Monthly Archives: April 2015

Shiraz:  An Iranian feast in Muscat

When a country is right across a narrow gulf from another, it is reasonable to assume the two countries’ cuisine should influence one another’s.  In Oman, Iranian (or Persian) food is not as visible as one might expect, but Omani food certainly benefits from a history of Persian/Iranian trade and culture. 

During my visit to Oman, I had the opportunity to experience sumptuous Iranian fare in a lovely setting.  Shiraz, named after the city in Iran, is located in a beachfront hotel in the al Qurum neighborhood of Oman.  Their menu, at first glance, appeared to be fairly expensive – most kabobs are 10 to 13 OMR (26 – 34 USD).  In contrast, local Omani kabobs often run between 2 and 5 OMR. But the portions were quite large.  I chose a promotional special that included a choice of two of their more popular kabobs and included a glass of house Merlot for 11 OMR.

Crudite and cheese platter

Crudite and cheese platter;; yogurt dip in foreground

Based on the cost of our entrees, we did not order starters, which all looked delicious; however, the menu does not warn you that you will receive a complimentary and addictive plate of crudités, walnuts, fresh, salty cheese (resembling feta) and salad (in Oman, salad refers to pretty much any leafy green, including what we think of more as garnishes – parsley and mint, for example), along with delicious flatbread.  The best accompaniment to that unexpected appetizer platter was an amazingly good yogurt sauce with cucumber and mint.  It had a more complex, full flavor than Tzatziki and was so delicious that I ate it with everything – from bread to vegetables to rice and kabobs.
My kabobs were excellent and were served with grilled vegetables and three preparations of basmati rice – saffron, green pea, and plain.  Now, for the kabobs:  I was very happy with my choices.  My beef kabob had been marinated with pomegranate (juice or vinegar) and coated with chopped walnuts.  It was tender, sweet, tart, and savory all at once.  Although I had a lot on my plate (literally!), I still managed to almost completely obliterate the beef kabob.  A chicken kabob, marinated in yogurt and saffron, was equally tender and well cooked.  The kabob was thick with yogurt, which sealed in the juices and also added a pleasant sourness.
Though I had enough to tackle without sampling others’ meals, I did try one colleague’s traditional Iranian lamb stew.  It was thick with what tasted like caramelized onions, and the lamb was tender and well seasoned.  If I returned to Shiraz, I would have ordered that dish for a change of pace.  Alas, my male colleagues – with one exception – could barely, if at all, finish their single or double kabobs, so I felt like a giant pig having almost obliterated two.
We had no room for dessert, of course, so I do feel that we did not get the full Iranian experience, but a nightcap of complimentary mint tea – which is typical – was a nice, sweet finish.
As this wasn’t my first experience with Persian/Iranian food, I wasn’t surprised at the lack of heat and spice in all of the dishes.  One colleague was slightly disappointed that the designated spicy kabob was not very hot, but our kabobs were served with a single, grilled green chili pepper, which could add plenty of heat if one so desired.
Shiraz was one restaurant that provided a feast fit for a sultan.  My pomegranate-walnut kabob was outstanding, and I’m hoping I have inspiration to find a way to replicate those flavors at home. Stay tuned!

50th Post: Mumtaz Mahal, sumptuous Indian in Oman

Welcome to the 50th post of The Culinary Diplomat! Thank you to all of you – friends, family, or the fellow bloggers from Word Press – for checking us out, following this blog, and offering feedback. Thank you to my two CD Ambassadors (guest bloggers)! To the rest of you, please consider submitting a guest post. The CD needs more voices to be truly great. Click on the Become a CD Ambassador link to find out more! Plea aside, thanks again and enjoy the post!

I love Indian food. The spices, the yogurt, the tender meat cooked in a tandoor. The way a slow-cooked curry is so rich and complex that I want to sop the sauce, gravy – whichever name you prefer – up with naan or paratha – or just lap it up with a spoon.
In Oman, I ate Indian – or at least, dishes with Indian spices or culinary influences – as often as possible. When I had more than three recommendations to try Mumtaz Mahal in Muscat, I vowed to try it. Two visits later, I safely and highly recommend it to anyone fortunate to make it to Muscat and for a special occasion dinner.
 
