Muscat’s tea trail

T-Mag Wednesday 03/May/2017 17:49 PM
By: Times News Service
Muscat’s tea trail

“Let’s go get some tea,” I told my friend, who had jetted in from Dubai for the weekend. It seemed like a pretty straightforward proposition, but at half-past two in the afternoon and having just landed at Seeb International Airport, this was surely not the sort of welcome he was expecting, having touched down in the Sultanate for the first time...

Oman has always been a place steeped in tradition and simmering in culture. They say the best way into a person’s heart is through his stomach, and I had the perfect whetstone for my friend to sharpen his appreciation for this secluded slice of Arabia. My itinerary would introduce him to many a place which have long occupied a soft corner in the heart of the residents of this beautiful land, and as we crisscrossed the length and breath of Muscat in search of the country’s finest teas, I knew this was a journey he wouldn’t forget in a lifetime.

High Tea at Al Bustan Palace
The post lunch-hour traffic can be a bit of a buzzkill on Oman’s otherwise sedate landscapes, but the Muscat Expressway ensured we made short work of the journey to Wadi Kabir and towards old Muscat, home to a hotel that is (nearly) as old and renowned as the Al Alam Palace in the heart of the city.

Arriving a few minutes after 3pm, we were deftly ushered into the hotel’s enormous and elegant lobby and placed in a cosy nook of one of Oman’s best establishments, and the service they provided us only firmly highlighted that.

Al Bustan are the byword for excellence, and their shuwa and samoun sandwich as well as their tomato, cucumber and pesto offerings – designed to cater to both local and international tastes – foretold a great experience.

And it truly was: their tantalising array of delicate cupcakes and macaroons, salted caramel and chocolate spheres, fresh-baked scones with a motley of preserves and spreads including some delicious clotted cream, raspberry jam with the perfect amount of tartness and oodles of creamy butter, were prepared to perfection, and offered us an elegant, luxurious high tea that was the perfect kick-starter to our journey across Muscat.

All of this was washed down with the most flavourful saffron tea I’ve ever had. They’ll make any beverage you ask for, though – they’ve got one of the largest collections of the drink for you to choose from – but the centrepiece of this extravagant afternoon indulgence had to be the cardamom and date cream cakes, a dessert so good it brought Oliver Twist to mind (may I have some more, please?)

Masala Chai at D’arcy’s Kitchen
Our appetites may have been sated for the moment, but tea is never about drinking a beverage from a glass while the world turns around you. It’s about savouring the ambience, both within and without. With the clock striking 4pm, I knew there were few better places to watch the sun go down than by the beach in Shatti Al Qurum.

D’arcy’s Kitchen may be English, (I’m not sure so let’s just settle on Continental), but both of us were drawn to a very non-European item on the menu, and our gamble definitely paid off. Savouring my tall glass of masala chai as the beams of the setting sun bounced off the languid waters of the Arabian Sea, I couldn’t help but become ensconced in my very own bubble of bliss, letting the earthy flavours and the sharp, but very satisfying aftertaste wash over me. The little butter biscuits on the side only served to elevate that sensation.

Karjeen Caffe’s Signature Drink
Oman’s culture and heritage may be symbolised by its architecture – friendly, laid-back, low-key, but it’s the people of the Sultanate who make it what it is. As the clock ticked past five, we left a rapidly setting sun in our rear-view mirror and set off to one of the country’s most popular haunts: Karjeen Caffe in Madinat Qaboos has been a mainstay of every generation in Oman – be it locals or expatriates – and will continue to be for many years to come.

Authentic Arab cuisine is their specialty, and that extends to their selection of beverages as well: the Karjeen Special Tea may sound like a bit too much, but it’s a drink that certainly lives up to its hype.

The tea contains cardamom, saffron, and ginger, and while these flavours are certainly special on their own, together, they are nothing short of spectacular. As the first stars began twinkling in the night sky and we stretched out on the luxurious majlis we’d occupied, it was hard not to feel snug and cosy, wishing you could preserve this moment for posterity and revisit it again and again. And again.

Stassen Tea Lounge at Al Falaj
Doing, that, though, would mean missing out on Oman’s newest attraction for tea aficionados. Al Falaj, one of Oman’s oldest hotels, is now home to its newest tea lounge.

Stassen Tea Lounge only opened last month, but it is sure to cause quite a stir with foodies in the country, in addition to boasting the best teas in the Sultanate. From the brightly coloured tea wall which displayed over 30 different varieties of tea – imported directly from Sri Lanka, to the ultra-modern décor, Stassen Tea Lounge has a very fresh, vibrant feel to it, and they let you take their tea home as well.

And that extends to what’s on the menu too. They specialise in creating some rather fantastic cocktails by blending tea with exotic ingredients, but the result of this experimentation is truly wonderful.

Their green tea lemonade, garnished with a sprig of mint and served chilled with chunks of ice, is perfect for the hot Middle Eastern weather, but my favourite had to be their fragrant and flavourful cherry, apple and green tea cooler.

It’s not just their tea that was wonderful: Their food was pretty awesome too. Our stomachs rumbled in anticipation as we caught a whiff of their signature tandoori paneer and shrimp wrap sizzling on the grill, and every bite of the succulent wrap complete with crunchy peppers and onions provided a fresh burst of flavour and satisfaction, which went superbly well with their chilli cheese toast and beef enchiladas, made with a meat so tender that it melted in our mouths.

But the fondest of food memories were saved for dessert, despite us being (relatively) full: Their standout dish had to be their earl grey mousse. Yes we were just as surprised as you to discover that such a thing existed. Sandwiched between two chocolate discs, with just the slightest hit of mint was the most exquisite mousse. I just wish we had more on that plate.

But that would leave us with no room for the mud cake, a sublime confection studded with hazelnuts and chocolatey chunks, served with fresh strawberries to add the perfect finish to an excellent evening.

Karak Chai
Al Falaj may have been the finish to our evening, but it wasn’t the end. I wanted to finish our tea adventure with a shot of Omani culture that would remain long in the memory. Where better to find it than at one of Oman’s ubiquitous Karak tea shops, frequented by people from all walks of life.

That inimitable blend of tea, cardamom and masala that is now a mainstay among Omanis and expats alike is truly like no other brew you’ve had, or like one you’ll never have again. My friend certainly didn’t.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be his last: It’s been a good few weeks since his brief trip to Oman, and as it is with any country you visit, he’s taken a little something with him as well: Several boxes of Stassen tea are now in his home. And he wants not just those boxes of tea, but everything we had on that menu. As I roll my eyes at his inane request borne from the heart, I cannot help but think, that absence makes the heart grow fonder. [email protected]