Each country, each nation, usually has its own unique cuisine, cooking style and eating traditions that have been shaped over centuries or even millennia. Arab countries are no exception. Their color and cultural identity have always attracted not only Europeans but people from all over the world. Millions of tourists are ready to travel a long way to visit the “Land of Two Holy Cities” – Mecca and Medina, and also immerse themselves in the beautiful world of “Thousands and One Nights”.
The national cuisine of Saudi Arabia is a journey into a fairy tale about tasty and healthy food, original dishes and age-old traditions of their preparation and consumption. The knowledge of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia cannot be considered complete without familiarity with local hospitality, without tasting local food and drink.
So welcome to this wonderful world of oriental culture.
History of local cuisine
Saudi Arabia is the largest state on the peninsula. It is a land of the wonderful intertwining of millennial customs and modernity. At the same time, the cuisine of this region has remained virtually unchanged for millennia.
Saudi Arabian cuisine is not unique or exclusively domestic for this country. It was significantly influenced by neighboring states and the nations with which the Kingdom borders. Eating habits shaped two sources of fish and other seafood – the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Historically, Turkish, Indian, Persian and African cuisine has influenced. Especially at a time when these countries and lands were part of the vast Ottoman Empire. This process was, of course, two-way, therefore, you can find much of what will be discussed here in the kitchens of these nations.
Arabic cuisine was formed under the influence of many factors of life, including the way of life (nomadic or sedentary), the peculiarities of climate, flora and fauna. But the strictest rules are dictated by the dominant religion. Cooking and eating requirements are met exactly and absolutely everywhere. By no means do Muslims touch pork and the meat of predators, as well as alcohol. Products must be halal, that is, allowed in Islam.
Traditional kingdom products
The use of halal meat, dairy products, fish, fruit, vegetables and an excessive amount of spices is typical of national cuisine. Meat dishes are usually prepared from chicken, lamb or mutton. Beef is less common. Today, the country occupies one of the first places in the import of lamb and mutton. Meat from pigs and wild animals as well as alcohol are strictly prohibited.
Fish dishes and eggs play an important role in cooking. No wonder they have a dignified place in the kitchen of neo-Ottoman society. Among dairy products, milk (camel, sheep or goat) is traditionally preferred, which has a specific taste but is very healthy.
Due to the authorities’ commitment to sustainable development and a healthy lifestyle, these products will definitely be used by the inhabitants of the metropolis of NEOM and other ambitious projects. All types of cheese, butter and cottage cheese are also prepared from milk, which has a beneficial effect on health and well-being.
Herbal products are widespread and often consumed. It is impossible to imagine that the cuisine of Saudi Arabia will not please the taste buds with the wide range of spices. The most popular are peppers, especially chili, cumin, coriander,garlic, onions, various herbs. Olives and oil extracted from them are often used. A lot of coffee, tea and sour milk diluted with water is used. Bread is also very popular with the Saudis. It is always present on the table in every household.
Main dishes of local cuisine
To enjoy the food to the fullest, to enjoy it and a lot of positive emotions, you need to know what and how it is prepared. Because, of course, exotic food names sound interesting, but they don’t say anything to the foreigner’s ear. And so we will have a complete understanding and a complete idea of what we have on our plate. Or what we are offered to taste. We are therefore beginning our interesting journey into the mysterious world of Saudi Arabian cuisine.
The main and most traditional dishes may seem quite simple at first glance, however satisfactory. At the same time, there is nothing superfluous in them, all the ingredients work harmoniously together. Their fat content is useful and easy to absorb and at the same time satiate for a long time. Most likely, Most likely, they will start introducing tourists to local cuisine.
HARISSA is a meat dish garnished with coarsely ground-boiled wheat. It is soaked overnight and then cooked with meat and butter. The liquid is then drained and the residue is ground to a slurry consistency. Spices such as parsley and cardamom are also added to the arise. This dish is very popular during the holy month of Ramadan. Harissa is also served at celebrations. Muslims believe it was a favorite food of the Prophet Muhammad.
Another popular dish is THARID, which is cooked in a broth of meat and vegetables with the addition of slices of bread.
The popular Arabic dish MANSAF – lamb garnished with bulgur or rice, flavored with fermented dry yogurt in the form of a sauce – has spread to the kingdom.
KABSA based on meat and rice is generally considered a traditional dish by many Arabs.
Meat and rice are generally considered a traditional dish of many Arab nations.
Thanks to the proximity of Yemen, the cuisine of Saudi Arabia has expanded with another variation on the theme of rice and meat – HANEED, which is often served today as a staple at important events, including weddings and celebrations. To prepare it, use young lamb with rice and lots of spices.