Mumtaz Mahal is an elegant, high-end Indian restaurant on the second level of a modern, white, two-story structure overlooking a man-made waterfall and grassy banquet area about 10-15 minutes west of Mutrah Souk and the old Center of Muscat. Its outdoor balcony seating was perfect for early spring nights, but it’s expansive indoor dining room is probably a safer bet much of the oh-so-hot year.  
As Indian food goes, it is not cheap. It is not cheap by highly expensive Muscat standards (but not unreasonable compared to Europe).  Like most Indian food, their menu is prefect for sharing and sampling, creating a painter’s palette of sorts on one’s large plate, with savory, sweet, and spicy flavors commingling pleasantly.   Their expansive, global wine list is another draw in this largely dry country.
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A few highlights:
The papadum, naan, and chutney were decent if not noteworthy. Their Chicken Tikka Masala is moderately spicy, thick, yet not as heavy as other versions. Chicken makhani was a crowd favorite. Saag Paneer was more tangy than most; instead of sporadic diced tomato dispersed throughout, the spinach curry’s base itself appeared to be a light tomato sauce.  My group found that to be an unexpectedly good culinary decision. The Zattar-spiced Tandoori Cauliflower was the least heavy dish I tried. We accidentally ordered the rich Tri-peppers Cauliflower Masala – but it was a wonderfully unintended addition to our meal.
Lamb is everywhere in Oman, and Mumtaz certainly executed its lamb dishes almost perfectly.  Lamb Mughali Korma was a wonderful surprise for me – tender chunks of braised lamb in a creamy and delicate cashew sauce that was like no other korma I’ve ever had. Lamb Vindaloo, always a favorite, was warm but not too spicy.  The Chettinad Lamb Pepper Fry, purportedly a dish from southern India was enticingly fragrant and deceptively spicy. As one colleague put it, at first bite, the heat is subtle, but the spice grows over time until it holds on the tip of the tongue (which is an odd sensation given that most taste receptors for spice are further back on the tongue). It was a must-try.
Should you make it to the far reaches of the Arabian peninsula to Muscat, Mumtaz Mahal is worth the buzz. Should your wanderlust for Indian cuisine strike you closer to home, try a new local Indian restaurant. Whether you are in a large city or small town, chances are you can find a great, family-run Indian restaurant within driving distance. Try something different!

Omani Halwa-Inspired Cardamom-Pistachio Gelato

Cardamom, nutmeg, and pistachios bring the exotic taste of Arabia to your kitchen and guests in this sophisticated, refreshing gelato, perfect for spring and summer.

Many kabobs and savory dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine are subtly spiced; the desserts not so much. Spicy cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, rose water, and lavender are a few unmistakeably exotic flavors you might taste along with what is reasonable to call a cloying sweetness.
The range of Arabic sweets  (Omani halwa not pictured)

The range of Arabic sweets (Omani halwa not pictured)

Omani halwa – not to be confused with the sesame-heavy Israeli halva – is one sweet that I consider to be a definite acquired taste and texture. Darkly colored (somewhat greenish), and gelatinous, I was a bit off-put; however, the spiciness of the cardamom offsets the sweetness and off texture. It was something I thought would be a one-bite wonder, and yet I kept eating it.
Back home, I realized I wanted to replicate those flavors and the warm memories of the Arabian Sea and stunningly gorge-ous (that’s a pun) wadis. Unless you are an American who is nostalgic for Jell-O salads, my guess is the gelatinous halwa – which gets its texture from a lot of ghee, or clarified butter – is not for you.
Now that you are thoroughly put off, let me remind you that this is a recipe for gelato.  Gone is the gelatin and rose water (add a few tablespoons if you’d like and have access to it), replaced by creamy custard with a hint of orange and vanilla. One bite will transport you.

Omani Halwa-Inspired Gelato

  • Servings: 6 (One quart)
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 6 egg yolks
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar (or 1 cup if sweeter is preferred)
  • 1 tbsp. butter, salted preferable (or unsalted plus 1/4 tsp. salt)
  • 1 heaping tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup shelled pistachios
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. orange zest
  • Juice of 1/4 large orange (or 1/2 of a blood orange)
Over low to medium heat, melt the butter in a medium saucepan.  Add the cardamom and nutmeg to incorporate, then add the pistachios.  Toss the pistachios in the spice mixture to coat and saute for about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk and increase heat to medium.
Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar in a small mixing bowl.  Set aside.
As the milk mixture begins to heat, stir occasionally.  Add the grated orange zest and orange juice, whisk to incorporate all ingredients.  Add in the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar or more to taste.  Once the milk has begun to boil, remove the pan from the heat.
Pour about 1 cup of the heated milk mixture into the bowl containing the egg yolks and sugar and whisk to combine and temper the eggs to prevent curdling.  Then, gradually add the egg mixture into the saucepan in the milk, whisking to incorporate thoroughly.  Return the pan to heat and bring to a gentle boil, whisking continuously.  After the custard has come to a boil, remove from heat and cool on the stovetop.
After about 15 minutes, chill the milk mixture in the refrigerator (or fast track it in the freezer), making sure to stir about every 5 minutes or so to prevent uneven chilling and a skin from forming.
Once chilled, outfit your ice cream maker with all attachments, add the custard and follow instructions for your ice cream maker.  Pack the ice cream in airtight containers and chill for about an hour before serving (or to your desired consistency).  Serve with chopped pistachios or Affogato style (with a shot of espresso or chilled decaffeinated coffee poured over it).

