Frankincense, from Oman to the World


Frankincense, the wealth of ancient Oman, flowed from the scared trunks of scrappy little trees on the wadi flats and mountain sides of misty Dhofar. The prized scent intensified as the resin dried and hardened.Then it was sent out by land and sea across the known world.

Dhows, the traditional sailing vessels of the region, carried frankincense to ports in Africa, Mesopotamia and India. While great caravans of 1,000 or more camels walked 2,000 miles north across the unforgiving Arabian Desert to ports on the Mediterranean Sea.

Camels can survive weeks without food or water, drawing on the fat stored in their humps. When necessary, they ate grains they carried or whatever they could find to graze on. Caravan drivers ate food packed by the camels, hunted, and shopped where they could on the way.

Tribal territories around the routes carved their share of the trade by charging tolls for passage and selling supplies.

Overnight camps were set up in the open desert or at caravanserai, the truck stops of the ancient trade routes. Song and dance around the fire recapped the highlights of each day’s journey, celebrated a step closer to completion and energized the company for the next leg.

The frankincense trade goes back at least 5,000 years. Egyptians and Mesopotamians were crazy for it, and the Greeks and Romans after them. It was used in religious ritual, in cosmetics, in medicine, even to embalm the dead. Today it’s used in pretty much the same ways and Dhofar still produces some of the highest quality frankincense in the world.

In Dhofar, you can visit remains of the ancient frankincense trade at Sumhuram and Al Baleed, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites near Salalah in southwestern Oman.

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Ful Medames, Beans for Breakfast, the Egyptian Way


Ful Medames, or simply ful (fava or broad beans), is a staple across the Middle East, but especially in Egypt, where the common belief is that it was passed down from the pharaohs. I first had ful for breakfast in Cairo. It has all the elements of my favorite guilt-free comfort foods (guilt-ful comfort foods are in a category of their own) – simple but flavorful, hearty but light – the earthiness of beans contrasted with the cool crunch of fresh vegetable garnish, joined by the bright richness of extra virgin olive oil and the tang of lemon juice.

I first tried to make ful myself about eight years ago, without success. Apparently this was before I realized pretty much every question could be answered on the Internet. I cooked several pots of dried fava beans but couldn’t get them soft enough. Obviously I wasn’t very motivated. I have plenty of Egyptian friends, not to mention Jordanian, Turkish, Lebanese and Syrian friends and acquaintances who would have shared their ful recipes and techniques.

Recently I was having dinner with a group of friends in Portland, including one whose grandparents immigrated to the US from Syria. We talked about her family in Syria, what life is like for them as their country is torn apart. They are in a small village outside of Damascus and, for now, everyone is safe. She talked about her visit to Syria, before the war, and how her aunt would get up before dawn every day and prepare great spreads of beautiful food, with the most basic of tools. We were eating a delicious Northwest-chic meal but both started to pine for the ancient peasant foods of the Middle East. Then it occurred to me to ask her about ful. Yes! She makes it all the time. “Use canned beans,” she said. “I do.” My hopes and craving for ful were restored. I can open a can.

I have a great little Mediterranean grocery in my neighborhood and as I walked to buy some cans of ful beans, I couldn’t escape the little voice in my head. “Cheater,” it said. “The pharaohs did not eat canned ful.” So, I asked the Lebanese shop keeper how they make ful for the restaurant next door. The secret is to use dried baby beans. The skin on the mature beans is too tough. Even after soaking and cooking, mature beans must be peeled in order to mash up properly for ful medames. To avoid the labor of peeling the beans, use baby beans.

To be honest, I’m not sure “baby” is technically correct. The beans you want are small and brown.

I decided to try it both ways, with beans from a can and with cooked dried “baby” beans, and compare the results.

Measurements are all to taste.

Ful with canned beans
1 can ful beans
1 small onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon

Cook the onion in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the can of beans, with liquid and let simmer for about 15 minutes. Add spices, salt, lemon and mash everything together with a fork or potato masher.

