Bilad Sayt, an Arabian village near Jebel Shams in Oman. Courtesy of mzagerp/Flickr.
Oman is a land of cultural diversity, rich history, and abundant natural beauty. From the capital city of Muscat and well beyond, the country has always been an underrated and unexplored part of Arabia. So why isn't it at the top of travelers’ bucket lists? From its 3,000-kilometer-long coastline and the highest mountain peak on the Arabian Peninsula to its culinary excellence dating back centuries, Oman is an epitome of adventure, heritage—and delicious food, lots of which reflect foreign influence absorbed from the country’s long-held role as a powerful trading empire in Arabia.
So let’s consider what a trip to Oman might entail—what one may do and eat and experience on such a trip. Here’s our mini-guide to Oman food and travel, hitting on the country’s five most iconic dishes and five most fascinating natural sites to visit.
Oman’s 5 Most-Loved Foods and Drinks
All photos courtesy of Rahma Khan except where indicated.
Kahwa, the national drink of Oman, is an Arabian version of black coffee. Coffee beans are pan-roasted, and then steamed with charcoal to impart an aromatic flavor. As a final garnish, cardamom, saffron, and a spoonful of rose water are added to the drink. Because kahwa is naturally a bitter drink, it is customary to serve it with Omani dates or halwa—a soft, sweet dessert with many variations—to balance the taste. Kahwa is traditionally offered as a welcome drink in Oman, at any time of day. However, in the country’s rural regions, it’s also a mandatory part of the Omani breakfast.
Where to find it: Kahwa in Oman is practically easier to find than water! It is such an important part of Omani culture that it’s served free at all government offices, banks, and even at the offices of private companies. A great kahwa in Muscat can be found at Al-Makan Café, also known as Kahwa Makan. It is an urban-style seesha café located in Al-Seeb, Muscat Grand Mall and on the Al Shatti Street in Muscat (map).
Harees is a type of savory, thick wheat porridge, a popular Middle Eastern dish that reflects variations across the region—most of which contain minced lamb meat (much like haleem in North India). In Oman, however, it is traditionally vegetarian and made with crushed red and brown lentils instead of wheat; mild spices like salt, pepper, and cinnamon are added for flavor. Even so, the lentil version of harees is harder to come by these days outside the home, as the new generation of Omanis are adapting to the wheat and meat dish—the version more common across country lines.
Whichever harees you find in Oman, the traditional way to eat it is by dipping a piece of khubz in it, an Arabian bread similar to pita. But it can also be eaten just like soup with a spoon—mostly for dinner, as it’s light and easy to digest.
Where to find it: Harees can be found all across Muscat, but one of the most popular places to eat it is the Arab World Restaurant (this is, to clarify, the wheat and meat version). It’s an Omani restaurant with a section for floor seating, where the food is served on the floor in one big dish for everyone to share. Guests are encouraged to eat the food with their fingers, keeping with Omani tradition (map).
It is safe to say kabouli (also spelled kaabouli or kabuli) is the king of Omani cuisine. Similar in taste and appearance to biryani, kabouli is likewise a rice dish cooked with either chicken or lamb meat. It consists of aromatic basmati rice flavored with a masala, or ground spice mix, that includes cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon, and is served with fried onions and sometimes a tomato and onion puree on top, for extra flavor. Dried fruits or nuts are often added for garnish as well. Kaabouli is a mandatory dish at any important event in Oman like weddings, birthday parties, and even funerals, but fortunately, you can also taste it in local restaurants.
Where to find it: For a legit kaabouli, Bukhari House Restaurant in Muscat (map) is the place to go. It’s an Afghani restaurant that serves Middle Eastern and Central Asian cuisine.
After kabouli, the next most important dish in Oman is shuwa—essentially grilled lamb, but it’s the cooking method that makes shuwa unique. The meat is heavily marinated with local spices, which include a local variation of nutmeg that’s grown in Oman’s Sharqiyah region as well as organic chili powder paste made by crushing the chilies on a flat rock with a smaller stone. It’s then wrapped in palm fronds or banana leaves and buried underground in a thin steel pot, where it’s cooked on a low flame for a day or two, typically in communal shuwa pits.
The steam and heat make the meat incredibly tender, with a crispy spice-laden crust, and imparts a great smoky aroma to it. Once the meat is cooked, it is sprinkled with lemon juice and coriander (aka cilantro). Shuwa is mostly eaten with plain basmati rice, although some prefer it with bread. It is a special-occasion dish, made on big holidays such as the religious festival of Eid or the national day of Oman.
Where to find it: Omanis claim to cook the best shuwa themselves at home, unsurprisingly, but if you don’t have a local family to invite you over, a good bet is to try it at a Muscat branch of Shuwa Express (multiple locations including Bareeq Al-Shatti, map). (Or try Bait Al Luban, where the shuwa photo above was taken.)
