by SALIM AL AFIFI
You may have heard about the hospitality of the Omani family, but have you truly experienced it yet?
Immersing yourself into the local culture is inarguably a dream for many travellers. It is through a heartfelt meal that people build a lovely connection that lasts a lifetime. Yes, it all starts with a meal, and in Oman, a group of local dwellers have found a way to bring that dream to reality. Inviting you to savour a local experience over a cultural meal.
A few weeks ago, I came across Zayr, a new experience-based service that’s dedicated to connecting travellers with local families for a homemade meal, founded by two couples who are passionate about meeting new people: Sultan Al Qamshouai, Hamed Al Amri and their wives, Manal Al Nadabi and Wiam Al Salmi.
Zayr’s concept revolves around exploring the Omani culture through food. By stopping by an Omani household for either lunch or dinner, visitors get an opportunity to spend some quality time with the families, which adds an extra special spark to their trip to Oman.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sultan, one of the founders of this immersive concept, who shared his thoughts on why food is the key to a long-lasting cultural connection.
“Why choose dining as a perfect cultural experience?” I asked. “There is something special when interacting with locals over a meal,” he answered. “We realised that tourists are more curious to explore the local cuisine in an authentic setting rather than having a dish served at a restaurant; it’s that authenticity and genuine hospitality that makes a difference” he added.
Prior to launching Zayr, the folks used to host guests at their own home. They were part of a service that offered a couch-surfing kind of a deal to cyclists travelling across Oman. Sultan, who resides in Muscat, used to host people in the capital, while Hamed and his family lived in Shinas, in the Al Batinah region, and invited cyclists who passed by the coastal road to stay with them. As time passed by, these experiences began to ignite a flame of passion that needed to come alive. One day, Sultan phoned Hamed and decided to turn that passion into a real business.
With excitement overload, the business partners got their funding in check nd contacted local families around town to see if they’d be interested in hosting and welcoming guests into their living space. As you’d guess, the results were overwhelmingly positive: in less than 12 hours, Zayr had more than 70 families ready to be part of the experience. The outcome solidified their purpose and further cemented their desire for an official launch.
So how does it work?
The idea is to spend two to three hours with an Omani family for lunch or dinner. The experience may be food-centric but it offers more than just a bite to eat as guests get to select an experience that matches their interest and explore it along with the Omani family.
Tourists usually aren’t as interested in the food itself as they are in exploring the walls beyond the traditional dishes; they strive to live the cultural experience that is the essence of their whole travelling journey. They are eager to dive deeper into the cuisine and meet those behind the scenes, and that is something that may be difficult to find at a commercial restaurant, as that touch of bona fide human interaction is lacking. Given that hospitality and kindness are in the Omani DNA, guests are promised an unforgettable dining session.
As of today, Zayr offers eight family experiences in Muscat and two others in Al Musanah (a city in the Al Batinah region), including the museum-like ambience at Maryam and her mother’s, seafood delicacies at the maritime buff Usama Salim’s place, the art of Fwala (Omani welcoming tradition involving fruits and desserts) at Salim Basheer’s, and the Omani-buffet-on-the-terrace with Khalsa and her family.
Each family serves a unique experience and adds their own touches to the package such as dressing the guests in traditional ensembles, burning homemade incense, and applying henna.
Even though I am an Omani, I was sold on the concept and was eager to meet some of these families. So I phoned my expatriate friend, Priyanka, and decided to plan a quick Saturday with Um Maryam in Al Musannah, and then indulge in a seafood dinner at Usama’s.
At around 12pm we drove to the Al Batinah region to lunch at Um Maryam’s. The lovely lady and her 18-year-old daughter are known for their impeccable cooking. As we arrived, we were warmly welcomed to the main living room, in which it looked as if I had stepped into a museum. The place served a true cultural atmosphere, with a whiff of burnt frankincense that filled the air, souvenirs and Omani decorative elements on display, as well as a couple of dishdashas (men’s national dress) and women’s traditional numbers hanged and ready to be worn. I was already rocking my black dishdasha, but Priyanka had the pleasure of learning how to properly wrap a hijab. We had a lovely lunch and talked about lots of cultural things. We had coffee and dates and then dived into the main courses, which were absolutely delicious.
After about an hour and a half of savouring the best of Omani dishes, Um Maryam gave us a tour of her place and the surrounding neighbourhood, which depicts countryside living.
“We met so many people from different countries and realised that we don’t have to travel to meet and learn from different people. We can have that at our home,” said Um Maryam, as we had our final sips of Omani kahwa.
After paying farewell to Um Maryam, we drove back to Muscat, arriving at around 5.30pm, and went straight to Usama’s for an early dinner.
Usama is an encyclopaedia of maritime history. He is a marine biologist at a local research centre and resides with his beloved wife. His place is home to a number of exotic findings from the deep. He is a seafood aficionado who enjoys a good conversation that mostly ends with a surprise. After we got to know each other, we had our welcoming coffee and dates and began exploring the beautiful samples Usama has collected from the ocean. A few minutes later, shrimp pasta was served, with a side dish of Rocca salad tossed with strawberries and halloumi cheese (Priyanka’s favourite). We sat on the floor and devoured the dishes to the last bit. It was delicious. Then we ended the session on a sweet note with a traditional dessert of khabeesah.
Both experiences were equally incredible and offered an interesting perspective on experiencing local cuisine. Even for an Omani gentleman, it was quite lovely.
With future plans to further develop their dynamic website, add a few cooking classes and food tours to places like halwa factories and date plantations, and expanding to notable cities such as Nizwa, Sur and Salalah, Zayr seems to be headed for glory in the tourism department.
What makes it special is that it offers wonderful experiences that not only tourists can enjoy, but also residents of Oman and the locals themselves are bound to have a an amazing time and make a bunch of new friends too.
The connection built is indescribable and rather rewarding, so give it a try when you’re in town.
Contact Zayr at +968 9567 0331