 

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DIY Turkish Iskender Kabob

Bring Turkish cuisine into your home with this recipe for homemade Iskender kabob that is so easy, even for those chefs whose kitchen expertise is largely confined to opening take-out!

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In my last post, I shared my first experience with the Turkish Iskender kabob. Roasted meat, toasted flatbread, tangy tomato sauce, and tart yogurt combine for a perfect supper. It was so buttery, rich, and filling, and yet so simple, I had to find a way to recreate it myself.

In lieu of doner meat, I substituted rotisserie chicken, but one could also use pulled chicken or beef, or roast lamb.

As for flatbread, this recipe is a good way to use leftover, stale bread. You could use pita or even naan, but my preference is for a more authentic, pocketless flatbread. Its soft, spongy texture soaks up the butter and sauces better than a thinner pita.
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Also, feel free to substitute a basic canned or jarred tomato sauce for the fresh tomatoes – though if you do, choose one without Italian herbs. It saves the step of pureeing the tomatoes as well. Then add the garlic and butter according to the directions below.

In my version below, I use a minuscule amount of butter (though it might not seem like it) relative to the authentic recipe. I can’t bring myself to overdo the butter in my own home. To add more flavor, I suggest adding za’atar spice blend (available at spice or Middle Eastern specialty markets) and/or Harissa (a spicy, North African red pepper condiment).

Iskender kabob at home

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 2 large flatbread rounds, toasted or stale
  • 1 rotisserie chicken, meat removed and pulled or sliced into smaller pieces
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 8 ripe tomatoes, medium
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp butter (or more to taste)
  • Optional za’atar for seasoning

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wash and slice tomatoes in half. Place them, skin side up, on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Roast for 20-30 minutes, or until the skins begin to wrinkle and brown slightly. Remove from oven and reduce heat to 350 degrees. Use a towel or knife to remove the skin from the tomatoes; the skin should separate fairly easily. Set aside.

Toast the flatbread in a toaster oven or in the oven on a baking sheet for 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Cut or tear the toasted flatbread into approximately 1″ chunks. Arrange the meat and bread on the baking sheet. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small dish. Next, drizzle the butter over the meat and bread mixture and toss by hand.

Bake the bread and meat mixture for 10 minutes, or until the exposed bread and meat begins to crisp.


Make the simple tomato sauce. In a food processor or blender, place the tomatoes and garlic and purée. Next, in a small saucepan, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat. Add the tomato-garlic purée to the saucepan and stir to incorporate. Bring the mixture to a simmer.

Remove the meat/bread from oven. Transfer the meat and bread to an oven-safe plate or small casserole dish. If making the entire recipe to be consumed immediately, pour all of the tomato sauce over the meat-bread mixture in the casserole dish. If you plan to eat only one or two servings immediately, portion out individual one-cup servings onto plates and pour about 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce over each. Spoon the yogurt (or a 1/4 cup portion over individual servings) on/in the baking dish on the side. Bake for 15 minutes until heated thoroughly.

Serve immediately. If serving to guests, you may wish to serve it with melted butter that guests may pour over the kabob to suit their tastes. If healthy or spicy is preferable, serve with zata’ar and/or Harissa. I suggest balancing this dish with a leafy green salad, though not traditionally Turkish …unless it’s sliced onions and parsley!

The Iskender kabob and Ala Turka:  A Turkish discovery in Oman

Turkish food is high on my list of favorite national cuisines.  I am a sucker for mezze (small hot and cold appetizers, though I make meals out of them), but a good kabob or pide is a solid bet.  Yet it took a trip to Oman to try a special kabob I’d yet to discover:  The Iskender kabob.

