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Salalah, Oman is well known as paradise to the people of the Persian Gulf, yet most of the world has never heard of this charming town of 180,000 lying quietly on the Arabian Sea.
Tourists by the thousands flock to its shores from neighboring towns and countries during its annual monsoon season, which brings cooling rain to the scalding atmosphere and turns the arid desert lush green.
Twice I’ve visited post-monsoon Salalah when I was working and traveling full time. I was amazed at its green desert, turquoise ocean waters and one more Salalah specialty – its frankincense. Found in very few parts of the world, frankincense trees are abundant throughout Dhofar, the region where Salalah lies. Short and scrubby, they’re not much to look at, but the frankincense they produce is so unique and amazing.
Frankincense is a resin found inside the tree and can be seen by slicing back a portion of its white bark.
Frankincense is harvested by draining the trees of this resin, letting it dry over a period of time, then chopping it into tiny bits.
These pieces of frankincense are then bagged and sold.
Not all frankincense is alike. Darker pieces are frequently used for incense while lighter pieces typically mean higher quality and are utilized for health purposes. Omanis chew the light bits of frankincense or steep them in tea to help with arthritis, asthma, inflammation, swelling and other medical conditions.
Putting it in your tea adds an extra bit of spice to your drink, but chewing it is a different matter. It is so gooey it gets very, very stuck in your teeth. If you do decide you want to try to chew it, bite off just a very tiny piece so you won’t be trying to get rid of it for days.
Both light and dark pieces are used in a most appealing way – filling the air of Oman with a heady, spicy scent when burned. Wherever in the country you travel, you’re likely to smell frankincense burning away. Its omnipresence has always caused me to say that frankincense is Oman’s signature scent.
Bags of frankincense are popular items for sale in the souqs of Salalah. They are everywhere in the souqs, along with colorful burners in which bits of the scented resin are placed and burned. They come in such a multitude of colors, that it’s hard to choose which one to buy.
If you travel to Salalah, buy a bag of frankincense and a colorful burner. The flavor and scent of frankincense will always take you back to Oman, no matter where you are.