This year my brother will be coming to Oman for the first time over Christmas, and though neither of us have ever been too fussed over holiday traditions, I have been mulling over how best to make the day special for us.
Eid al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and Eid al Adha, which comes a month later after the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, are the most important holidays throughout the Muslim world. I have begun to think about what this will mean for me—that the Eids have replaced Thanksgiving and Christmas as the most significant holidays on my calendar. Writing about the food and culture of a small Middle Eastern country tucked inconspicuously between metropolis of Dubai to the north, Saudi Arabia to the west, and across the sea from Iran, completely changed my life. I left New York last year after I finished writing The Food of Oman, the first English-language cookbook and history of Oman, and I moved to the capital city of Muscat where the slower pace of everything from work to meals is in near polar opposition to my previous life.
In Oman, the meals that accompany them are epic, involving three food-filled days of boisterous family gatherings. I have been blessed to have shared in Eid celebrations in the homes of friends throughout the capital and in traditional villages, and whether I am sitting on the floor of an aging villa with dishes laid-out before me on a plastic sheet or sitting at an elegant dining table in a royal home, the foods and the hospitality of the people sharing in the feast are the same.
During the first day of Eid, I sit with the other women and children and eat a chicken and rice porridge called arseeya, we sip on cardamom and rose water-laced Omani coffee, and I let the happy sounds of Arabic gossip and kids playing wash over me. Meanwhile, the men of the house take care of slaughtering an animal (usually a goat or lamb) and set about cooking the traditional celebratory dish called shuwa.
To make shuwa, chunks of meat are slathered in a heady spice blend that includes cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, hot chiles, cloves, and black pepper mixed in oil. The spiced meat is wrapped in banana leaves, tucked into a woven palm frond bag, and placed underground over hot embers where it cooks overnight. The next day, the bags are opened and the fragrant, spice-encrusted meat is served over huge communal platters of rice.
All conversation lulls as we all pull tender pieces of meat from bone and scoop up bites of rice with our fingers. It was the joyful intimacy of meals like these, and the generosity of time that people in Oman are willing to give to those they love, that made me want to trade my beautiful brownstone in the most exciting city in the world for the chance at a quieter life in which three-day family feasts weren’t the exception, but the rule.
If there is one thing I have learned during my time in Oman, it is that all that’s really required for a meal to become a celebration is to be surrounded by good people, sharing a dish you might not otherwise have taken the time to make. So perhaps I will pull my brother into the kitchen where we can work together to conquer the most challenging recipe in my book: Zanzibari biryani. It is a spectacular dish that was introduced as biryani to East Africa by Indian traders in the 19th century and transformed in the kitchens of Omani clove magnates in Zanzibar with the addition of fresh mint, rose water, and their beloved cloves.
Making it requires the boiling of chicken and spices, the frying of said chicken, simmering a rich masala, steaming perfect basmati rice, and finally, layering all the elements together and letting them steam with a drizzle of saffron-infused rose water. It takes time and patience, things I have never been in great supply of.
I am really looking forward to spending the two or three or five (depending on our concentration) hours in the kitchen with my brother, regardless of how the dish turns out. Before my time in Oman, I never really understood the simple importance of just being together, talking or eating or cooking or just sitting back and listening. Maybe I was too busy. Maybe I was too selfish. Maybe it took hours spent in the kitchens and dining rooms of a place where family is everything and food is worth laboring over for me to become the kind of person who doesn’t dread the holiday season, but longs for moments, hours, or days spent celebrating with the ones I love.