In Oman, where meat is the customary offering to guests, the most interesting regional vegetarian dishes we found were in roadhouse truck stops on the desert highway that stretches for hundreds of miles across the "empty quarter," linking the capital, Muscat, with Salalah, capital of the southern Dhofar region. These highway rest stops are typical of the extreme contrasts in Oman. They are as clean and modern as if they were in Muscat, yet located in the heart of one of the most rugged and empty parts of the globe. Just inland from the gleaming high-tech cityscapes of Muscat, the Jebel Akhdar is a mountainous region of dirt roads and ancient villages, inhabited by turbaned men and veiled women. Age-old traditions of hospitality are still observed, and we often found ourselves guests in people's homes, consuming dates and cardamom coffee.
Salalah is in many ways the most modern city in Oman; investment has been encouraged by the government. It is also a historic center of the frankincense trade, on the edge of Dhofar, a wild land of warring tribes, remote mosques, and desolate coastline. One fairly new development has been the establishment of a dairy industry, and in pastures recalling rural England, imported Friesian cattle graze alongside camels nibbling frankincense trees another of the wonderful juxtapositions of modern Oman.
It may have been partly our relief at finding civilization in the wilderness, or perhaps the temptation of an unlimited buffet, but one way or another gluttony was an easy sin at the highway rest stops in Oman. Bowls of eggplant in puréed date and yogurt sauce, and mounds of rose water rice are two of the delicious vegetarian dishes we found.Ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup pistachios
1 cup almonds
2/3 cup seedless raisins
1/4 cup dried apricots, quartered
2 cups long-grain white rice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 teaspoons rose water
Grated zest of 1 orange, preferably organic
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat and fry the nuts until brown. Add the raisins and apricots. Set aside and keep warm.
Cook the rice in a large pan of simmering salted water until it is just tender. Drain well and sprinkle with the cardamom.
Add the nuts and fruit, sprinkle with rose water and orange zest, and serve.