Saudi Arabia factfile
A Feast of Food
Food is at the centre of family life and traditional hospitality in Saudi Arabia. Favourite recipes and the art of Saudi cooking are passed down from mother to daughter. As in the West eating is centred around three meals a day when the whole family sits together sometimes around a table but traditionally around a cloth on the carpet which is called a "sufrah" and which is set with a selection of different dishes.
Hospitality is an essential part of Arab culture and traditionally plays a major part in any celebration.
Banquets are held to honour guests, or for wedding feasts and at religious festivals. For these food is cooked in a lavish style in large quantities with a wide variety of dishes laid out from meat, poultry and salads to pastries and fruit. Traditionally an evening feast is held late at night - the food is served at the end of the evening, rather than in the middle, and when dinner is over everyone leaves.
If guests are sitting on the floor they must sit around the sufrah on their calves and not stretch their legs or show the soles of their feet at someone as that is considered offensive.
A meal is eaten with the right hand or with cutlery or with both. It is impolite to use the left hand for eating or for giving or receiving things.
Traditionally when eating by hand, one should use the fingers of your hand to form balls of rice mixed with tender pieces of meat. Curry and salads can also be added to the rice with spoons. Often a whole lamb will be cooked for a feast and for a wedding party as many as forty or fifty lambs will be cooked.
For any party involving guests who are not family, men and women are segregated, in effect two identical parties are held alongside one another with children running between one group and another.
All guests should begin a meal by saying “bis mellah” (in the name of God) and ends it by saying “Alhamdo lellah” (God be praised).
When the meal is finished it is courteous to tell your host or hostess “Allah Yeghneek” (May God enrich you) or “Na’amulla A’layk” (May God give you more).
Guests will always be pressed to take more food and to taste all the different dishes offered. And a good guest will taste as many things as you can. Food that is left over is rarely wasted but is shared out to those who have helped prepare and serve the feast or given to charitable organisations or anyone in need.
Feasting at Ramadan
One of the best times to sample Saudi cuisine is during the month of Ramadan when sumptuous meals are shared at night, after the breaking of the fast.
In Saudi Arabia the fast is traditionally first broken with a date and glass of water. Then prayers are said before a celebratory meal is taken by family and friends.
Different foods from different regions
Ingredients and recipes vary greatly in different regions of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is vast - the size of Western Europe - and consequently different regions have their own distinctive style of cooking and special dishes.
Regional specialities vary according to traditionally available ingredients, the fishing villages on the eastern coast enjoying a very different diet to the Bedouins living on the central plateau of Najd or those living in the cosmopolitan western cities beyond the Hijaz.
However, as in the West, modern transport and technology like refrigeration, has made a huge selection of different foods available to people all over Saudi Arabia.
Coffee comes first
The first important ritual in Saudi hospitality is the preparation and serving of Arab coffee (qahwah ‘Arabiyah). Today coffee is prepared in the kitchen, but in the past it was considered man‘s work which took place over a campfire in the desert, or hearth in a townhouse.
Traditionally coffee beans were freshly roasted each time coffee was to be made. A small quantity of beans were held over a fire on a long-handled spoon, and then ground up with a pestle and mortar. The Bedouin had special chants to accompany this ceremony.
The host would add a few cardamom seeds to give the Arabic coffee its distinctive flavour. The brew was then boiled up before being poured into a smaller polished serving pot which would have a piece of palm fibre stuffed into the spout to serve as a strainer. (See the recipe below)
Serving the coffee
Arab coffee is served in small handleless cups and only half filled. More coffee is poured when the cup is empty. It is good manners for the guest to restrict himself to three servings of coffee, and he or she should then indicate he has finished by shaking the cup with rapid little movement of the wrist.
Hosts and hostesses typically serve rounds of two or more drinks at social occasions. Sweet mint tea is popular, and a thickish fruit drink made from sheets of dried, pressed apricots, chopped and pureed with water, (qamar ad-din).
Rice is the staple ingredient of Saudi dishes.
Favourite rice dishes include:
- Saliq - Originally from Taif, this simple dish is almost like a hot rice pudding typically served with lamb or chicken. The rice is half-cooked in meat or chicken broth and then milk is added as it is simmered, stirred and flavoured with cardamom and mustaka (gum arabic, the aromatic resin of the mastic tree). Eventually the rice is served on large trays with meat laid on top.
- Ruzz Bukhari - This dish combines rice with tomatoes, nuts and raisins, and originally came to the Hijaz from Central Asia.
From earliest time important trade routes, particularly for the carrying of spices to the Mediterranean, brought travellers through the Kingdom and particularly through coastal cities like Jeddah. These traders introduced exotic dishes to the region. Pilgrims from around the world to Makkah and Madinah further extended the variety of foods eaten in the region.
