Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cooking and eating Mexican and Creole food in Oman, just one example of eating for less

The first thing that Omani women always ask me when they find out that I am married to an Omani is "do you know how to cook Omani food?". Because it is assumed that Omani men simply could not endure without a staple of meat on a bed of rice or a decent "saloona". BTW, most of this, isn't actually TRADITIONAL TRADITIONAL Omani food anyways. The old Omani diet back  150 years ago didn't actually include alot of rice.
I don't usually cook Omani food unless I have no money. Then a diet of mainly rice and chicken makes sense budget-wise. ...But because I prefer Saudi or Moroccan spices, it generally turns out more or less non-Omani tasting. Which seems to delight Omani women;). People seem to think my husband will totally be bereft without a wife who knows her way around an Omani kitchen, but nope, my husband happily enjoys any other cuisine so long as it's got some kick to it, and by that I mean, some kind of chilli. One thing that does make him typically village-Omani though is he hates eating out in restaurants. Number one reason is expense. Let's face it, Mexican food is expensive in Oman, with Chilli's being the least expensive and their food is just.... ugh.... greasy (sorry Chillis!). The other reason for not enjoying dining out is a suspicion over the freshness of ingredients unless the restaurant is expensive.
I don't actually like to cook. And if I must I absolutely prefer to cook alone, or with a helper that only needs to be told something once. I am the nastiest, meanest, bossiest, cruelest micro-manager in the kitchen. If you've ever overheard me talking to my husband here, you'd wonder why he doesn't divorce me. But the truth is... I like to eat , and so does he, and let's face it, my food is just better than his, even if he does have an interest in learning which most Omani men don't. And... I can totally be super sweet and charming AFTER the food is almost ready to be served, and I've changed into something chic, and done something with my hair. Cooking makes me feel grimy, all the steam and smoke. Trust me... if I could hire a professional chef [and I mean professional, not just someone who cooks curries and fake chinese noodles] (and I didn't have to train them because then they'd try to poison my food) and just be pretty and eat, I totally would.
As it is, I eat pretty well in Oman and spend way way way less money on food than most European expats that I know when I compare our food budgets. Fresh Italian pasta with homemade tomatoe and alfredo and pesto sauces, or butternut squash raviolli. I love Italian and who doesn't? Chicken fajitas with homemade wraps and salsa and sour cream (Mexican). My husband has discovered a love of creole foods, and my blackened cajun chicken with creole butter on a bed of puree de pomme de terre (basically French mashed potatoes) is something he'd ever day if it were healthier. I also make my own Chinese and Thai foods, as well as my own burger patties, but I hate the prep work that goes into Chinese food (and celery in Oman remains indecently expensive).
Since my sister and I were in Oman in the 80s when, let's face it, there was no real choice in foods here... she teases me about the restaurants she's eating at back home. My father asks me what we eat here. When I reply, pretty much the same as you, they are shocked. Especially since alot of ingredients here are rarer or more expensive. Like tacos for example. Or fajitas. If one just heads down to the Al Fair or Carrefoure for sure one can pick up an Old el Passo taco kit, some lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. But buy just 6 tortilla wraps is about 2 rials. Yikes! Salas?: same. Sour cream: decent price. Cheese:  WHYYYYYYYYY?!!!! Oman has cows! Cheese should cost less. Tomatoes: most of the affordable ones are totally gross.
How do I spend way less money and eat the same expat foods? Well, I managed purely out of the necessity of wanting to eat something I liked. I learned to make everything homemade. Which totally turned out a lot less harder than I thought it would be. Number one thing I bought was a food processor. Then I buy staples like required dried spices, bottle water, fresh milk, yogurt, butter, olive oil, coffee, tea, sugar, flours, beans, rice, and limes, fresh chillis by the bag (or in the case of jalepenos, jar). Garlic and ginger, as well. Usually I do this through Lulu or Carrefoure. I get dried pasta (if I am lazy and don't wish to make my own). None of these things are too expensive. My husband likes to drive to Barka and buy three fresh chickens at a time. As long as I never ever see or do anything about them but cook prepared meat, I don't care. This is cheaper than buying chicken by the same weight in the store but includes the hassle of butchering three chickens within a day and half. If it were just me, I'd buy Al Saffa breasts from Carrrefoure. They last me four days generally if we eat chicken twice a day. [I'd buy beef but Omanis always have frozen beef leftover from the Eids]. We go to Al Muwallah fruit and vegetable souq to buy our other veggies.
Many expats come here only to question whether or not they need a whole box of cucumbers, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, or lettuce. You do! You do! I insist. The small foamie or wooden box of cucumbers with a bag of mint, or dill, makes perfect tea time cucumber sandwiches, nice greek tatziki sauce, or a Lebanese style salad. Potatoes and onions tend to hold a long time, so I say buy the month's supply in one go (it is cheaper that way).
I usually buy lettuce and carrots in smaller lots here. I don't like to waste. Carrot makes alot of soups in my house and adds to stir fries. What I do recommend is that expats by large boxes of tomatoes. When they are good that is. When tomoatoes are good I can use the fresh tomoatoes as individual ingredients in a main. To use up the rest of the lot I make my Mexican salsa (so cheap, just some Jalapenos (Indian green chilli if you're too broke for jalpenos), 3 big tomatoes, one onion, a squeeze of lime, a pinch of salt, a grilled bell pepper if you desire, and grind it all in the food processor... Homemade salsa, so cheap and so good. A small scoop on a grilled cheese snadwich or with scrambled eggs never hurt either! Never let yourself be ripped off again. Same goes for fresh tomatoe pasta sauce. Three cloves of garlic (don't brown), one-two super large onions chopped, and tomatoes skinned (if you're extra fancy)---or not--- with some extra virgin olive oil and bring to a boil for twenty minutes.... Delicious homemade pasta sauce. .800 Baisa is enough for half a month's worth of homemade salsa and pasta sauce. I buy jars from Rameez in Seeb and can my pasta sauce and salsas for when the cheap but good tomatoes here are not in season. Learning to make my own taco spice, my own tortilla (also suprisingly easy) bread, and spice mix made the cost of mexican all in the cheese, and jalapenos. Cheese is my big investment. I figure making my own cheddar is far to time consuming at the moment to be worth my time. I estimate I can feed five persons mexican food for about 3-4 rials total. Pretty good compared to the other options out there.
Making creole food is really for us just the cost of the meat, because the spice mix and vegetable cost next to nothing. So if husband wants really good fresh seafood he'll go to Seeb, Sohar, or Mutrah fish souqs very early in the morning or we'll use one of his cheapo Barka fresh chickens. Pasta is really (if you eat dried pasta) just the cost of the vegetables and good olive oil. If you tomatoes in Al Muwallah souq, if should cost about .400 baiza (that's with bell peppers) per large size jar [I often re-use Al Marai plain yogurt containers once or twice for a weekly deposit of sauce]. Cheese sauce remain expensive but if at all possible I make a milk base and add the tiniest scoop of Al Marai cream cheese spread and make an unhelthier version of Alfredo for really cheap if I am not allowed to budget more for this great love affair with Alfredo of mine. Anyways, that's how I budget, and how I eat as an expat married to an Omani in Oman. Arabic food really isn't on the menu unless I am visiting someone;D


Boxie said...

Sweet I was just wondering about Mexican. I was thinking if I should stalk up on the spice packets. Btw is there anything I should bring?

Omani Princess (not Omani...yet) said...

Boxie: I have difficulty finding Cayenne sometimes and have to resort to using regular chilli.

Boxie said...

I will bring some then. Just remind me.