Archives for posts with tag: Oman

Little things in every day life in Oman tend to go back hundreds of years. They open up stories that are fascinating and contribute both to culture and history. The reference here is to cloves – a spice that is found in every Omani kitchen. Stop at any of the hundreds of shawarma outlets in the country and the aroma of cloves floats up and fills the senses together with the aroma of the meat being grilled on the vertical spit. The smell is a high note, distinct and full of flavour. How did a dry and arid country with little else than dates and sardines introduce cloves into their diet? And where did it come from?

Like many of the other introductions to life in Oman, it was the spirit of adventure of the Omani sailor that brought the clove to the country. It is difficult to give an exact timeline to it but it was certainly hundreds of years before the western powers ventured into the Indian Ocean and beyond. The Omani mariner could have come upon the clove when the nakhooda anchored for fresh water and food among the legendary Spice Islands now forming part of Indonesia. Or, he could have come across it at the court of one of the Chinese emperors. Cloves were in use in China from around the 3rd century BC and they were also known to the Romans. The Chinese kept a single clove in the mouth to sweeten the breath. It took hundreds of years from there for the western world to understand the economic worth of the spice trade. By the time the European countries woke up to cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and pepper they were already a part of the Omani diet. The foreign powers waged spice wars that were fought ruthlessly on both land and at sea.

At the end of a voyage, many an Omani sailor would have put a few cloves in his pocket and taken it home to his wife and instructed her to add a little of it to the family cooking. She must have experimented with it and tried it in turn on rice, lentils, fish and meat. There is no way one can put a date to when it started but it was decidedly hundreds of years before the rest of the world stumbled on the flavour. Cloves gradually became ubiquitous in Omani cooking. The spice is referred to as coronfil (or qaranful) on the grocery shelves in Oman. The name bears a close resemblance to the name for cloves used on the West Coast of India – karambu. Both names again take their source from the botanical name for the tree Syzgium Aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata).

For a brief period in history, clove cultivation was confined to just two islands in Indonesia. The Portuguese and then the Dutch held the global clove trade  monopoly. To control the world market, they eliminated the trees from all but one or two islands like Amboina and Ternate.  In the second half of the 18th century, the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to the Indian Ocean islands and to the New World breaking the Dutch monopoly. Thanks to this, clove trees began to thrive in several parts of the world. As a trading nation Oman watched these developments with keen interest.

In the late 17th century, Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman.  Sayyid Said Bin Sultain bin Al Imam Ahmad bin Said Al Bu Saidi or Said Sayyid as he was popularly known was born in 1791 and came to the throne in 1806.  Said Sayyid made Zanzibar his capital city in 1832. A few years into his reign cloves found their way into Zanzibar and the cultivation of this spice tree started on the east coast of Africa. The temperature, rainfall and humidity were ideal for the crop and the trees took root without problems. In 1828, Said Sayyid visited Zanzibar and Pemba and acquired two properties on which cloves were cultivated. During his lifetime these two places became the largest clove producers in the world.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, clove trees were introduced to Zanzibar and Said had the good business sense to grow them as a plantation crop for export …..” writes Patricia Rosso in her book Oman and Muscat. The ruler’s efforts must have been so successful that he made Zanzibar his primary residence after 1841. American ships from Salem Massachusetts had been trading with Zanzibar for several years. During the reign of Said Sayyid, the US government took the initiative to make trade relations easier by removing the customs duties payable on its exports. President Andrew Jackson sent Edmund Roberts to Muscat to begin trade talks with Said Sayyid. It was not difficult for the Omani merchant to trade in cloves or carry cloves to different markets. But the fortunes of the clove trade were mired in both politics and the vagaries of economics.

In 1861 after the death of Said Sayyid, Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate.  Cloves continued to dominate the fortunes of Zanzibar and contributed in great measure to the economy of the island. A hundred years later, the short lived Sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba created a flag that had two cloves in a circle of green on a full red base.

While political and economic fortunes changed with the passage of time, the properties of cloves remained constant. The clove still continues to play a dominant role in the kitchens of Oman. Today, cloves lend flavour to everything from Bizar Al Omani  (Omani Spice Mix) to Bizar Shuwa (Shuwa Spice Mix). The list of Omani recipes that need a few cloves to round off the flavours is by no means limited. They are found in recipes originating in every one of the regions of the country. Traditional preparations like Foaq Al Aish (Over the Rice) and Tahat Al Aish (Under the Rice) use whole cloves to lend the distinct flavour.  Its whole cloves that go into the Ouzi or Baryani and the Ka’ata Bil Laham as well. In some of the preparations the cloves are left whole. In others they are crushed in a mortar to release the flavours before adding to the food or as in the Spice Mix mechanically pulverised at a commercial food factory to come up with the right blend. Cloves are added to rice and lentil dishes as well but are not very popular for the catch of the day.

Clove production in Zanzibar has diminished and Indonesia has regained its former status producing nearly 20% of the world crop. Other countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka and India have also got into the business. Clove prices shoot up every time there is a shortfall in one of the major producing areas. For those living in Oman who will always continue to use the spice, the comfort is that it takes just one or two of these spice buds to flavour an entire meal.

Qaranqasho

“Come before sunset,” advises Mohamed our host and long time friend. Mohamed has  invited us to join the family as they break their fast on the fourteenth day of the month of Ramadan 1434 AH. This year the holy month started in the first week of July and will end with the festival of Eid in early August. The temperatures in Muscat are in the high thirties and in other parts of Oman in the forties. It is a difficult time to fast but there are no choices and the faithful observe the fast that starts before sunrise and ends with sunset. “This year we are fasting for around fifteen hours every day,” explains Mohamed.

A food mat is spread on the carpet in the majlis[i] and the simple items for breaking the fast are placed on it – there are two varieties of fresh dates, fruits, water and kahwa[ii]. We sit around and after the fast comes to an end, join the family as they eat the dates and quench their thirst. Within minutes the men in the family are out of the house and off to the mosque. Later after they have had their meal they will go back to the mosque for the magrib[iii] prayer.

When Mohamed returns after prayers he tells us that fasting as a part of prayer was a practice that was adopted in earlier religions. “My children are still not old enough to fast but they will be gradually initiated into fasting and will be ready to fast when they are fourteen.”

Parents begin by encouraging children to fast for a few hours, then half a day and gradually a full day. Then the children improve on their efforts and fast for a few days at a stretch. By fourteen they are all ready to join the millions of the faithful all over the world who observe the fast.

In Oman, children who are initiated into fasting are encouraged and rewarded on Qaranqasho – a day mid-way in the month of Ramadan. The observance of Qaranqasho goes back centuries. There is a belief that the practice pre-dates the advent of Islam but there is little evidence of how the practice evolved. Similar practices are observed in several of the other countries in the Middle East but they have different names.

 On Qaranqasho evening, children carry a lantern, sing songs and go around their neighbourhood knocking on the doors of friends and relatives. The children are welcomed in every home and rewarded with sweets and gifts. In recent years, Qaranqasho has been successfully hijacked by commercial enterprises and marketing companies and is today announced with prominent advertising and sponsored events for children.

Two of Mohamed’s children attend a Quran school. Lukman needs little prompting to put the IPad down and recite “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim…. In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful….” This year they are not a part of the Qaranqasho procession but in a few years they will join other children and announce to the world that they have joined the community in fasting during the month of Ramadan.

 

 

 


[i] The sitting room

[ii] Cardamom flavoured coffee

[iii] Fourth of five daily prayers