I grew up associating kabobs with meat on a stick (or skewer).  My travels made me understand that kabobs take many forms.  What I thought of as a kabob is a more specific form, the brochette.
Kabobs can take many forms – whether cubes of meat are used, or whether they more resemble kofta (or kefte), made with ground meat -usually beef or lamb or a combination of the two. I had not experienced the Iskender kabob, which bears little resemblance to any of the above types of kabob.
Enter Ala Turka, an unsassuming casual restaurant in the Jaharat al Shatti shopping center in a posh neighborhood of Oman’s capital, Oman.  It’s not quite worthy to be labeled as a dive. Yet it’s certainly not high-end, either, with flowered plastic tablecloths and paper placemats, as well as the symbol of a local establishment in Oman – a box of facial tissues are your napkins.  Those facial tissues should be the official Omani flower.  It’s clearly a great choice of hand wipe when serving or eating messy food (eye roll).
The Iskender kabob is not ubiquitous Turkish fare, but it clearly spread far from its origins in Bursa, a city in northwestern Turkey It is a decadent dish that seems part shawarma and part curry.  Doner meat (shaved lamb, beef, or chicken, roasted on a vertical spit) combines toasted, fluffy pide bread. Smothered with a buttery tomato sauce, warm, strained yogurt tops it or is served on the side. It is typical to drizzle melted butter on the meat and bread during and after cooking. Personally, I can do without the butter, but the tomato-yogurt-meat-bread combination is filling, tangy and rich. It is a dish that combines such simple flavors but produces spectacular result.

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Lest I shortchange the rest of Ala Turka’s menu, their spiced Adana kabobs, Beyti kabobs (above; think of a kabob stromboli – meat, topped with cheese, wrapped in a flaky flatbread pastry and baked), and their mezze were good. While their mezze was not outstanding, the bread served with their mezze platter was great.  I’ve had it before, but it’s not on every Turkish menu, so it’s worth mentioning.

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It resembles a giant, puffy football (above).  Hot out of the oven, when one cuts into it, the steam releases and the football deflates, leaving a shell of bread, brushed with a hint of butter and black sesame seeds. Delicious on its own, it makes mezze more fabulous.
Want to learn how to recreate the Iskender kabob in your own kitchen? Watch out for my next post, in which I’ll tell you how you can do it easily and still fit it into a healthy diet!

Where to go for dates

Tonight is date night. Choose wisely!

Dates are more important than you might think – human survival has depended upon them in many cases. All dates are not the same. The range in appearance and texture is unexpectedly wide. A good date is sweet and gives you a boost of energy, while a bad date can be dry or even tasteless. Selecting the right date can be difficult. If you know where to look, though, you can really find quality dates. I’ve learned a lot about dates lately, and I’d like to help you navigate the date world.

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Oh, wait. You saw the title and expected to get the scoop on dates of another kind. Sorry, casual Word Press blogger! Welcome to this lovely food and travel blog! Stay awhile! There’s so much to learn about dates – the desert fruit that’s not just dessert!

Horrible entendres aside, visits to the Middle East helped me understand how critical dates have been to the survival of people in arid climates for centuries and why they’re more interesting – not to mention, delicious – than meets the eye.

If you’ve ever traveled to the Middle East or North Africa, you may have a different perspective on dates than the rest of us. I grew up having little experience with them other than as a dried, chopped component of muesli or other packaged breakfast cereal. I thought they were odd and usually picked them out. Little did I know how great sun-dried dates can be.

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Historically, dates were a critical part of the desert culture, diet, and its economy, which was certainly true in Oman. According to a tour guide, dates comprised 60% of the Bedouin diet (fish were the other key staple). Date plantations were big business in the desert, even requiring turret-like watchtowers to protect the precious trees. These plantations are not quite what westerners associate with the term. By western standards, date plantations are small relative to western-style corporate farms or the historic plantations of the American South. Natural pollination is difficult, so farmers do it manually. Local markets still sell the coveted flowers from male palms, which then are used pollinate the female plants by hand (how racy! See, now I’m speaking your language, casual blog reader!).

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Anyhow, to keep their groves productive, farmers developed clever irrigation systems to move water from the mountains or wadis to the desert plantations. Today, roughly the same technology carries this water as did four hundred years ago (photo above). All of this effort is worth it, as even with such limitations, a single date palm can yield 300 kilograms each year. That’s bang for the buck – or rial, I’d say!

In Oman, dates are harvested and enjoyed fresh between the months of June through September – something to anticipate during the oppressive heat of summer. After the harvest, Omanis continue to enjoy sun-dried dates, which are ‘in season’ from October through December.

Date palms sustained the Bedouin economy in many more ways than the fruit or as food. Date palms provided wood for construction, fiber for woven mats, baskets, and other home uses, many of which continue today.

