Slow cooking in the sand

Food politics
The importance of slowness in food, and food in celebration.

It started with a text message.

“Chris says can you pack a tie. You’re off to a wedding or something”.

I looked down at the carefully packed bags at my feet and realised that ‘bring a tie’ actually meant ‘bring a whole set of smart clothes, including shoes, not just a tie’, and started to unpack everything again. ‘Smart clothes’ weren’t really part of the plan.

That text message led me on a journey across the centre of Oman to a a town just off the main highway, and into the grounds of a mosque where Rashid was celebrating his marriage.

Omani weddings are very fluid affairs, and I’d ended up there because my friend Chris had been asked along by another friend of his who knew the groom. Apparently, that sort of ultra-tenuous connection is perfectly fine when it comes to wedding celebrations in the Middle East – there’s none of the formality and fretting about minor things like guest lists or the rest of the baggage that comes with a British wedding.

So, there we were, in a dusty compound, me dressed in a crumpled shirt, looking a little like I’d got hopelessly lost on the way to a fairly lacklustre conference of some sort, Chris in a dishdasha, a traditional Omani form of dress, and feeling really quite Western and concerned that he’d committed a huge social faux pas (he hadn’t). We’d driven for miles to get there, and the fluidity of proceedings, and the fact that these things go on for days, meant that we’d missed the ceremony itself, but had arrived in time for something to eat, which we think was the part we were actually invited to anyway.

It was difficult to tell, so we just shook hands with a lot of people, sat down where the man obviously nominated to look after us told us to, and waited.

There were mats everywhere, big rattan or cotton mats across the whole of the compound. Given the way we were sat, lined up along one edge of a large mat facing and smiling and nodding at another line of traditionally attired Omanis tapping away on their smartphones, I guessed that they were expecting a couple of hundred people.

Not much happened for a while except more smiling and nodding, as more and more people emerged from the hot night, the air thick and close, wisps of dust kicking up from people’s feet, a sense of expectancy and quiet reverence hanging in the air.

Slow cooked Omani lamb

Eventually, a swarm of men carrying plates and trays covered in billowing plastic bags descended, and the waiting masses broke up into small groups of three or four, in a movement that happened so fast and with such graceful ease that it looked as if it had been rehearsed en-masse many times before, which it probably had, at every single similar wedding.

The tray bearers placed a large plate in front of us and revealed a steaming mound of rice, cooked with a few spices like cardamon and cinnamon, with a pile of tender slow-roasted lamb on top. The lamb had clearly been cooking for the whole day, huge chunks of shoulder smeared in a spice paste and roasted slowly over a low fire.

We broke strands of lamb off and ate them with the rice, working the food into little balls with our right hands and trying not to drop it everywhere. Later, our host emerged with yet more lamb, cut from the edge of whatever joint it was, and heavy with spices. It was very good indeed, and was obviously a choice cut brought out just for us Europeans in a quiet show of hospitality. That meat was beautiful, and the kindness we experienced as a group of strangers at a village celebration, awkward, out of place and not quite sure what to do, was little short of astonishing, but this was people brought together to share some food in celebration of their friend’s wedding … they had good reason to be happy, and they were happy to share that feeling.

A day or so before, we’d driven deep into the Omani desert, thrashing a hired 4×4 with deflated tyres through the sands, to a tourist camp in the heart of the dunes.

It was a very civilised place, barely ‘camping’ as you’d know it, more lazing around in fairly plush Bedouin style tents and watching the sun set over the dunes, with their waves and flows shimmering in the golden light of dusk.

For dinner,  we ate more slow roasted lamb, cooked in a large pit over a smouldering fire. This method of cooking is called a shuwa, and it’s normally reserved for very important occasions, such as Rashid’s wedding, or the third day of Eid, or for tourists at desert camps, it seems.

Slow cooked Omani lamb

Cooking shuwa is a form of celebration that often involves a whole community or village, who will all take part in the preparation and cooking of the food, often a whole lamb or a goat, marinaded in turmeric, chilli, coriander, cumin, cardamom, garlic and vinegar. The meat is bundled up into a parcel using banana or palm leaves and lowered into an oven set on top of a gently smouldering fire. The oven and the fire are then covered with sacks and buried deep in sand, so that the fire is properly dampened and controlled.

The whole thing is left alone for anything up to two days, with only a nervous chef to periodically check for disastrous signs of escaping smoke or steam, which indicates that the fire has flared up, out of control.

When it’s finally ready, the sand is shoveled eagerly away from the top of the oven, and the bundle retrieved with much theatrical heaving.  The cord holding the cradle of banana leaves together is quickly cut away and the bundle opened with much steam and a few nervous gasps as those responsible for it discover whether or not the contents have been burnt to a cinder.

Done properly, the end result is superb – tender, gently spiced meat that falls apart at the slightest nudge. As national dishes go, it’s really not bad, and as the centrepiece of a celebration, it’s unrivaled.

Maybe this is another example of context affecting perception. Maybe that lamb I ate in the dust of a mosque’s grounds, or the same meal I ate under a canopy of desert stars was just the same as the lamb I  chuck in the oven for a couple of hours for the occasional Sunday lunchtime.

Maybe it was identical, but of course, it wasn’t … it was completely different because eating it was wrapped up in experiences  so out of the ordinary, so unusual, that I’m unlikely to ever forget those meals.

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