In my experience there are two types of expats, those who embrace their adoptive culture with open arms, and those who fall into a routine of looking for the “ordinary.” Ordinary usually means looking for environments most similar to your home country, and those two types of expats are usually the same people, but at different stages of their relationship with said new culture. Sky and I are in a 4 year long relationship with Oman. During our first year we were madly in love, head over heels with the culture and all things Arab. The last couple of years have been less love and more work, less exploring and more avoiding, I might even go as far as to say that we are in a relationship funk with Oman. The last few months I can start to see us falling into a wallowing state of negativeness. It’s a very bad place to be. Like relationships which are well worn in, it’s much easier to immediately point out the things that annoy you, rather than those that you admire. Our relationship with our pseudo home is in need of therapy, and we are at the stage that we are ready to admit it! My husband and I deliberated for a while on how we could get that old spark back, and fall in love with Arabia all over again. Reminiscing is a great way to remember what you love… camels, Oud (sort of), national dress, the forts and castles which are architectural time capsules telling of empires rises and falls, food….. we both settled on food. What I love most about Arabic food is Arabic food culture. From afar Oman may seem to be a monoculture society, but they are far from it. Oman has a rich history and their costal location is the cause for their foods fusion elements. “Omani food” is much more of a blend of Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Turkish, Zanzibari, and what I will call “general Gulf food,” meaning it can be found all over the gulf. As far as the eating culture, Arabs generally won’t eat dinner until the sun is down. In fact, in older times before Air Conditioning made the mid day climate bare able, everyone would go home from about 1 in the afternoon until the sun went down. This effected the restaurants and shops as well. Nowadays, the people are up and about during those afternoon hours, but the majority of the local food spots are closed from roughly about 2:00- 6:00. In Muscat, there are a plethora of western choices for us westerners and hungry locals to huddle in during the afternoon hours, however outside of Muscat, you’ll be searching pretty hard to find an afternoon bite. What I really love about Arabic food culture is seeing quiet streets transform in the evening into lively rows of “coffee shops,” filled with men eating swarma, smoking shisha and talking for days. Traditionally, eating at coffee shops was for men only, a place for them to gather in the evenings and talk about the day. However, restaurants which are less fast food and more “sit down” type places, often have a family room; a place where men could take their wives and children and enjoy dinner together. As Muscat pushes forward however, you will start to spot groups of brave, abaya clad ladies out for an evening of food and conversation.
During our conversation about food we both mention that we like the rawness of shooting food on location. Just raw, on the table shooting. During our recent trip to Zanzibar we shot a far deal of editorial style, on location, food images. As travel photographers, we love to shoot outside the studio because you never know what you’re going to get. A couple of days later our food conversation was brought back up while driving the nanny home after work. As we drive past the rows and rows of coffee shops all setting out their plastic chairs and tissue boxes, I spot a Yemeni Restaurant. “All the students rave about Yemeni food… there are a billion restaurants in this city and we only ever eat from a few… mostly western. What if we ate at a new local joint once a week until we explored all the flavors of the street food scene?” Sky lit up instantly and we started laying out guidelines. “It has to be a truly local joint, we have to eat local at least once a week, we will have to photograph each meal to document our adventure.” Although we both fussed with the idea of eating food out so much, we admitted shortly after that we do it 5 of the 7 days a week any way. It’s not something we are proud of, but both being full time lecturers at the college, running our travel photography company, Yellow Street Photos, and taking care of our 2 year old daughter… well you get the picture. By the time we reached the nanny’s apartment block, our project was laid out.
The “Ferrari” | Omani Street Food by Yellow Street Photos
Day 1. We’ll take 1 Ferrari Please!
