When life hands you lemons – you squeeze every last drop of flavour! And Omanis have been doing just that over the centuries with ‘loomi’ or dried lemon. Swati Basu Das explores how it became a local delicacy.
A kitchen essential and perennial favourite, the humble lemon forms the base of the citrus varieties majorly-cultivated in Oman. An ancient citrus ingredient, lemon – derived from the Arabic word ‘laymuun’, is typically Omani when used in its dried form. A traditional spice found in almost all local cuisine, ‘loomi’ (dried lemon) is available in abundance in almost all local stores and souqs.
Be it its healing habits or mouth-puckering tendencies, the zest of loomi is singular.
For Nasra Saif Hamood Al Jabri, who manages three of her farms in Baushar, it’s an ingredient that’s an indelible part of her culinary identity:“Here in Oman, every kitchen garden has a lemon tree, and every farm grows them. Lemons meet our daily requirement – be it a glass of lemonade or in an authentic Omani dish.”
The best-known souring agent, a fresh squeeze of lemon adds an invigorating flavour to anything from stews to desserts.
The essence of almost every traditional Omani cuisine is inherently incomplete without the distinctive, strongly-flavoured essence of loomi. A typical Omani spice, the dusky dried lemon is a standby in every kitchen. “They’re readily available in local markets and even dried at home. We pluck them when they ripen, before they turn squishy. They’re then boiled in water and dried in the sun for days to get the right dark-brown texture until they harden and lose all their water content,” explains Nasra. “They contain Vitamins C and D and tons of minerals; they’re known to heal indigestion and even prevent heart disease.”
A blend of loomi in traditional Omani recipes like ‘paplou’ (fish soup), ‘machboos’ (Omani biriyani), ‘shuwa,’ or refreshing ‘loomi’ tea ignites an exquisite flavour.
“We poke it with a sharp knife before adding them in; the flavour releases slowly. We remove the whole dried lemon from the recipe before serving and we also grind them into powder depending on the recipe,” Nasra points out.
The key to great taste in any dish comes through the balance and marriage of its ingredients. Here are a few of our favourite recipes where the aromatic properties of loomi add the perfect tang!
This bowlful of comfort will bring your taste-buds to life with the tart infusion of loomi.
• 1 lb tuna
• ¼ cup, fresh cilantro
• 3 cloves garlic
• 1 2-inch piece fresh ginger
• 1 lemon, dried
• 1 lemon, wedges
• 1 plum tomato
• 1 chili
• ¼ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
• 1 cup, cooked Basmati rice
• ¼ tsp, ground black pepper
• 1/8 tsp, cayenne pepper powder
• 1 tsp, kosher salt
• ¾ tsp, ground turmeric
• 1 small or ½ a medium red onion, diced
• Using a mortar and pestle, make a paste of the garlic, ginger, ¼ teaspoon turmeric, salt, cilantro, chili, and 1 ½ tablespoons water. Set aside.
• Soak the dried lemon for a few minutes in water to soften the skin.
• Make a small hole by piercing it with a paring knife or fork.
• Bring 5 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat
• Add the black pepper and the remaining ½ teaspoon turmeric and cook for 2 minutes.
• Add the tomato, boil 5 minutes, then add the onion, and cook 5 minutes more.
• Stir in the lemon juice, garlic-ginger paste, cayenne, and dried lemon. Cover with a lid and decrease the heat to medium-low and cook 15 minutes.
• Remove the dried lemon
• Add the tuna and gently stir; cover and simmer until the fish is cooked
• Serve over cooked Basmati rice
• Garnish with chopped cilantro and lemon wedges.
The ultimate cure-all in a cup, there’s nothing quite like a bracing pot of loomi tea to set the world to rights
• 2 dried lemons (loomi Omani)
• 4 cups, water
• ¼ cup, honey
• Using a mortar and pestle, crush the dried loomi, breaking them into pieces.
• In a small saucepan, combine the water with the crushed loomi and bring the mixture to a boil. Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
• Remove the tea from the heat and strain it through a cheesecloth or coffee filter-lined fine mesh sieve and into a kettle or teapot.
• Add the honey to the tea. Stir and serve hot.