Breakfast at 7 am, buffet lunch at 12.30 pm and dinner at 8 pm…you cannot go hungry, they have assured.
"Our catering crew proudly creates many dishes for meal times that cater for everyone's tastes. You will enjoy many salads and mezze, as well as hot vegetarian dishes," you recall what you have read in the booklet before you took the decision to venture into the Sharqiyah Sands with The Guide Oman for the two-day desert crossing.
But, who would swallow such promises hook, line and sinker, especially when it talks about having a three-course or five-course dinner in the middle of the desert, beyond the challenging soft sands and high dunes? And they say, they would be cooking everything fresh in the desert, braving extreme climates or even strong winds. All one could imagine is some khubz (Arabic bread) stuffed with dry salads and some fizzy drinks to wash them down.
You wake up in your tent, a place of nowhere in the desert, about 100 kilometres away from the last tarmac you saw in Bidiyah. The tempting aroma has already filled the morning fresh air and the breakfast is hot on the table. Boiled eggs, omlette, baked beans, sliced sausage, puri, potato bhaji, mixed salads, a combination of leaves and antioxidant-rich fruits…You realise they weren't joking. You just can't wait for the buffet lunch and the three-course dinner.
It's been many years since The Guide Oman topped up its regular and extreme desert crossings with delicious cuisine and just like the sands and the stars, the food cooked fresh in the desert too has added to the wonderful ambience and experience. And, scaling the high dunes and moving through the soft sands with all those heavy equipment, utensils and provisions in the pick-ups ahead of the adventurers (to set up the kitchen and prepare the food in time) has been the kitchen crew - cooks, helpers and drivers, who have never failed expectations.
Taste like more
"In the initial crossings (from 2003-2008), we were relying on a desert camp in terms of catering, and we found that food wasn't good," says Mohamed Issa Al Zadjali, the founder of The Guide Oman. In 2008 when he launched his own company, 'to control the crowd and to have my own team which can provide whatever we need instead of relying on others', the kitchen crew too was formed. "It started very small and we learnt from experience how to pack, when to cook, how to serve and when to serve. Sometimes, we had problem with frozen gas. We learned to camp beside high dunes which could act as wind barriers. This all evolved over the years," he points out.
It's made sure that everything is cooked in the desert itself and there's no compromise on the taste. "Initially there were four of them handling the kitchen and all were Omanis. Now we have three cooks, 6-7 assistants and six drivers, a mix of Omanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. For larger groups we need to have more cars to bring in the necessary items," Mohamed says.
The team meets before the trip to prepare the menu, ensuring that they cater to all, the vegetarians and the non-vegetarians alike. "We have to take care of people who might be allergic to some kind of food and should ensure ample options like salads, pasta and rice and so on. We also introduce new dishes every time. Barbeque is possible only for small groups as it wouldn't taste nice if the meat sits out from the grill for long," he adds.
Pizza in desert?
The next dish The Guide Oman would want to add in the menu is pizza! "We come to the desert to challenge ourselves. Now, with the equipment and cars we can make it anywhere we want to go and even with standard cars we can take newcomers. So making pizza in the desert could also be possible. Once we brought ice cream with much difficulty," Mohammed beams.
Managing the kitchen for the last six years has been Najeeb Khamis Al Zadjali, who is actually a telecom engineer by profession. "We began with two stoves and one car and had to face lot of difficulties. We didn't have that experience and didn't have a proper idea about the logistics required for cooking, which was just a hobby. We didn't expect it to be so windy sometimes, making it an extremely difficult job," he recalls.
After the night drive into the desert and camping on day one, the kitchen crew wakes up at 5 am to prepare breakfast. "We also cook lunch at the same place, put them in hot boxes and drive all the way to the spot where the lunch is served. For dinner, we have to reach the camp before dark and start cooking and by 8 pm it would be ready. Again we have to make the preparations for next day's breakfast. We wake up early and sleep late," Najeeb says. But, for them, the difficult part is packing, loading and unloading the utensils and other equipment from the pick-up cars. "Cooking is our passion and we enjoy it," he adds.
For bigger or smaller groups, it's almost the same arrangement, but when there's a bigger group, the utensils and tables would take more place than food items in the cars. Normally the groups will have less than 200 people, but on December 12, 2012, The Guide Oman had a record number of around 320 people and they successfully catered to all without any fail. "It was a big challenge, but we made it. The queue was big and we had to introduce an extra line. We are thinking of having four lines whenever we have such big crowds," Mohammed says.
In time, ample and hygienic
Three things to be noted about the food being served in the desert by The Guide Oman are the efforts taken to prepare and serve in time, ample quantity to satisfy all and the food safety being maintained in spite of adverse circumstances, says Shabu Thampi, team leader, Gulf Chef School at National Hospitality Institute (NHI), who happened to join one such trip recently.
"They are putting in their maximum, with a variety of healthy food suitable for such trips. They take care to store properly all these perishable or high-risk food items like vegetables and dairy products. One can imagine the effort behind serving in the desert a mixed salad comprising lettuce, rocket leaves, corn, pomegranate and many more antioxidant-rich fruits at every meal for two days," the well-experienced chef points out.
"So I would give them an 8.5, straight," he adds.