It took us a few days to get started, because we wanted to finish the food in the fridge… but mostly because we were being indolent. We decide to dive into day 1 with a comical joint that our students and other lecturers, braver then us, have told us about. It’s a true coffee shop just off the side of a car wash and gas station. The name is written in Arabic so I can’t be sure the full title, but in English it reads “Coffee Shop.” As I said, coffee shop is a general term for a local fast food restaurant, and could be classified as street food. These coffee shops rarely serve coffee and when they do, it’s an uninspiring cup of nescafe. We got to Coffee Shop at 5 o’clock, and the light was great for photos. They have a large outdoor seating area (no indoor seating) filled with plastic tables and chairs. We were the first customers of the day, and a Bangledeshi waiter ran up to our table with enthusiasm. For a city with such a huge western expat population, few frequent the local street food scene. With a big smile on his face, he asks what we would like. “Could we look at a menu.” “No menu, but Ill tell you what we have.” After that sentence he spoke for about 5 minutes straight in what we think was English. Half a dozen other waiters were running around the outside patio area finishing up the set up rituals, and getting closer to get a listen and a giggle out of their colleague’s English abilities. We couldn’t stop laughing at the food names, and I was trying hard not to chuckle as I could see our friendly waiter starting to feel a bit self conscious, unaware of what we were laughing at. With food names like Lamborghini, (pronounced lamb bore genie), Hummer, and Nissan Z. (pronounced Nissan “Zed,” the Brits have had their long influence on the region, but not on our waiter who pronounced it Nissan Thed) Our other choices sounded like some sort of code, he machine gunned CCHO, CCEO, CCCO, and so on. At the sight of our puzzled faces he explains further, “it stands for Croissant, Cheese, Hotdog, Oman.” If you’re still puzzled, Ill explain further, the CCHO is a prepackaged croissant, jarred cheese spread, cut up pieces of hot dog, and crushed up potato chips (symbolized by an O because they’re chips Oman brand). Go ahead, marinate on it for a minute, we did.
Feeling a bit pressured we threw out some choices. “We will take 1 CCHO and 1 Lamborghini and a chicken shawarma.” He scurried off looking relieved that we didn’t ask any more questions, I’m pretty sure we exhausted his English abilities. Shawarma is a regional food that can be found all over the Gulf and has slowly made it’s way to the west. Shawarma restaurants can be spotted by their massive spits of spinning chicken, lamb or beef outside. The meat rotates vertically and is shaved off as the evening goes on. It is either served in a sandwich or on a bed of humus known as a shawarma plate, with bread on the side. While waiting for our food we look around, so many of these coffee shops look identical outside, and there are signatures which they all carry like the box of tissue at every table along with a random labeled bottle of hot sauce and ketchup. Coffee shop waiters are generally expats as well, and tend to be very talented when it comes to languages. I guess working in a very multi cultural city like Muscat forces them to be. You will be hard pressed finding locals working in a coffee shop, or any service job for that matter. By the time our food came we were famished, but first bite would show that we were not hungry enough. The Lamborghini was a sandwich made of chicken nugget bits, mystery meat, gobs of jared spreadable kraft cheese and crushed chips Oman. We both coughed so hard… “that’s hardcore,” I say to Sky. We pushed it aside feeling a bit defeated, maybe we won’t make it any further on our project afterall?? We both feel reluctant to try the CCHO; to our surprise, and shamefully, we both admit that we sorta, kinda like it. It’s like a 7 year old went through the kitchen and made a creation with what was in the cabinet, but it turned out disgustingly good. We wanted to hate CCHO just on principle, I mean crushed up potato chips are a main ingredient! but we admittedly passed it back and forth until the last bite was gone. Our daughter wouldn’t touch either, perhaps her palate is more sophisticated? The shawarma came grilled, wrapped in home made bread, and reminded me of taquitos. They were the highlight of the meal. Our poor daughter, Ciela, didn’t eat a lick, despite our convincing. What started out sketchy, ended as a surprisingly, half way delicious dinner. It was one of those meals that made us happy that we live abroad, it was an event.
Chicken Shawarma | Omani Street Food By Yellow Street Photos