She is an Omani Edna Lewis* – her cooking based on fresh local ingredients and a love of not overcomplicating things in her dishes. On Fridays, when her whole family gathers together, she cooks up a storm and feeds everyone generously. Her kitchen is like an alchemist’s laboratory, filled with jars holding secret mixes of Omani marinades for different types of meat and occasions.
*Renowned American chef who championed the use of fresh, seasonal produce in southern cookery.
“This is the mix I massaged into the chicken for our lunch today. You let it marinade for a long time and then fry your chicken”. “Is this a simple marinade to make, khalti (Arabic for aunty)?” I naively ask. “Well, you mix water, dates, garlic and red pepper and leave it under the sun for 7 to 10 days. After a week, you remove the garlic and dates and add some spices into your liquid – roasted coriander and cumin, black and red pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric, salt”. “Quite complicated then!”, I exclaim. “Easier for non-Omanis to buy the mix, I suppose”. As we continue frying our twelve chickens, I admire the ability of this mighty Omani aunty to cook such massive amounts so deliciously.
“At what age did you start learning to cook?” I ask. “As soon as I got married, in my teens”. “So, you must know quite a lot of secret recipes for a successful marriage then, seeing as you were happily married for over forty years?”. Khalti smiles wistfully and carries on showing me how to cook maqboos – the traditional Omani dish we are preparing for today’s lunch.
Some chefs insist the marinade for the meat is the pivotal part of this dish, while others argue that success depends on the precise way the vegetable and rice mixture is cooked; stirring onions and aubergines…adding chopped tomatoes and spices… simmering it for a bit…spooning in ghee…and only then putting in the rice. Once again, my guru chef takes colourful jars from her secret stash. She is a magician conjuring up a rainbow right before my eyes – gorgeous shades of orange saffron and darker red. An artist at work on a white canvas of rice, painting it with splashes of colour. But the miracles have only just begun. There is a loud hiss as lumps of hot charcoal are plopped into a bowl, half-filled with oil, sitting atop the mound of rice. The pot is covered with foil and the smoke weaves its spell; imitating the distinctive earthy aroma of food cooked over an open wood fire. To me, this is definitely the most fascinating part of the day’s magic.
Piping hot rice and chicken is brought to the family and the colours of the rice mirror the sunshine streaming through the windows. Women spread cabbage and carrot salad, chillies and fresh dates on the tablecloth, alongside mango chutney and spicy sauces, and our feast begins. Sitting cross-legged, sharing a lunch with female part of this family, listening to the conversation about differences between maqboos and biriyani, I suddenly stop mid-chew; spellbound. This meal is a striking reminder of my Soviet childhood – the same proper taste of chicken, locally reared. Similar humble ingredients orchestrated into an exquisite symphony. And most importantly the sincere company of family. No one stresses about three-course meals or whose turn it is to wash up, no arguments about politics or gossips, no staring at phones – just slow food and slow life in its best. Cardamom coffee with a splash of rose water, sweet thyme tea and fresh fruits – lunch slowly becomes an afternoon gathering, with naps in between for the little ones.
I keep thinking about what the magical ingredient of Omani maqboos is. Is it the cardamom, added to the rice? Is it the chicken marinade or the smoking charcoal-infused oil at the end? And what is the secret to a happy married life (about which khalti remained enigmatic)? Driving back home, the car boot loaded with locally-sourced chicken, I catch a traditional Omani song on the radio – all about the deep love for the family and native land. Smiling, I remember that khalti did mention that maqboos translates as ‘to be engaged’!