Middle Eats

A new cookbook dives deep into Omani cooking

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Felicia Campbell, a blonde California native, is a somewhat-unlikely champion for Omani cooking, but her new book, The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia, offers the first serious English-language look into the country's complex cuisine.

"Their food is a complete reflection of the ancient spice routes," Campbell says. The spice routes stretched across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan and Iran, next door to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, down to East Africa and into the Greater Middle East. In Oman, those influences mean spicy squid curry made with coconut milk (from Zanzibar) can appear alongside biryanis (from India), tea flavored with local black limes and lamb kebabs seasoned with an entire spice rack. Omani cooking is the definition of an ancient melting pot.

An Omani man enjoying black lime tea

Campbell's introduction to the Middle East came when she was deployed to Iraq in early 2003, having left college to enlist in the army after September 11. Part of the first wave of troops to arrive—before military living quarters and chow halls were set up—her division subsisted on two liters of water and one MRE (or Meal Ready to Eat) a day.

When an Iraqi man opened a small café on the base, the army posted a sign saying "Unauthorized eating establishment, eat at your own risk," Campbell recalled in a 2013 Saveur article. Despite the sign, Campbell went in, handed the man $2 and received a plate of flatbread and grilled chicken spiced with cardamom, cloves, rose hips and fenugreek. Eating at "the club," as the people on the base called the café, changed things for Campbell.

"The longer I was [in Iraq], the more intensely curious I became about the people," she says. "The only way in for me, while I was in the military, was food—it was this very intimate experience we could have despite the fact that we were carrying guns."

Since her time in the army, Campbell has traveled extensively in the Middle East, developing a strong tie to Oman, whose slow and hospitable culture reminds her of Iraq. "When I set off for Oman for the first time . . . I certainly wasn't expecting to find an answer to that unnamed longing that had been scratching at the inside of my chest since I returned from serving in the war in Iraq in 2004," she writes in the book.

Men weighing produce and attending an outdoor produce market

She was also amazed by the cuisine. "I was just blown away by this totally different food. It was unlike any other Middle Eastern food I had had. It was kind of similar to some of the Pakistani food that I had had but not really," she tells me. She and recipe writer Dawn Mobley spent months developing relationships with local women, many of whom opened their doors to them to teach them the recipes for savory porridges, roasted meats rubbed with heady spice mixes and cardamom-infused breads.

While the cookbook is part personal journey, it is more significantly an excellent introduction to a cuisine that is virtually unknown in the U.S. The recipes are interspersed with essays introducing readers to Omani history, customs and contemporary life, and nearly all of the recipes appear with an explanation of where the dish is from, how it is served and sometimes a story of the people who taught Campbell and Mobley how to prepare it.

As Campbell puts it: "This book is an invitation to explore a place you might never have heard of through the foods of Oman and the people behind them." It's an invitation we happily accept.