Ful from scratch
2 cups dried baby ful beans
1 large onion, finely chopped
4-6 cloves crushed garlic
1 large tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Soak the beans over night. Saute onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne in olive oil for a minute or two in a large pot. Add drained beans, cover with fresh water and simmer, covered on very low heat until beans are soft, about 2-3 hours. Check the pot regularly and add water if necessary. When the beans are tender uncover and let the liquid reduce. Smash some of the beans against the side of the pot with a spoon to thicken the sauce. Add tomato and cook until the beans are thick but not too dry, still soupy. (The consistency is a matter of taste. I like it runny but not wet, thick but not dense.) Add salt and lemon juice just before serving.

Garnish to taste and serve with pita bread.

There are a variety of garnishes to be used in quantities and combinations to your liking. These are the ones I know of:
chopped or sliced onion, use a sweet or mild onion
chopped green onion
chopped cucumber
chopped tomato
chopped parsley
chopped olives
chopped boiled egg or a fried egg
drizzled extra virgin olive oil
drizzled tahina
feta cheese

Now that I have cooked and eaten a bowl each of ful from a can and ful from dried beans, I declare both totally satisfying. The only drawback I see from using the canned beans is the left over can. I foresee eating this dish often enough that I’ll feel better about using bulk dried beans.

Lost & Found in Wadi Rum

I visited Wadi Rum while co-escorting a group of about 30 with Rich Davis, our Midwest sales manager and frequent guest blogger. Our incomparable guide Ahmed was our true leader but we were there to make sure all services ran smoothly and keep track of everyone. It was a large group, so we were forever rounding up stragglers and counting heads. Of course our #1 responsibility was as keepers of The Box, but I mention this only as a cryptic allusion to another post sometime in the future.

Wadi Rum was towards the end of the 10-day tour of Jordan and was a highlight for me. I was very excited when our bus dropped us at the visitor center, where we were to board 4×4 vehicles and ride into the wadi and meet the bus on the other side. The visitor center consists of single story buildings and a wide open courtyard looking directly out at the famous Seven Pillars rock formation.

The 4×4 vehicles weren’t quite lined up when we arrived and the group was spread out around the center, looking at the displays, visiting the toilets etc. Like a nice hostess, I got in the end of the line for the restroom. When I went into the lady’s room my group was spread in all directions and the 4x4s had not arrived. When I came out 3 minutes later I didn’t see a single face I recognized.

Although it was true that I had been left behind, the thought was so inconceivable that it didn’t even occur to me until I had walked around the whole center and made a visual sweep of the outside perimeter 2 or 3 times. How does a group of that size disappear in 3 minutes? They were so gone I couldn’t even see their dust. Thirty scattered people coalesced, distributed into 6 vehicles and rode beyond the horizon, with their dust, in 3 minutes. I had been corralling these nice people for over a week and couldn’t fathom such a thing. It’s a mystery to this day.

I know what you’re thinking. OK, 5 minutes, max. I swear.

Just as I was realizing my situation a  handsome man in traditional dress approached and asked if I needed anything. I’m pretty sure he had been watching me circle and was way ahead of me. He took me to an office where I phoned Ahmed, who sent a truck back for me. Because they were split into so many vehicles, no one even knew I was missing.

A few minutes later a Bedouin-driven Toyota 4X4 blew up in a cloud of dust. I rode in the cab with the driver who drove very fast across the sand while peeling an orange and sharing it with me, section by section. He swerved abruptly a few times and I squealed involuntarily, which he found highly amusing. He chatted away in Arabic the whole ride, although I think I made it clear I didn’t understand him.

It was only 10-15 minutes before we reached the group, which was stopped to take in the astonishing scenery. The assumption was made that I had stayed behind to conduct important Ya’lla business. I did not dispel that myth. Only Rich and Ahmed knew the truth.

Read about Petra, biblical Jordan and border crossing between Israel and Jordan in previous posts.

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