MANDI is similar to haneed, only it is more difficult to prepare. The meat for the dish is prepared in a tandoor (clay oven). Coal is first mined by burning wood. The meat, previously cooked with spices, is then hung or placed in a tandoor so that it does not touch the coals.
The tandoor is closed, a small hole is left to remove the smoke, and the meat is crispy fried. Rice is also cooked with spices and then smoked. Pine nuts or peanuts are added to the finished dish to taste and then served with the original sauce.
The list of meat dishes would be incomplete without so popular MADFOON – rice with stewed lamb, raisins and fried nuts.
SALEEG – white rice and chicken.
JALAMAH – lamb with a mixture of Arabic spices. It was originally prepared and served by MAQLUBA. This dish includes chicken or lamb with rice and fried vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, cauliflower). All this is first spread out in layers in a casserole, which is masterfully turned before serving, thanks to which the dish has the form of a cake. We serve this delicacy with a salad of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, which we season with parsley, lemon juice, yogurt and sesame paste.
Gursan is one of the Saudi Arabian national dishes cooked by placing dry, paper-thin sheets of bread atop meat and vegetables in a broth until the bread pieces soak up all of the flavorful juices. The final result is a thick, nourishing, and satisfying dish loved throughout the whole country.
Other favorite dishes
There are meat dishes on each table. But as the saying goes, not just meat. The local fast food MARTABAK is popular – a thin pancake stuffed with minced meat, eggs and green onions, which is cut into squares.
SHAWARMA is also quite common. Sliced meat with sauces and vegetables is inserted into it. Grilled carp is used to prepare MASGOUF. Eggs in tomato sauce with spices and condiments are called SHAKSHOUKA. They eat breakfast with bread. Expensive, elite species of fish are prepared in various ways during the holidays.
Dishes like FALAFEL – fried chickpea balls, KUSSA-MAKHSHI – stuffed zucchini diversify everyday cuisine. Among the appetizers and salads, HININY is very popular, prepared in winter from black bread, butter, dates, flavored with cardamom and saffron, as well as FATTOUSH – a salad of roasted flatbreads with herbs and vegetables.
Baking has a special place in the cuisine of Saudi Arabia. The Arabs love bread and use it in various ways. The unleavened bread is called KHOBZ and is served with meat and fish dishes. Lavash-like thin LAFFA flat cakes are used in street food, filled with various fillings of meat, falafel or hummus. KHMER wheat bread is baked in a pan or in a round metal oven.
MARKOOK or SHRAK are often served – a large translucent spread that is baked in a convex pan. Almost all bread is not only tasty but also suitable for eating regular food.
Eastern countries have always been characterized by a large selection of desserts and sweets that will please the taste and do not harm the figure. Saudi Arabian cuisine also has popular desserts. Among them are simple and difficult to prepare. But they are all equally delicious. The simple ones include sesame-coated KA’AK bread rings or thin dough envelopes with KANAFEH cheese soaked in sweet sugar syrup. More complex is MAHALABIA cream pudding, which is made from milk with rice flour or cornstarch and sweet syrup with pistachios.
BASBOUSA is a sweet semolina cake soaked in syrup with the addition of coconut. And of course BAKLAVA. Where can we go without it? LUQIAMAT honey donuts, candied fruit and nuts, fresh and canned fruit, Kozinaki, mousse, jelly, ice cream are also often placed on the table.
Popular Arabic drinks
One of the most famous drinks of Saudi Arabian cuisine is BLACK TEA, which is prepared with the addition of various herbs. People drink it in everyday life and at business meetings. COFFEE production and consumption culture is also imbued with tradition. Cardamom is often added to it. It is consumed very strong from small cups and is served in a dallah teapot. In the local culture, coffee symbolizes generosity and hospitality.
Various FRUIT JUICES are very popular, especially those freshly squeezed. LABAN is prepared from yogurt. It can be sweet, mixed with soda or salty and even smoked. SOBIA is a cold drink made from lightly fermented barley or rye bread, date juice with the addition of herbs and spices will perfectly quench thirst. The drink is very healthy and is consumed during Ramadan.
JALLAB tonic drink is made from carob fruit syrup, dates, grape syrup and rose water. Served with crushed ice, pine nuts and raisins.
All alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden in the country in accordance with the principles of Islam.
Features of local hospitality
The Saudis respect guests who are considered a gift from God in the household. They are usually surrounded by attention and care. You may be invited to visit the restaurant and home. If the host invites the guest to a restaurant, then this is usually the most generous gesture he can afford.
As a rule, such a restaurant is located in a large hotel and International or European cuisine can be on offer. Do not insist on choosing your own dishes, leave it to the host.
