to be given the right to vote and to stand in

par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. There are cur­rently seven women min­is­ters in the gov­ern­ment – “and the Saudis only just al­lowed women to drive cars”, he hoots.

There are more fig­ures re­layed to us with pride at Mus­cat’s Grand Mosque, a ma­jes­tic mar­ble com­plex of court­yards and arched walk­ways sur­round­ing a prayer hall for 6,500 wor­ship­pers. They kneel upon the sec­ond largest hand-wo­ven car­pet in the world, Ahmed says. It’s a 21-tonne mas­ter­piece that took 600 women four years to weave. The colos­sal crys­tal chan­de­lier above it mea­sures four­teen me­tres by eight; a cherry-picker is re­quired to clean and change its 1,122 bulbs.

The branch of Is­lam prac­tised in Oman is called Ibadi, a lib­eral form of the re­li­gion that preaches tol­er­ance of race and re­li­gion with no dis­crim­i­na­tion. The ir­re­press­ible Naima Ali, a vol­un­teer at the Is­lamic Cultural Cen­tre in the sur­round­ing man­i­cured grounds, greets us with tea scented with car­damom and the oblig­a­tory dish of dates. The cen­tre opened in the wake of the

9/11 at­tacks in the US, she says, with the aim of help­ing vis­i­tors learn more about Is­lam. “Peo­ple were con­fused,” she says. “We’re clos­ing the gaps. Some of the fog has lifted when they leave. I’m here with a small ham­mer, break­ing down bar­ri­ers.”

The souks are as cen­tral to Omani daily life as the mosques. About 20 kilo­me­tres from down­town Mus­cat is the old port of Mut­trah, curled around a har­bour in which tra­di­tional fish­ing boats are dwarfed by the royal yacht. A tall arched gate marks the en­trance to the Mut­trah Souk, one of the old­est in Oman, per­haps the Arab world. It’s a plea­sur­ably con­fus­ing maze of nar­row al­leys lined with shops ar­ranged roughly by wares: sil­ver and gold, pash­mi­nas and hand­i­crafts, frank­in­cense and myrrh. This must be one of the few places in the world where you can find the gifts of the three wise men un­der one roof. Ground turmeric, tamarind pods, car­damom, saf­fron, dried roses, lemons and limes are amassed in kalei­do­scopic dis­plays. Bar­ter­ing is de rigueur, though not in the case of gold, and it pays to have some­one do it for you. The oblig­ing na­ture of the Oma­nis ex­tends even to the touts, who show noth­ing but good hu­mour when we pass them by.

We have lunch over­look­ing the port at Bait Al Luban, on the third floor of a 140-year-old former guest­house. Its dé­cor is tra­di­tional – wooden fret­work screens, brightly pat­terned cush­ions, a jalsa floorseat­ing area – and so is the food. Paplou soup, made with lo­cally caught long­face em­peror, a type of bream, is bright with turmeric. A salad of white onion and tomato is pep­pered with strips of salted shark, a sta­ple. Shuwa is a spe­cialty – lamb mar­i­nated in oil and spices, wrapped in palm fronds, and roasted in a fire pit for at least six hours. It’s served with rice cooked in a meaty broth with chick­peas and pep­per­corns, and a lemon-garlic sauce. Then come the sweets, gen­tly spiced and fra­grant – first luqaimat dumplings steeped in date syrup and honey and scented with saf­fron, and then a fi­nal round, served on a sil­ver cake stand, of bite-sized treats made with co­conut and saf­fron, date and sesame, and caramelised con­densed milk. The ex­pe­ri­ence is com­plete when guests’ hands are doused in rose­wa­ter as they leave.

The next day we drive two hours south-west to Nizwa, the old capital city. The high­way is flanked by the Al Ha­jar moun­tain range to the west, in the cen­tre of which lies our des­ti­na­tion for the even­ing, Ja­bal Akhdar moun­tain. To the east, large stone houses, mostly two-storeyed to ac­com­mo­date ex­tended fam­i­lies as is the Omani cus­tom, clus­ter in sun-baked towns on the flat.

Nizwa is near de­serted in the mid­day heat, ris­ing well into the 40s. One of the few peo­ple to be seen is a Be­douin sit­ting cross-legged in the shade of his van, smok­ing as he awaits cus­tomers for his dried shark.

The souk is like­wise quiet, but the Abu Eyad Al Man­thri date shop is do­ing a lively trade. A dozen va­ri­eties of date are on of­fer, rang­ing in colour from creamy caramel to rich dark brown. Some are coated with sesame seeds or filled with tahini. Dates fea­ture in myr­iad sweets, along­side var­i­ous it­er­a­tions of Omani halwa flavoured with saf­fron, rose­wa­ter, dates or nuts, in­clud­ing a pun­gent garlic-in­fused ver­sion eaten as a morn­ing tonic. Pro­pri­etor Ali Al Man­thri, of­fer­ing the cus­tom­ary dates and cof­fee, tells us he can have up to 40 va­ri­eties on sale, from 250 or so va­ri­eties indige­nous to Oman.

The as­cent of Ja­bal Akhdar is re­stricted to four-wheel drives, a rule en­forced at a check­point at the foot of the moun­tain. It’s a wide, sealed road, with plenty of lay­bys where we can ad­mire the view over the ranges, but it’s steep and tor­tu­ous. As we near the top there’s a loud crack like a gun­shot. “Chips!” shouts Ahmed over the en­gine. A packet in his snack sup­ply in the back has suc­cumbed to the al­ti­tude. It’s like an ex­cla­ma­tion mark for the 2,000-me­tre sign we just passed.