While dates and fish sustained the average Bedouin tribesman for centuries, the traditional reverence for dates remains today. Good hospitality dictates that if you are a guest of an Omani, you will almost certainly be offered energy-giving dates, accompanied by small cups of black coffee laced with cardamom. The fragrant yet bitter coffee is the perfect counterpoint to balance the sticky sweetness of the dates. For luck, in Islamic tradition, it is best to partake in odd numbers – one, three, or seven at a time. I don’t know about anyone else, but three is enough to give me a sugar crash on an empty morning stomach, though before and after hard manual labor in desert heat, the date would certainly be a quick way to revive oneself.

If you’re from Europe, East Asia, or the Americas, you might be surprised to learn that there are an abundance of different varieties of dates. Like coffee, chocolate, wines, or other delicacies, each date variety might have certain notes or aromas reminiscent of other flavors. I tasted some (like the Sukhary variety pictured below, which was the most expensive one we tried) that reminded me of a floral honey. Others were almost toffee-like, while still others reminded me of dried plums. Some were more starchy than others. The side by side taste test I experienced in the famous markets of the former Omani capital city of Nizwa was a great experience. I was happy to bring home a package of dates – most markets offer vacuum-sealed packages for tourists whose customs and agricultural authorities are restrictive. The sugar crash wasn’t great, but it definitely gave us an energy boost!

So where do you go for good dates? Why, the desert, of course!

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Global food adventures in the Sultanate of Oman

What is Omani cuisine?  And where is Oman?  I’ll answer these questions in my next few posts.  Join me on a culinary tour of the exotic Sultanate of Oman.

The Middle East.  When you think of the region’s cuisine, shawarma, kabobs, hummus, falafel, halva/halwa, and baklava are a few of the images that might come to mind. Those images aren’t far off, but the wide range of geography and history in the region have  created unexpeected culinary diversity in each locale.

A traditional Arabic mezze platter  in Oman.

A traditional Arabic mezze platter in Oman.

I was fortunate enough to spend time in Oman, which is a great example of Middle Eastern culinary globalization, well before globalization became an over-used buzz word.  No, not to be confused with Amman, Jordan, this is Oman the country – or more accurately, the Sultanate.  In Oman, the land of the Arabian nights and nomadic Bedouin tribes in the desert still exists together with a modern, globalized coastline.
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If you try to define Omani cuisine, one might point to “traditional” or indigenous cuisine of the Bedouins – heavy on dates and fish, such as kingfish, tuna, and snapper. But it’s not the entire picture.   The Sultanate is a trading nation.  It is an immigrant and expatriate nation.  What that means for its cuisine is a long tradition of access to and influence by a variety of other cultures from three continents that has expanded even further in the past century.
 
  
 
Oman is fortunate to occupy a key coastal location that situates it ideally for trade between east and west; between Africa, Europe, and South Asia. Omanis proudly share that their country’s triangular, southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula touches three seas successively from north to south:  the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and Arabian Sea. At one time in the 19th century, the Omani empire stretched from the southern island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, and northeast to include parts of present-day Pakistan, those influences are present today in Muscat.
The Omanis proudly claim that they were never truly colonized, though the Persians (Iran), Portuguese, and Ottomans might argue that point.  In the early 20th century, Oman became a Protectorate of Great Britain.  Today, nearly half of Omani residents are expatriates, and half of those expatriates are Indian. Pakistani, Filipino, and European immigrants (many from the British Isles) also make up large segments of the Omani population.
In food terms, you see quite a bit of Indian and south Asian restaurants. Iranian and Lebanese influences show at local restaurants, many of which are labeled Lebanese restaurants (even if the food isn’t really all Lebanese).  I can’t even begin to explain that one. Turkish food also is quite popular, having made inroads even in the deserts near Nizwa and southwest of Muscat – separated by mountains.  A bit of home for expats shows up in chain restaurants and retail stores:  French grocery powerhouse Carrefour has a presence there. British, Canadian, and American restaurant chains also reign supreme. Pizza Express, Costa Coffee, Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s, and Domino’s Pizza have multiple locations.
In Oman, I was in heaven with my Turkish, Indian, and Lebanese fare. I am picky with my meats, however, and I was a bit disappointed with my “local” meals in Oman – large portions and good flavors, but a few sinewy pieces of  meat  on the bone and overcooked or fishy fish made me wary.  After seeing a fish market – below – in the heat, it also made me think twice about ordering fish. Adaptation aside, I’ll share more of the highlights from my great food adventures in Oman in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!

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