Let him create a menu according to your taste. This will show him your respect. And don’t even try to offer to pay for yourself in a restaurant. This can be seen as an insult.
The situation when you are invited to the house requires special tact and knowledge of the rules. They will definitely meet you, take you to a separate room – Mejlis and offer coffee. If other guests take off their shoes before entering, do the same. You will stay here until all the invited guests have gathered. Sometimes it can take a while.
No one is in a hurry and no delay is condemned. The table is set in the next room or even in the yard. When everything is ready and the guests are gathered, the owner/host invites them to the table.
If you see that there are many more guests than you think will fit at the table, it will be a sign of special courtesy not to rush, no matter how hard you want to eat and show some hesitation. Allow the host to guide you to the table and offer you the place he has designated in advance. The most honorable place is to the right of the host.
The Arabs are very clean, so don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly before sitting at the table. If you haven’t been offered the bowl with water right away, ask where you can do it.
It is very important not to rush. In any incomprehensible situation, it is better to first observe the actions of other guests. You need to be prepared for the fact that food can be placed not only on the table. The dishes are often laid on the floor. Basic – on large trays, the rest is on smaller plates.
Guests sit either with their legs crossed or with their knees supported, with one leg bent under the other. This arrangement is more advantageous when there are a large number of guests.
And it’s perfectly familiar to the Arabs. If it is unacceptable to you for any physical or moral reason, you should understand that such a situation may occur and discuss it with the host in advance so you do not see his suffering face later, which would be extremely unpleasant. After all, he wants you to enjoy food and communication.
Women and men traditionally eat at separate tables and even in different rooms, although there are exceptions in families where the host has received a European education.
Feast culture in Saudi Arabia
When everyone sits around a meal, we have to wait for the host to make a call – bismillah. The guest has to repeat his words and only then can the calm process of eating begin. Europeans are often offered spoons. But it will be the right way if you eat all the food by hand. Remember a very important rule – food can only be eaten with the right hand.
You can only take a glass of water or Lebanese (diluted yogurt) with your left hand. They are often offered for better digestion of hearty and fatty foods. Don’t rush, see how others do it.
Don’t be ashamed when the host or one of the guests tears off a smaller piece of meat from a large piece and places it on the rice in front of you. Know that this is a way to show special respect. After all, dishes, especially meat, are served very hot. Tearing off a smaller piece would be unpleasant and painful to your hands. The owner has done it for you to make sure you do not burn yourself and have enough meat to eat.
Try to eat this particular piece or portion of meat. This will show that you value the care he deserves. And never doubt the cleanliness of the hands of those who sit at the table. Don’t be surprised by the fact that sometimes the host does not eat with the guests. This is fine. If there are a lot of guests, then he makes sure that everyone is well, comfortable and there is enough food for everyone.
You can collect food for yourself both with bread cups and simply with your hands. Take your time, see how others do it and do the same. If you want to take a piece of meat from a large piece yourself, only take it from the side that is right in front of you. It is considered rude to take food and especially meat directly in front of other guests.
If you see that most of the guests are full and some have started to gently lick their fingers, it means that the feast is coming to an end. That is a signal for you to also stop eating. It is very important not to leave anything on the plate that you have already taken under any circumstances. Even if everyone finished eating, they will definitely wait for you and no one will show you dissatisfaction or hurry. But the food leftover shows disrespect for the host.
When everyone has finished eating, the guests will stand up and say first Alhamdulillah – “Thank the Lord” and Kathar Allah Khairkum – “May the Lord praise your generosity!” – expressing gratitude to the host for the treat. Guests will then be taken back to a place where they can wash their hands or a bowl with water will be offered to them.
There is therefore no need to rush and take out paper or wet wipes. Such an act may send the wrong signal that the host did not have taken care of something.
After washing hands, guests may go again to the already known Majlis room, where they will be offered perfume, eau de toilette and the smell of lit incense. All of this will not only give the guest and their clothes a pleasant oriental scent but also will neutralize the effect of the huge amount of spices and condiments in the dishes.
Incense marks the end of the visit. When it is brought into the room, it serves as a sign that the guests can begin to say goodbye and leave. It is not customary in the country to shake hands with the host or say goodbye. Just say Akramakum Allah “May the Lord be generous to you!” A handshake is only permissible if the host reaches out.
And one more warning that will certainly not be unnecessary. Never ask the Saudis to take a selfie together. Their process of taking and showing photos is a personal matter and they are more cautious and reserved.
The Kingdom is a beautiful and unique country, in which the culinary traditions of all Arab countries are greatly mixed with the cuisine of Saudi Arabia. Every foodie will be satisfied, taking these memories back home and maybe one day come back for more to this wonderful world of great tastes, hospitality and cordiality.