Georgina Benison –
Haytham al Balushi, his brother Bassam and childhood friends, Waleed and Nabil, who have a combined love of travel and food, were in London a couple of years ago at the famous Leon’s chain, eating Baked Moroccan Meatballs, when they said to each other, “Why can’t we eat food like this in a Muscat restaurant?”
The conversation stayed on their heads and they realised that a lot of people link healthy food to diets, fads and tasteless, bland dishes.
With that conversation rise other questions like, “Why can’t healthy food be delicious and full of flavour, but without excess salt and oil?”
They dwell on the thought for sometime and then started creating a vision — a place where like-minded people can go and the result was “Hayat’s” — a place for the health-conscious.
Many people in Oman enjoy eating and want a balanced, healthy food which does not make them put on weight despite overeating. Of these people, the majority as well do not want to go on a diet.
Veganism and vegetarianism started to become an option.
As people around the world become more conscious as to how their food is made or prepared, philosophical debates regarding animal consumption become a hot-button issue.
There is also huge debate over ecologically sustainable farming, as well as simply giving up meat to protect animals against exploitation and cruelty. Some vegetarians do not eat meat, fish or poultry to avoid the slaughter of farmed animals. Some people only avoid the consumption of red meats, which are deemed bad for health, (though there is inconclusive evidence about this).
Vegans recognise that animals are still exploited, through factory farming, intense breeding, caging of animals and over-feeding in the production of eggs and milk – required for cheese, butter, cream and mayonnaise, for example.
For Haytham and his team, they have to analyse whether Oman is ready to go vegan as they execute their vision.
This inspiring Omani said that based on their observation, the number of vegans is increasing across the world and Oman is on the trail of following this trend.
It is reported that the number of vegans has increased by 360% in the UK over the last 10 years, and by 500% in the past 5 years in the USA.
While it is difficult to estimate the number of people in Oman who are choosing a vegan lifestyle – and that includes not wearing leather – there is, however, an increasing demand for restaurants to offer vegan options.
An exclusively vegan or even vegetarian restaurant would preclude mixed groups of friends eating out together and create a barrier or even an elitist subculture as niche outlets are invariably too expensive for most locals.
This is where Haytham’s vision led him. Now, he is on a mission, probably the first Omani, to provide a vegan menu at an affordable price for Muscat residents.
Haytham is so dedicated to empathising with vegans that he even ‘went Vegan’ for a fortnight to see what it feels – and tastes – like! Launching his establishment however came with many challenges along the way.
Sadly one of the four, Waleed, passed away suddenly before their dream came to fruition, and the loss of Haytham and Bassam’s father, Hayat, after whom the outlet is named, and who had been so encouraging of the boys’ ambition.
Looking around for inspiration they were drawn to the rich variety, flavours and inherent ‘healthiness’ of Mediterranean cuisine and some methods of Asian cooking.
They focused on using seasonally available fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, seeds and unrefined cereals.
They started to replace the use of butter and ghee with healthier fats such as olive or sunflower oils, and in fact their signature style of cooking is baking rather than frying.
Haytham explained that fried food is fattening while baking reduces the need for oils or fats – and even chips can be oven-baked!
They experimented with different herbs and spices to replace salt in their dishes, and for the carnivores they encouraged eating chicken or fish instead of too much red meat.
So what did these food-faddies come up with in terms of exciting recipes for a fresh new menu?
One of the unexpected ingredients which pervade the Balushis’ dishes is cauliflower. Yes, sautéed cauliflower as a meat substitute, such as in ‘Buffalo Wings’, ‘Steak’ or ‘Cauliflower Tabouleh Pot’, which has more texture than traditional tabouleh and Haytham prepares it with parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and mint. Compare their signature dish, Oven-baked Moroccan Meatballs, served with green salad and brown rice, with Baked Sweet Potato and Chickpea Falafel. They are almost identical except that the lamb meatballs are substituted with a vegan option – and two friends with different tastes may sit down together and enjoy each other’s company over complementary plates.
Another favourite is Hayat’s Yoghurt Feta, meatballs in homemade tomato sauce, covered in delicious Greek curd, though now Haytham has sourced a locally made yoghurt from a farm in Fanja, and he stresses that efforts are always made to buy fresh, seasonal, locally-grown produce where possible.
Vegan options use sauces and dips from milk substitutes, such as soya, coconut and olive oil. They serve most dishes with salads, rice or quinoa, which is gluten-free, or in a quinoa wrap (60% less carbs than bread wrap) so there IS carbohydrate, but in a complex, starchy form, not ‘chips with everything’.
Items in a dish can be swapped and substituted – so if you ARE on a diet, you can remove the rice and have extra salad. There is plenty of meat on their menu, and hungry customers comment on the generous size of the portions. Now the partners are preparing a separate vegan menu, so popular are those unique dishes, for vegans and carnivores to enjoy!