Shay*, or tea, is an absolutely instrumental part of Omani daily life. We have it all the time, and there are many different kinds. Firstly, and this is the kind that my host family drinks a lot in the afternoon, is shay ahmar, or red tea. As the name suggests, shay ahmar is a vivid red color. You can drink it with or without sugar. Generally my host family boils the tea with lemongrass to give some extra flavor. Then comes my personal favorite, shay karak. As a variation of shay halib (milk tea), this one is a bit lighter than shay ahmar… though it has the potential to be quite strong. This is because it is made by boiling the tea and milk together for a metaphorical-forever-and-a-half. I learned how to make shay karak the other day so that’s one I definitely plan to repeat once I’m back home on cold winter nights (to everyone at home who just got new snow, it’s approximately 35˚ Celcius here).
Then there is qahwa, or coffee. Omani coffee is bitter and never has any sugar or milk in it. Because the coffee is so strong, it is served in small glasses that actually remind me somewhat of shot glasses. Unlike shot glasses, which normally feature brewery or sports team logos, Omani coffee cups are beautifully painted with decorations. While drinking coffee, there is no gulping—you have to sip. I mean this totally literally because it is so strong. When you’ve finished your glass, you hand it back to whoever poured it. He will refill it and hand it back to you. Once you’ve had your fill, when you hand the pourer your cup, you have to shake it from side to side to signify that you’ve finished and he should not refill your glass.
To combat the intense qahwa, Omanis can consume liberal amounts of halwa. Halwa is this fabulously sticky, sweet congealed goo that usually contains some sort of nuts. It is the national dessert of Oman, and literally means ‘sweet’ in Arabic. Halwa honestly has the most bizarre texture ever… it isn’t quite a liquid or a solid. Perhaps they should change the charts of states of matter… liquid, solid, gas, plasma and halwa. After the coffee is finished, a vat of halwa is passed around and everyone spoons a piece out to eat it. I have yet to discover a way to eat it neatly. Halwa is, in my opinion, best when it’s fresh and hot.
Tea and coffee in Oman are not just drinks but lifestyles. Whenever we go to the beach, to a wadi, to anywhere, we bring along a trusty teapot, occasionally two. Anytime that anyone sits in a formal majlis, Omani coffee and halwa will be consumed.
*This word rhymes with bye. If you rhyme it with weigh, then it means ‘thing.’ They are, however, spelled differently in Arabic.
Oh, and while I’m on the topic of drinks, I would like to petition any and all American stores to begin selling Vimto. America would be a better place with this ‘purple crack’ available everywhere. That’s all.