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Oman food: Muscat's Mid summer night's delights


Photo - Hi Weekly

As the rising tide of the Arabian Sea beats across the beige sands at Shatti Al Qurum with a soft, rhythmic resonance and the last calls of truant seagulls punctuate the silence at the dark seafront, a smoky, taste-bud tantalising affair unfurls in the parking lot at the far end of Shatti Street as gridirons are set over blazing hardwood charcoal, loaded with what would soon put you into a culinary trance! 

The delicious aromas from the searing savouries, combined with the crackling sounds of melting fat, fills the air all around in no time. Nay, it seizes you from a distance itself and compels you to take up an unscheduled detour (in case, you weren't heading for it) awakening one's senses to a beckoning hearth, teeming with sizzling Shish kebabs or Shashliks. Marinated cuts of meat (chicken, lamb, beef and seafood) are being grilled on the spit and served skewered for all those caught in the spell. 

Slowly, vehicles start stacking the place, and soon enough the place is alive with jovialness people feasting and indulging in friendly banters as they gobble up these steaming hot street snacks in seconds and wait expectantly for more. Roadside barbecue joints during Ramadan are a popular getaway for residents of Muscat, who simply love to spend the late evening hours feasting on these high-protein snacks doused with chilly/tamarind sauces (locally known as Mishqaq - skewered meat grilled on charcoal.) And, you only need to stop by once, to get into this seasonal sway.

"Barbecue is about as red, white and blue as it gets and, the only real question is how to save room for seconds and more. You just can't have enough of it," says an avid gastronome, Amjad Rashid, a regular visitor at the place. Although there are restaurants around the city serving barbecue delights, it is the street-corner joints that hold the charm for true lovers of these charred delicacies. 

"These roadside joints give you more free space and freedom to be yourself. No mannerisms are required – you could just be yourself and enjoy the delicacies they way you like it," says Sami Salim Al Qiyumi, another barbecue buff at the evening haunt.

And, there are numerous regulars at these joints who'd stake their all for this 'steamy affair' every evening.

If already you are starting to feel the pangs for char broils, Hi brings you the most frequented street barbecue spots, loved by foodies for their great taste and originality:

Shabeeb's Al Qurum BBQ
Location: Ministry of External Affairs parking lot, Al Qurum
Specialties: Grilled beef skewers, BBQ roast quail 
Timings: 7.30 pm to 12.30 am

They're all here: the expats, the tourists with dog-eared guidebooks, and the locals, comforted that even with its newfound fame, they can still find the Mishqaq prepared as it was decades ago. Probably the most popular barbecue joint in Muscat, it offers the widest array of skewered delights.

The joint's owner and master cook, Shabeeb Abdullah, presides over the barbecue. Whole quails are seasoned with an electrifying mixture of chilies, lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric, and then grilled over smouldering hot embers on the gridiron, before being served drenched in the sweet and sticky, honey mustard dipping sauce. Roasted quail has expanded to nearly all the joints, but the experience here has an altogether different flavour.

Another of his assistants doles out servings of the crispy, spice-scented lamb, and beef skewers after dipping them in chilly tamarind sauce. Boasting of being the only joint to strictly stick to the traditional cooking methods, Shabeeb declares that he prepares, not only the condiments and spices, but also his sauces and dips, and adds that perfect grilling was only half the task. 

"Once you've got that part down, the key to making it your own is learning how to add flavour in different ways. There are various options to accomplish this: the most common are marinades, rubs, mop sauces, and barbecue sauces. Once you understand how to use these building blocks, you can mix and match them to take the same type of grilled meat in dozens of different ways," he reveals, suggesting  that you try out their savory chicken skewer, liver and the sapid squids.

Al Ghubra Beach BBQ
Location: Near Al Ghubra beach
Specialities: Skewered grilled chicken, grilled prawns, hot potato soup 
Timings: 7.30 pm to 12.30 am

Nothing tickles the taste buds quite like barbecue, and it is even more tickling an affair at Fahad Mohammed Ali's. If you happen to be visiting the Ghubra beach at night time for any reason, this joint is surely set to capture your attention.

