“I’ve never understood this Middle East. Middle, middle of where?”
The Middle East is a region that continues to elude me. And it’s certainly not due to lack of interest. There are the countries there that I’ve always had immense interest in (Israel, Jordan, Egypt) and then there are countries like Oman, which catapulted to the top of my list due to its cuisine. And if you think all “Middle Eastern” food is the same, then clearly you’ve never looked at a map and examined the unique geography there.
Last month I published a cookbook buying guide for the holidays and one of the cookbooks I included was Felicia Campbell’s The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia. And so my desire of wanting to visit Oman was born. I guess in my sheer ignorance concerning (much) of the Middle East, I just chalked Oman up as similar to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. (No offense to either nation; okay maybe a little to the latter due to its archaic treatment of its women). As in, there’s not really much to see and do, more synonymous with oil and tall, nondescript skyscrapers. But then I saw a picture of the Nakhal Fort…and pictures of a red hued sunset against the waters of the Arabian Sea…and jeep rides through the desert (the last is something at the very top of my bucket list).
As I flipped through the pages of Campbell’s book my mouth began watering over and over…and over. Although I had older cookbooks I had long neglected, when my parents came in for the Christmas holidays last month, I thought it would be fun for my mom and me to make a proper Omani feast since it was a cuisine that neither of us had cooked before.
If there two things I learned about Omani cuisine (in a nutshell) it’s that seafood plays a prominent role due to the country’s strategic location on the Arabian Sea, and because of its proximity to sub-Asia, tandoori-style cooking is also quite popular. And so two of the recipes I chose definitely reflected this.
Maqboos (red onion and tomato spiced rice)
One of the reasons I love Middle Eastern food as much as I do is that the dishes always contain a plethora of spices including maqboos, which has a whopping six spices used. And I don’t know about you but I love when spices one traditionally equates with baking are used in a non-baked food like rice (i.e. cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon). The maqboos was incredibly easy to prepare and is probably the tastiest rice you’ll ever meet (or make).
The Chedi’s Yogurt Tandoori-Spiced Shrimp
I’m not a huge shrimp fan, and my last night in Charleston didn’t help matters. However, I do appreciate the simple nature of shrimp from a cooking perspective. And, of course, I really enjoy yogurt marinades; plain yogurt is such a versatile cooking ingredient and one I often use as a substitute for things like sour cream and even heavy cream. Alas, I don’t have a tandoor oven and grilling outside on a charcoal grill in Pennsylvania in December is out of the question, so we made the shrimp using the broiler but I still think they came out pretty awesome.
Mkate Wa Ufuta (Zanzibari Sesame Bread)
Of the three recipes we prepared from the cookbook, the Zanzibari Sesame Bread was probably my favorite. I’ve always wanted to visit Zanzibar and Ashley’s beautiful pictures from her trip there definitely spurred my desire further. So even though this recipe is from Zanzibar, not Oman, it seemed like the perfect food to serve with the shrimp and rice. And even though I was dubious about cooking it on the stovetop (I’ve always made bread in the oven), it actually came out nearly perfect. Not to mention but I’ve really been digging foods with sesame seeds as of late, this incredible bread and a few Christmases ago, not too sweet but still tasty cookies I made. Since this was my favorite recipe, I wanted to share it with you:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons coconut milk
1 large egg
1/3 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 to 4 tablespoons sesame seeds
MAKES 6 BREADS
-Whisk together the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl; stir in the coconut milk and egg until combined and knead with quite a bit of strength until the dough is smooth, 5 to 7 minutes. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and leave in a warm place to rise a little, at least 30 minutes.
-Divide the dough into 6 balls. Pat each ball of dough into a round shape between the palms of your hands to form a thick circle about 6 1/2 inches wife and 1/2 to 1 inch thick. Rub one side generously with oil and sprinkle some of the sesame seeds on top.
-Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat; cook each bread, sesame side down, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Allow it to puff, and then rub the surface of the bread with plenty more oil and sprinkle with more sesame seeds and a little salt before flipping. Flip and cook until browned in spots and done in the middle, 1 to 2 minutes more.
Until the time comes that I’m sipping a glass of “special karak” (Spiced Omani Milk Tea) at a waterfront cafe in Muscat, munching on some freshly baked mkate wa ufuta, I’ll content myself with Felicia Campbell’s lovely cookbook.
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