Now, back to our story. On Sunday, we had had the incredible experience of visiting the Royal Cavalry HQ and the lovely runners and jumpers at the immaculately-groomed facility in As-Seeb. We had been blessed to see General Alshahwarzi in his own habitat, surrounded by a clearly-devoted staff, and dressed in Army khakis, handsome and absolutely immaculate .
We had had photos taken, which were to remain private and for our own use only. And, General Abdi had given us lovely personal gifts, including a photo album book and history of the Royal Cavalry that I had been waiting for, to become available for purchase, for months, but it hadn’t. It was like he had read my mind. Sadly, we planned to get together one more time before we left but through SNAFUs, that never happened before we had to leave town. He had an event at the mosque with his son on our only available night, and we missed an email inviting us to dinner at Al Bustan, with the same group as before, on Friday night. We were gone anyway, two days before, and didn’t get the invitation for several days later when we came out of the mountains and deserts to Salalah. God willing, the General will be coming to our races again this year – it is a testament to Omani character that they would take an interest in our tiny little races. I continue to shake my head in wonder at this little fairy-tale kingdom.
The next morning, our cooking class was scheduled – this had to have been the funniest part of our trip. Scheduled through Ocean Blue Oman, with Clara Zawawi, owner, and Anna Palaszynska, who seems to be the General Manager, the event was to occur at Bait al Bilad, their fully restored and authentic village house on the beach of Qantab, the fishing village that lies along the Gulf of Oman, near our hotel. They also offer guests an authentic Omani dining experience, surrounded by the jebel (mountains) and the sea, but today we were going to learn to make an Omani meal ourselves.
As we hopped into our taxi, we realized we had no idea of where we were going other than the name of the village. But it was a small village, right? So we didn’t worry, though the taxi driver seemed a bit concerned. Anna had pointed the house out when she took us on the sunset sea cruise along the shores another day, so I knew in a general way what we were aiming for.
We found two colorfully dressed native Omani women sitting under a tree working, so I stopped to ask if they had any idea where Bait al Bilad cooking/restaurant might be. Actually, this was a cooperative effort since they didn’t speak English and my Modern Standard Arabic (though I worked very hard on it) was basically useless here. One of the women knew what I wanted and shouted out directions to the driver. Oh, dear . . . my only criticism of anyone here . . . to be as kind as I can, let me say she had an “uncultured voice”. Should they ever need an Omani Eliza Doolittle, however . . . or a raucous crow voice imitation for a commercial . . . .
Anna was talking with a neighbor while standing in the dusty roadway looking down the road in our direction. It may also have occurred to her that we had no idea of where we were supposed to be. We hugged and then she led us to their tree-covered, Mexican-style walled patio. We were introduced to our tutors for the day and our work began. The two village ladies were dressed in bright colors just as the two ladies under the tree were earlier.
For starters, Tom and I sat outside on cushions while they demonstrated good technique for making their very, very thin traditional bread. The bread pro would take a handful of very soft dough, bread and water only I think, and would sort of slap it lightly against a heavy, centimeter-thick metal oval that had been preheated to the point that droplets of water would run off if flicked at the surface. She made it look so easy, quickly covering the surface with thin dough without burning even one finger. My turn . . . I tried and tried but one attempt after another found its way to the reject pile. Then, it was Tom’s turn, but his sorry messes were put on the “good” pile. Blatant sexism!
I tried again and ended up laughing and crying in frustration as lumpy messes flowed from my fingertips. I vowed to buy my own pan and master this at home. (Never give up!!!) Thankfully, I have been spared further humiliation because we were far, far overweight and I couldn’t ship one home!
From here, we all went inside to prepare a hot dish and Omani doughnuts. Tom and I cut up veggies and received explanations about the spices. I was a little concerned when I saw garlics going into the mixture – I HATE garlic (a residual affect of too many years spent in Korea) – but I couldn’t taste it in the final product later (they must really put A LOT of garlic in Korean food for me to have acquired a life-long aversion to the stuff). One of the ladies again demonstrated awesome dough-taming skills as she grabbed a handful of thicker dough this time, squeezing her fingers in a loose fist until a little glob appeared in the hole formed between her rounded thumb and fore-finger. She would take a spoon each time a measured-portion of dough appeared and would cut it off and shoot it expertly into the waiting kettle of boiling oil. Never a splash. We later would find these little doughnut balls for sale all over Muscat.
Finally, we were able to eat. We had helped prepare a salad, too, and all was very prettily set on the table out in the courtyard of Bait al Bilad. By this time, a third woman was present – maybe from Sri Lanka? I forget. But she looked just like my mother did in her wedding photos. She graciously allowed me to get her picture so I could show my niece later.
The food was oh so very awesome! We left with our own set of spices and a recipe book so we could make the same good foods at home. I still may try to buy that round bread pan . . . glutton for punishment. Failure bothers me . . . it is very motivating!
This was without a doubt the most fun we had in Oman. I don’t know when I have laughed so much. I think we spent the rest of the afternoon out on the lawn of Al Bustan being served drinks as we read our books and enjoyed the sunshine, as visions of little doughnuts danced in our heads.