Monday, March 29, 2010

Grocery Shopping Omani Style...

Bright and early the next morning we were all starting to feel a bit more awake and surprisingly, the kids were excited to head to school for their first day!  After dropping the kids at their new classes, Peter drove me to Qurm City Centre so that I could experience first hand, the Omani ritual known as Carrefour.

Carrefour is a huge Superstore like shop specializing in European goods, Indian fare and local Middle Eastern delicacies and wares.  Product selection is extensive and unfamiliar, especially since many of the grocery labels were written only in Arabic but, if ever there was a positive thing to say about American marketing it is this, although unable to read the names of the products per say, the logos and visual branding that we have been inundated with  from birth in North America, made it possible for me to put together a familiar shopping cart of items. 

Familiar that is until we got the food home and started to consume the goods.  It seems that everything from feta cheese to Fruit Loops has been modified for African and Middle Eastern markets.  What this means essentially is that Omani packaged food tends to contain more salt and are flavored differently than what we are used to in Canada.  (The kids won't eat the Fruit Loops as they taste like artificially flavored cardboard.)  Also, it seem that items like taco shells and tortilla chips aren't hot sellers in Oman so they tend to be stale (go figure).

The price of packaged food, for the most part imported, is exhorbently expensive with items from North America topping the charts!   As an example, we have purchased $12 Oreo Cookies, $14 pull ups, $24 two-ply toilet tissue, and $8 fruit treats for the kids lunches.  Being that Oman is a Muslim country, pork is also a very rare and well enjoyed treat.  A package of pork hot dogs can run $9 a package and we even savored every last morsel of a $18 package of bacon on one occasion. 

The flip side to the expensive imports is that any locally produced food items such as vegetables, meat and fish are VERY inexpensive.  I can purchase beautiful Omani tomatoes for around $.03 each, buy a bag of green beans for less than $.30 and pick up a kilo of freshly caught, HUGE Omani prawns for under $10.  The simple solution to the diversity in costs is that we end up eating allot of fresh fruits and vegetables (familiar as well as new taste experiences), locally grown nuts and Halwa in lieu of more familiar sweet treats all the while attempting to minimize our consumption of packaged foods.  We save money and minimize our trash (more on the abysmal recycling situation in a later post)!  

As much as we try to eat locally though there are just some imports that we (by this I mean the kids) can't seem to get by without.  Some of these include marble cheese, only available pre-sliced ($7 for 10 slices), Cheerios (between $5-$7 a box depending where they are available that week), Milk, only available in full fat or reduced fat (about 2%) in 3L containers rather than 4L and cookies from Europe (and North America once in a while as a special treat) primarily because I can't seem to figure out how to bake in my gas cooker.

We have also had to make some adjustments with regards to products that, try as I might, just do not seem to be available in Oman.  I have been unable to find sour cream, peanut oil (which given the abundance of nuts is a strange one to me), any type of familiar medication (Tylenol, Sinutab, NyQuil you get the idea) and the list goes on.

It is also a bit challenging to plan menus that require specific items since at any given moment, those products that were available the week before, will suddenly become unavailable for weeks on end.  I have made a habit of stocking up on our favorite things when I come across them to combat their disappearance in the future.

Along with Carrefour, there are three other main supermarket chains here in Muscat.  The first of these is the Sultan Center.  This is my favorite supermarket as it tends to carry the most North American fodder and although it tends to be a bit pricey, it boasts a comfortable layout, fresh produce, a great deli and the all of the comforts of a Soby's.  (Not to mention my new favorite treat, Luigi's Italian Ices.  Flavored sorbet in a disposable cup.  YUMMY!)

Next in line is Al Fair, by far the most expensive of all of the grocery's in Muscat.  Al Fair carries several products from the UK as well as a "secret" non-Muslim room filled with pork products!  The room is hidden in a back corner of the store and the atmosphere can only be described as akin to visiting the "adult room" in a video store during the 1980's.  You quietly and discretely enter the room and once inside, browse without actually trying to look like you are studying the labels.  At the check-out, the Muslim attendant attempts to ring your purchase without actually having to touch it and you look anywhere than at your groceries and try to pretend that your pork product, hidden amongst your other groceries, isn't an object to be disdained.

The last of the supermarkets in Muscat is Lulu's Hypermarket.  This market offers hands down the best prices on all items, whether produce or packaged goods.  The only problem with Lulu's, besides being quite far from our home in Qurm, is that shopping there is akin to visiting a HUGE dollar store in New Delhi.  Since most women in Oman don't drive, a trip to the Hypermarket tends to be a special night out for the entire family.  I am always surprised to see entire families out at the market long after our children have gone to bed, shopping and visiting, even on school nights.  On the whole, most expats seem to agree with me that the drive, combined with the excessive crowds at any given time of day are not worth the lower prices that Lulu's offers. On a positive note, if you do decide to brave the crowds, Lulu's does offer valet parking.

Each of the supermarkets, in addition to foodstuffs, tend to carry a full Walmart style selection of electronics, clothing, furniture, carpets, stationery, toys and pretty much anything else you may need.  The one stop shop approach is handy but as each shop tends to specialize in it's own demographic, it is often necessary to visit several shops to gather everything on your grocery list.

At this point, I have to give mention the incredible diversity of products and produce offered at the local souqs, the largest of which is the Mutrah souq found downtown, on the waterfront in old Mutrah (Muscat).  The souqs bring a more traditional way of shopping for essentials and offer everything from uber fresh fruits and vegetables brought to market by the local farmers, hand crafted silver khanjars (traditional curved daggers), pottery created by local artisans, shisha pipes and flavored tobacco, to more modern souvenirs and t-shirts. 

The souqs offer a great opportunity to hone your bartering skills and are often considerably less expensive than the supermarkets.  Plus I find that wandering through the many side streets, browsing the stalls of this souq and countless others like it, is a wonderful way to spend your morning.  Be prepared to arrive early though as the souq, true to Omani culture is open early and closed by 11am only to reopen around 4pm after the heat of the afternoon has subsided.

Another not to be missed shopping experience is the fish market, also found on the Mutrah waterfront.  Again, be sure to get there early as the fishermen are typically set up an ready to hawk their daily catch by or 8am. By 10am most of the choice selection is long gone. Another benefit of being one of the first patrons at the fish market is that you miss the heat of later morning (mid to upper 30's most days) and the consequent smell that accompanies hundreds of fish, insufficient cooling systems and heat.  

Shopping in Oman overall has been a pleasant surprise, not only have we been able to find most food stuffs to keep our palates alive, the clothes shopping has also been surprisingly modern.  Since the children's clothing was accidentally packed in our sea freight (yet to arrive) we have frequented the likes of NEXT, MotherCare H&M and other wonderful British clothing chains to top up the supplies that we brought with us in our luggage from Calgary.  Peter has been able to find new Oman (read heat) friendly work wear, and a new linen suit.  Muscat even boasts a Marks & Spencer, a LaSensa and a Clark's shoe store.  Well, I've kept you longer than usual.  More soon, I promise.

A demain...

1 comment:

  1. Just moving to Muscat from Calgary! really ejoyed the blog - thanks