A warren of tables spread across a huge area, wafting smoke from a smouldering pit and a van full of various delicacies ready to be put on the gridiron, makes for this joint. Serving the largest variety of delicacies amongst all, Fahad ensures it also serves the best.

The grilled chicken is incredibly moist and unbelievably good, and the sauce recipe might be the secret. A vinegar and mustard based sauce –  the combination of sweet and tangy flavours brings out the absolute best.

Right sauce and the right stage is most essential to get the perfect taste, according to Fahad, who divides the barbecue process in 4 stages for application of sauces. "Marinades and rubs go on before cooking, mop sauces during cooking, and barbecue sauces toward the end of cooking as well as after the food is taken off the grill."

Slow-cooked to perfection and served with tangy orange-lemon juice and soy sauce, the smoked prawns, exclusively available only at this outlet, are so tender they melt in the mouth, leaving a smooth and rich buttery essence. The refreshingly light, grilled squid, treated with lemon, garlic, chilly-mint, and cumin, mild spicy quail dipped in racy tomato tamarind sauce, and crunchy chicken liver are also up for grabs. For the nonconformist, there is the hot and pungent potato soup, served with chips.

Al Harthy's BBQ
Location: Al Azaiba Beach Park
Specialities: Grilled shrimp skewers, grilled chicken liver
Timings: 9.30 pm to 1.00 am

Nicely worked on blazing embers, the skewered lamb dipped in the sweet, salty, and oh-so-nutty marinade (made with pear, soy sauce, and sesame oil) plays pinball on your taste buds, while the fiery spiced shrimps and piquant squid, counterpoint the grilled chicken. 

For Mohammed Al Harthy, the owner, the right choice of skewers, to mount the meat and grill, was the key to a perfect barbecue treat. "Use bamboo or wooden skewers so that the inside of the steak pieces stay nice and pink, as they don't transfer heat within, like metal skewers do. Keep a little space between the meats so they are cooked properly, and use double skewers to make them easier to turn." Soaking the skewers in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling, was also a must do, according to Al Harthy, to prevent the skewers from completely burning up on the grill.

The most unique offering at this particular joint is shrimps. Seasoned with a unique sauce that contains neither ketchup nor molasses, but simply vinegar, salt, and hot pepper flakes, the succulent shrimps are reduced to a smoky, savory hash. Popular among youth as a snack after a night-out, the sweet, tangy and spicy shrimp skewers are also served over seasoned rice.

Saeed's Omani BBQ
Location: Shatti Street, Al Qurum
Specialties: Omani roast lamb skewers 
Timings: 7.30 pm to 12.00 am

You won't find a variety of meats sizzling away on the grill; here it is just one! And sinfully irresistible it is. Spice-rubbed cubes of lamb meat are a house specialty that nods to the Carolinas equally as preserving the traditional obsession with smoke and fire. 

Prepared the traditional Omani way, the meat is seasoned with herbs and spices, and marinated overnight, to add tenderness and aroma. "Marinate the meat, the longer the better. If you've marinated the meat properly, they're the juiciest wonderful morsels you could possibly eat, and ours are the best," announces Saeed Mohammed Al Hasni, owner of the joint.

To retain the perfect taste and moisture while grilling, Saeed relies strictly on his finger test for checking doneness. "Tap the meat with the end of tongs to see how much it is giving. The meat will continue to cook for a little while even after being taken off the grill. The key is to take it off the grill before it begins to burn," says Saeed.

The moist and flavory skewered meat is finally served dipped in sweet and sour onion sauce topped with tangy garlic and lemon paste. Order by the sticks, or pick up a combo-style sandwich piled high with seared lamb meat and spinach, drenched in lush sour cream sauce. 

To get in touch with the reporter: faisal@hioman.com

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