Ja­bal Akhdar means green moun­tain, which seems a mis­nomer when we reach the grey-brown plateau at the top. But the re­gion is renowned for its roses, from which rose­wa­ter is dis­tilled, and for peaches, grapes and pomegranates; limbs heavy with the rosy fruits can be glimpsed hang­ing over gar­den walls ev­ery­where.

Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar Re­sort seems to emerge from the rocky land­scape as its ter­ra­cot­tahued build­ings of lo­cal stone heave into view. It sits spec­tac­u­larly on the brink of a canyon sur­rounded by craggy peaks and over­look­ing pre­cip­i­tous ter­races of green­ery. The wel­come here is as fra­grant as it is ex­otic. Frank­in­cense bil­lows through the lobby, which opens to a grand court­yard with seat­ing around a cen­tral fire­place, and a café spe­cial­is­ing in tea. The sig­na­ture blend is in­fused with the famed lo­cal damask rose, while the minted Moroc­can tea is re­fresh­ing in the heat, which hasn’t dropped no­tice­ably de­spite the el­e­va­tion. From here a wa­ter­course, echo­ing an­cient falaj ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels, bi­sects a sprawl­ing gar­den of na­tive shrubs, pomegranates and roses. Dra­mat­i­cally lit at night, it leads the way to the cliff’s edge.

It’s clear that French-Moroc­can ar­chi­tect Lotfi Sidi­ra­hal drew in­spi­ra­tion from tra­di­tional forts in de­sign­ing the re­sort, no­tably in the cone-like tower that houses the sig­na­ture restau­rant, Al Qalaa. But the din­ing op­tion to beat here is a pri­vate din­ner set on a plat­form that stretches to the brink of the canyon, named Diana’s Point. The princess ap­par­ently vis­ited the site brief ly back in 1986 (less splen­didly, the re­sort’s Bella Vista restau­rant has named a burger in her hon­our). In this dra­matic set­ting a chef pre­pares a Le­banese spread of meze and grills, served to the sin­gle pam­pered table by a ded­i­cated maître d’.

A hike with one of the re­sort’s “moun­tain gu­rus” to the three largely aban­doned vil­lages above the ter­races is the chance to see the life coaxed from stony ground. Much of the walk fol­lows the falaj chan­nels that de­liver wa­ter to groves of pome­gran­ate, pear and wal­nuts be­fore reach­ing the ter­races them­selves, where banks of rose­bushes seem to cling to the es­carp­ment. The moun­tain’s name is not such a mis­nomer after all.

The chil­dren who once lived here would reach the school in the val­ley be­low, in­cred­i­bly, by bound­ing down the ter­races – a feat in­fin­itely more suited to the goats that wan­der tightrope fash­ion along the stone walls in the vil­lages in search of wa­ter and low-hang­ing leaves.

Wa­ter – although in this case an abun­dance of it – is also the defin­ing fea­ture of the Dho­far re­gion in Oman’s south. Hav­ing flown for the best part of two hours over desert-like plains of­ten starker than the Australian out­back, it’s a sur­prise to see the land­scape turn green as we de­scend to Salalah, the capital of the re­gion. From May to early Septem­ber the re­gion is blessed with the kha­reef, or mon­soon. The balmy weather re­ju­ve­nates the nearby ranges and at­tracts hol­i­day­mak­ers from all over the Ara­bian Penin­sula, seek­ing to es­cape the 50-de­gree heat at home.

It also ac­counts for the huge walled plan­ta­tions of ba­nana and co­conut palms that ring the city and line the ap­proach to Al Baleed Re­sort Salalah by Anan­tara. Rem­i­nis­cent of a white­washed vil­lage, al­beit an un­com­monly luxe one, the re­sort has at its heart a long in­fin­ity pool that stretches to a pri­vate beach. The pool is flanked by 30 gue­strooms, two of three restau­rants, and rows of vil­las set among grace­ful co­conut palms. Be­hind their high walls each villa has a court­yard with a four-poster ca­bana be­side a gar­den-fringed pool.

The re­sort takes its name from the neigh­bour­ing Al Baleed World Her­itage site, the re­mains of an an­cient port and trad­ing post for frank­in­cense. While its fra­grance wafts through hotel lob­bies, shops, souks and homes through­out Oman, most of the country’s frank­in­cense, and the most prized, comes from the Dho­far re­gion. This is where you come to fol­low the frank­in­cense trail.

PRE­VI­OUS PAGES The town of Birkat Al Mawz at the foot of the Ja­bal Akhdar range, Oman. Left: a mishkak ven­dor near the Seeb souk in Mus­cat. Far left: prayer time at Mus­cat’s Grand Mosque.

Above: canyon views at Al Aqr, one of three vil­lages on the Ja­bal Akhdar walk. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: pool­side at Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar; Ab­dul Aziz, door­man at Anan­tara Al Ja­bal; luqaimat at Bait Al Luban in Mut­trah; har­vest­ing resin from a frank­in­cense tree; the Royal Moun­tain Villa bath at Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar.

Be­low: Nizwa date mer­chant Ali Al Man­thri with a bas­ket of Hi­lali dates. Bot­tom: dates coated in sesame seeds at Abu Eyad Al Man­thri. Right: Nizwa Fort.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.