The national fruit of Oman, the date holds a special place in Arabian culture and is widely grown across the country. Halwa means “sweet” in Arabic, and many countries from Greece and Turkey to India make their own type of halwa (see this Indian moong dal halwa, for example). For date halwa, tons of dates are deseeded, crushed, and then cooked in huge pans with sugar, cardamom, and cloves. A sweet syrup is prepared with sugar and water, and added to the dish to thin out its texture. Once the dessert is mixed, it is put into round containers for a few hours until it forms a circular mold. Finally, the date halwa is garnished with cashew nuts before serving. It has a sweet taste and a somewhat thick, viscous texture due to being stirred in the sugar water on high heat while being cooked.
Where to find it:All the big malls and supermarkets sell date halwa; however, we think the best one can be found at the Halwa Factory (Wadi Al Baha’is St., Khaudh, As Seeb, map) in Muscat, where tons of it are made every single day.
Wahiba Sands, courtesy of Chris Geatch/Flickr
Top 5 Places to See in Oman
Our top picks for sightseeing in Oman are all within a few hours’ drive of Muscat; many of them can be done as a day trip from the capital. Guided day trips with transportation to all of these places from Muscat can be booked online via Viator or Get Your Guide.
Not many people know that Oman has some of the most pristine beaches and a very diverse marine life, which cannot be found anywhere else in the Arabian Gulf. The Daymaniyat Islands archipelago is one of the best places to experience this in Oman. Located 70 km west of Muscat, this cluster of nine small islands is also a nature reserve and a protected site in Oman. Popular for its crystal-clear water and vibrant corals, the Daymaniyat Islands are a hot spot for snorkeling and diving. Tiger sharks and green turtles can be spotted easily during their breeding season, which runs from April to September. Map
The highest peak on the Arabian Peninsula, Jebal Shams, the “Mountain of Sun” in Arabic, stands tall at 3,000 meters above sea level, affording sweeping views of the deep Wadi Ghul (aka the Grand Canyon of Arabia) alongside it. Located 3.5 hours southwest of Muscat by car, Jebel Shams is a very popular destination for adventure activities like trekking, bungee jumping, and mountain marathoning. Moreover, a lot of local and foreign tourists head out to the mountain for bonfires and camping on weekends, especially during the winter months when temperatures drop below freezing. Witnessing the sunrise and sunset from the main viewpoint on the mountain is a highlight of visiting here. Map
Ras Al Hadd (Turtle Beach)
A three hours’ drive southeast along the coast from Muscat is the serene and quiet Ras Al Hadd beach, also known as Turtle Beach. Located in the governorate of Sur, the beach became popular because it’s the only green turtle reserve in the Arabian Gulf. Every year between April and September, hundreds of green sea turtles march to the shores of Ras Al Hadd for breeding. There is a turtle-breeding area on the beach, which can be visited by paying a small fee. A turtle sanctuary is there as well, where the turtles are cared for as needed. Map
The Bimmah sinkhole, also called Hawiyat Najm, is a huge turquoise water-filled depression 90 minutes southeast of Muscat by car that formed due to the dissolution of limestone in the soil here many years ago. The water pit is said to be gradually getting deeper, with the current depth being around 20 meters (65 feet). The government has turned the Bimmah sinkhole into a public park and popular tourist attraction,particularly among cliff divers and other adventure sports activists. The emerald-colored water of the sinkhole is also home to doctor fishes, a great source of natural pedicure—the small fish nibble on the dead skin of your feet—an activity loved by the tourists who visit there. Map
Oman is a land of wonders with four different colors of sand found in the country. A four hours’ drive south from Muscat lies the vast and beautiful golden-sand desert known as the Wahiba Sands. The huge desert, rippled with dunes, once belonged to the Bedouin tribes who lived there for centuries. To experience the essence of Omani Bedouin values, a visit here is mandatory. There are many modern tourist desert camps in Wahiba Sands with designs inspired by the old Bedouin houses.
The nearest desert camp to reach from Muscat is Al-Reem Desert Camp, located in Jalan Bani Bu Hassan, a town at the edge of the desert. Al-Reem can be reached without a 4WD vehicle; a night’s stay at the camp (inclusive of dinner and breakfast) costs approximately $150 (though be warned the price tends to increase 20 to 30 percent during the winter months, November to February). Map
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About the author: Rahma Khan is a freelance writer and the travel blogger behind The Sane Adventurer, a blog aimed at safe travels and adventures. Her love for traveling across all the continents, trying out different cuisines and meeting new people is slowly but passionately taking her to new places. Her travel tales and foodie experiences are published on various travel sites across the world. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook.