Dried lemons that romance the stars

T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –

An exquisite 75-inch tall wedding cake decorated with 39,550 sugar flowers that were laboriously handmade over a six-month period. Baplo Risotto, a first of its kind Italian-Omani fusion dish. Cookies made of Omani lemons that are dried in the sun for nearly 45 days. Cabanas (or glorified huts) dedicated to, and named after, regions in the Sultanate that have distinct cultural and culinary legacies. The traditional Omani welcome that epitomises openness, positivity and cheerfulness.
And, an Omani husband-wife duo with a penchant for cooking, who manifested a little culinary universe by contemplating on a dried lemon.
Al Loomie is all this and more.
Since its soft launch just three months ago, Al Loomie has earned recognition as the Sultanate’s most creative Omani-fusion fine dining restaurant. Owned and run by celebrity chef Salim al Kalbani and his wife Amal Khabori, Al Loomie is so elegantly simple and down-to-earth for some, while it’s nothing short of a culinary enigma for others. In fact, it’s the fascinating story of the common Omani loomie (black lemon) that dared to romance the (Michelin) stars!
Al Loomie’s most prominent and innovative signature dish is certainly the Loomie Cookie made using the Omani dried lemon. “After drying the lemons for 45 days in the hot sun, we boiled them to get the perfect flavour. It was not easy; we took one lemon and boiled it for some time: it was not fine. Then a second, third… varying the boiling duration with each lemon. Unfortunately we could not get the perfect flavour even after 850 experiments. And then we took the 851st lemon, and did a last try: Lo! That was it! And we knew we can do wonders with that lemon,” Amal told her loomie story that started in 2012.
Since then there was no looking back. “Using the perfectly cooked dried lemon, we wanted to create a cookie. Again, after several trials and errors, we found out the perfect ingredients that will make our signature cookie,” she said.
But ask her about those secret ingredients, and you will get an emphatic NO. “No, sorry, we can’t disclose it. It’s a cherished business secret,” Amal said, laughing it off.
And they never allow the focus to drift away from being Omani. “Our vision was not limited to just serving good Omani food. We wanted our guests to explore the traditional Omani cuisine — albeit with a contemporary touch — in an Omani village ambience. Thus Al Loomie has been designed as a replica of a typical Omani village complete with fort-like huts, falajs (water canals), traditional artefacts, and more importantly, the ancient Omani hospitality that the Sultanate is famed for,” says Amal.
They envisioned Al Loomie to be 100 per cent Omani, not just in terms of food, but with respect to staffing and services as well: The six chefs (apart from Salem) and the four waiters are all Omanis. “It didn’t sound quite right for us to have a restaurant offering genuine Omani cuisine, while the chefs and waiters are non-Omanis. As Omanis, our staff can explain to our guests the history and essence of all the dishes we serve. That’s important,” notes Amal.
Spread on a meticulously maintained 4,000 sq m area at the Seblat Garden of Al Bustan Palace Hotel, Al Loomie offers guests the choicest and most authentic Omani dining experience at any of the several independent and aesthetically designed private hut-restaurants named Muscat, Nizwa, Saham, Salalah etc.
Every guest is accorded a traditional royal Omani welcome while they enter Al Loomie; and Salim and Amal take time to interact with them during the course of their dining adventure, to ensure all is well and also to get feedback.
The cuisine of Oman, which was part of the ancient spice and trade routes, has distinct Persian, North African, Indian, and Arab influences. Base ingredients such as chicken, mutton, fish and vegetables join forces with saffron, rose water, various herbs, onions, garlic and dried limes to create the heady Omani cuisine. But it was the non-assuming dried lemon that caught the fancy of Salim and Amal.
Soups prepared from vegetables, legumes and meats, as well as veg and non-veg salads are also part of the Omani food world. Main courses can be a deft combination of highly flavoured vegetable curries, and a selection of barbequed kebabs, grilled or curried meat, and a variety of chicken and fish dishes. Al Loomie offers all this, but with its distinct culinary signature.
Salim and Amal describe themselves as a husband and wife team that love to cook with unadulterated passion, giving classic dishes an Omani twist or vice versa. But they are not professionally trained chefs. While Salim is an engineer by training, Amal found her career in the financial industry as an auditor, and worked with leading firms such as KPMG.
“We approach our craft with care and artistry, and take pride in creating an assortment of innovative gourmet food, cakes and confections, while honouring the original recipes. But dried lemon is our USP,” they claim. Apart from cookies, they make a variety of cheesecakes, sauces, and vanilla dressings using dried lemons.
Grand wedding cakes are another attraction. They are made — oh no, crafted — under the supervision of a team comprising Salim, Amal and Amal’s mother Habiba al Khabori — a master chef in her own right. Last year they made history creating a 75-inch tall cake with 39,950 hand-made Sugar Flowers. The team worked for six months, literally 24/7, putting in almost 3,240 hours of work.
It was just their commitment and passion for fusion cooking, along with an amazing knack for innovation, which landed them at the Milan Expo in 2015 to represent Omani cuisine, on an invitation by the Sultanate’s Ministry of Tourism. “And we were standing there with international celebrity chefs. That was great occasion. Salim had to do something unique, and he created the Baplo Risotto, a daring attempt at turning the Omani baplo (fish soup) into an Italian risotto using parmesan cheese, onion, tomatoes, turmeric and chillies. The dish was widely appreciated,” Amal recalled with pride.
In Milan, Salim and Amal were allowed to cook in the kitchen of famed American chef Scott Conant, who is considered an authority on Italian cuisine. “Not everyone can expect an invite to his kitchen, it was really an exhilarating experience,” she added.
Salim has been featured as a guest chef at leading star hotels including Al Bustan Palace, Six Sense Zighy Bay and Shangri la Barr Al Jissah. At the event at Shangri la, Salim’s culinary skills got high appreciation from an unexpected celebrity: Palak Patel, an internationally recognised Private Chef and TV personality based in New York City, who was a guest at the hotel.
Salim and Amal have big plans for the future. Bringing in more innovation and range in food is one, but international expansion too is on the cards. “We want to spread the greatness of Omani cuisine in the whole world. True, we get a significant number of international tourists as guests at Al Loomie, but that’s not enough. We are looking at opening Omani fusion restaurants in London, Milan and Tokyo. And in all these restaurants, you will see Omani chefs,” Amal said.
Having achieved global acclaim for their restaurant, Salim and Amal have now set their sights on elevating Al Loomie to the status of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Salim and Amal also own a high profile catering company in Muscat. It is named, you guessed it, Dried Lemon.