"Table or no table?"
It's not something you often get asked on the way into a restaurant but this is Oman, where something in the air means that even nonagenarians seem to be able to sit cross-legged for hours on the floor without sustaining permanent damage to a kneecap or cracking a vertebra.
As a group of Westerners from Britain, Australia and Switzerland, a table is pretty much de rigueur for us. Which is how we find ourselves in a small upstairs room at the back of the Bin Ateeq restaurant not far from our hotel in Muscat's Al Khuwair district.
The room is wood-panelled and windowless, and the restaurant smells faintly of curry and urine. Our table is covered in turquoise plastic. The menu is large and laminated and contains both photographs and English translations. Essentially, this is the Omani version of the British greasy spoon cafe. Well, we are looking for authenticity.
Oman is a little crucible of stability and sanity in a region too often beset by political and religious strife. Historically, its location at a strategic point of the Gulf of Oman meant it was an important nexus in traditional spice trade routes. This, in turn, has resulted in a cuisine influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and African cuisines, with plenty of spice, herbs and complex marinades. And rice. Lots and lots of rice.
And while such modern culinary delights as McDonald's and KFC have made inroads here, Said Al Salti, our guide, is unimpressed: "These are stupid places," he says with a finality that brooks no dissent.
Oman is also alcohol-free unless you're staying in a Western-style hotel, so we accept the waiter's suggestion of what turns out to be some sort of fruit/vegetable cocktail called the Chlorophyll Calypso. Well, that's what I call it, given it is the colour of Peter Pan's underpants. Luckily, it doesn't taste like them. We then order up a storm. The most amazing fresh hummus, two types of bread, several heaped plates of rice and three different curries (avoiding the boiled intestines with onion and spices). It feeds five of us easily and costs a total of $A50, which includes a tip.
The national dish of Oman is shuwa, which translates as grilled meat. This is a somewhat prosaic description of a dish that can take days to cook and involves marinating meat in a feast of spices, wrapping it in banana leaves and burying it in a sand oven. Very often it's prepared on the first day of Eid, the religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, and eaten two days later.
Often only cooked on special occasions, it is on the menu of the restaurant we go to the next night, which is a very different kettle of kebab entirely from Bin Ateeq. Bait Al Luban is an up-market restaurant housed in a 140-year-old guesthouse which overlooks the port and fish market on Muscat's pretty corniche. It's reached through an unexceptional door at the side of the building and several flights of shadowy stairs (there is an elevator for the less able-bodied).
The side entrance, the plain stairs – it's all very film noir until the door to the restaurant opens and we are shown into a colourful room of unrestrained opulence that smells deliciously of cooking meat, rose syrup and frankincense. It's as adorned as last night's place was unadorned. Lighting is provided by chandeliers and dozens of traditional filigreed lamps, there are cabinets showcasing local arts and crafts and no-table areas so plump with cushions that it's tempting to ignore the voice from one's knees, settle back into them and cry, "peel me a date, habibi!". Thankfully, wiser heads prevail, and we are led to a long table in the middle of the room – there are many more of us tonight – and settled in with a menu that blends and wends it way through traditional dishes and a Modern Kitchen section for the less adventurous.
Here you can order a liver and kidney stew flavoured with cardamom (mahams kibbah kalawi), the traditional shuwa, or perhaps go the shuwa lasagne and a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and mozzarella and served with a potato and carrot rosti. I suspect the lobster thermidor isn't from a local recipe, either.
To be honest I am failing to keep a record of everything that's passing my lips tonight. It's certainly not from the Modern Kitchen but we've mixed and matched and shared and tasted pretty much everything on the menu. Standouts include the bamya (okra stew) and sahnat qashe, a local specialty of sundried sardines with cherry tomatoes, spring onions and a tangy lemon dressing.
There is no alcohol, obviously, but there are soft drinks, fresh juices and milkshakes and smoothies. The rose syrup smoothie is like gargling perfume and the date shake is the Omani equivalent of Vegemite in that you really must be born to it. All in all, it's a feast of epically delicious proportions – though the bill is very different to last night. And it's all topped off with coffee and dates on silver platters.
Coffee is pretty much the official drink of the country (with tea coming a distant second) but it's not caffeine as we know it. This stuff could be used to repair a flat tyre or fill potholes, which is heaven to the palates of those of us who like our coffee on the strong side. There is also kahwa, a local drink of coffee mixed with cardamom powder. Often served as a symbol of hospitality, it is the work of the devil and best avoided.
And then there are the dates, which feature heavily in the history of the forts we visit during our five days in Oman. Pretty much every one of them has an underground date store, the walls still darkened where the fruit was stacked. The oil was collected for use in cooking but also used most gruesomely when it was boiled and poured onto the heads of besieging enemies through wonderfully named "murder holes" above the main gates.
There are, according to our guide, something like 250 different varieties of date in Oman, the best and most succulent being the yellow, oval-shaped khalas variety, which is something like 65 per cent sugar. Later in our tour we stop for lunch in the home of Mahsood, a friend of our guide, and are presented with dates rolled in sesame seeds and stuffed with an almond. And while I've always believed life is too short to stuff a mushroom, these give me pause for thought.
As does the information, again from Said, that dates kept for more than a year should be fed to one's livestock. So, check that box at the back of the larder and find yourself a goat.
Emirates flies daily to Muscat via Dubai from all major Australian airports. See emirates.com
Peregrine Adventures' seven-day Taste of Oman tour starts and ends in Muscat and takes in fishing villages, souks, the oasis of Wadi Bani Khaled, a night in a desert camp in the Wahiba Sands and the Jebel Akhdar Mountains. Prices from $3340 a person twin share. See peregrineadventures.com
Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Peregrine Adventures.