Restaurants in larger hotels offer predictable dining experiences and though none is Michelin-starred, many are excellent. Throughout Oman are plenty of smaller cafe-type ‘local’ restaurants: these are very basic, but the food can be delicious and belies the simplicity of the décor.
Outside Muscat the menu choice is limited and chicken, mutton and fish are frequently served. Vegetarians are also usually well catered for: as large numbers of Indian expatriates are vegetarian for religious reasons, many places offer a range of vegetarian dishes, with fried vegetables and dhal available in most local restaurants. A big variety of vegetarian meze or starters based around tomatoes, onions and aubergines are on offer in all Lebanese Arabic restaurants.
In many simple local restaurants, away from Muscat, cutlery may not be immediately offered and eating with the right hand might be expected. If you are prepared to bring your own cutlery, that’s ideal; otherwise do ask and at least a spoon should be available.
Snacks can be bought at the food stores in and around most petrol stations. Major supermarkets sell a good range of hot cooked food and soft drinks suitable for picnics. The Omanis themselves have a robust picnicking tradition, which has become a favourite weekend pastime that involves groups of families or friends bundling into cars, taking large quantities of food out into the countryside and sitting on mats enjoying each other’s company.
Typical Omani cuisine is quite simple, with rice eaten as the main accompaniment to beef, mutton, chicken or fish. Spices are used to flavour the meat and fish, not hot and spicy ones but rather subtler and more aromatic seasonings like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, turmeric and saffron. Spices are frequently included with rice, too, which is normally a long-grain basmati style. Salads are usually only lettuce, cucumber and tomato, with a slice of lime for dressing.
A classic Omani meal is shuwa, marinated meat (goat, mutton, calf or camel) cooked for 24 hours in an earth-oven in the ground, with a mix of date juices and spices, unique to each cook, wrapped in banana leaves and served on a giant communal tray called a fadhl. Others include harees, a wheat-based dish with chicken, tomato, onion and seasoning; maqbous, a saffron-coloured rice dish cooked over spicy meat; rabees, boiled baby shark fried with liver (a Dhofari speciality); and mashuai, a whole spit-roasted fish, perhaps kingfish, with lemon rice. The main meal is eaten at midday, while the evening meal is lighter.
Favourite local drinks are laban, heavy salty buttermilk and yoghurt flavoured with cardamom and ground pistachios, and you will find Indian lassi yoghurt drinks in various flavours. Fresh juices (smoothie style) are also popular, made from fruits like mango, banana, pineapple and pomegranate, and are very cheap by Western standards. After a meal, cardamom-flavoured coffee might be served from long-spouted brass coffee pots into tiny china eggcup-like bowls.
The Omani government’s attitude to alcohol is more relaxed than in some other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It is available providing it is consumed within the law, and not in open, public areas. During Ramadhan, however, alcohol availability changes depending on social pressure within Oman. During much of the year alcohol is widely available at hotels and some higher-end restaurants (both within and outside hotels) throughout the country.