Favourite dishes include:
- mutabbag - a parcel made from many layers of thin pastry folded around a filling of ground meat, chopped onions, kurrath (a long green leaf in the garlic family) and beaten eggs. Fried on a griddle, it is easy to carry so is often sold by street vendors as a ‘fast food’ alternative to a proper meal.
- 'Aysh abu laham’ - a dough rather like pizza which is flavoured with various herbs and spices and topped with fried mutton, chopped kurrath and a sauce made from sesame seeds (tahinah).
- Harisah is traditionally made from Arab wheat called habb (see recipes below)
- Fi qa’atah - a layered dish of rice meat and almonds. Lamb or veal is used, rubbed with cumin, allspice, garlic, salt and pepper before being cooked for hours in water flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and cardamon.
- Fish is popular in all coastal regions and is usually rubbed with spices before being baked and served with rice. Popular fish include Chan’ad (Spanish Mackerel), Sha’ari (Spangled emperors), Tuna and Hamour (brown-spotted Grouper). A large Hamour will often be the central dish at a banquet or feast where it is cut open and baked with onion, tomato, garlic, hot peppers and cumin, laid on a bed of rice and garnished with limes.
Desserts were traditionally only offered at very special times such as Ramadan. However a wide variety of pastries and sweets are now available and often served after a main meal or with coffee or mint tea.
Spices which are essential to the flavour of any traditional Saudi Arabian dish are bought, ground or dried, in quantity from huge colourful sacks which stand outside shops in local souqs. Everything, from deep golden sacks of powdered turmeric to sacks of broken bark from the cinnamon tree, grey cardamom seeds, greenish lichens and black dried limes are for sale. Favourite and unusual spices include:
- Cardamom - tiny black seeds encased in a grey pod which are an essential ingredient of Arabic coffee and many dishes, both savoury and sweet. It comes from a tall bush, native to southern India.
- Cloves - dried flower buds of the clove tree which is native to Indonesia, cloves are used in meat and sweet dishes.
- Tamarind - long brown pods from a tree similar to the acacia, its name is derived from the Arabic for ‘indian date’. Tamarind is pulped to make a syrup which is added to meat and fish dishes.
- Saffron - made from the stigmas of an autumn-flowering crocus native to the Middle East it is often used for flavouring rice and puddings. Some 80,000 flowers are needed to make a half a kilo of saffron, so it is extremely expensive.
- Sumac - powder made from dark-red sumac berries which is popular sprinkled on pizza. It is essential in the spice blend known as Za’tar, a mixture of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt.
- Shaybah - tree lichen also known as “old man’s beard, which is found in the Arabian peninsula and has a bitter flavour, and is popular for flavouring meat and vegetable stews.
- Cinnamon - dried bark of the cinnamon tree which were first native to Sri Lanka.
- Dried limes - black wrinkled globes, used whole to flavour a stew or pounded to a powder.
Traditional recipes for you to try
2 cups cold water
6 teaspoons ground Arabic coffee
6 cardamom pods (crushed)
A few strands of saffron
Lightly roast and grind the beans just before preparing. Put the coffee, cardamom seeds, cloves and saffron into an Arabic coffee pot (or saucepan) with the water, bring to the boil and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes. Allow coffee to settle for a minute or two, and then pour a small amount into Arabic coffee cups.
4 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons ‘green’ teaHandful of fresh mint leaves
Put the tea and mint into the bottom of a pot, crushing the mint against the bottom. Fill pot with boiling water and allowed to stand for a few minutes. Sugar may be added to taste – it is usually drunk very sweet. Serve in small tea glasses if you have them.
Harees (or harisah)
3 cups Harees (whole wheat soaked overnight)
10 cups water
500 grams lamb’s neck or leg chopped into small pieces.
2 tomatoes chopped (optional)
Sweat the meat in its own juices, add the chopped tomato, salt, pepper and 5 cups of water. Simmer until the meat is tender and set aside.Drain the wheat and add to the meat mixture. Mix all the ingredients in a large pot with 4 more cups water, and cook slowly for about 2 hours until all the water is absorbed and the wheat is fluffy and the meat has disintegrated into the mixture. It may be necessary to add more water during this process.
Links to find out more about food:
The Children’s Encyclopaedia of Arabia
Mary Beardwood, Stacey International, ISBN 1 900988 33X
Saudi Aramco World: Flavoured with Tradition; Food from Saudi Arabia
Saudi Aramco World: The Flavours of Arabia
Saudi Aramco World: The Kingdom/The Culinary Kingdom
Finjan Gahwa and a bit of everything:
Abdalla Elmadani, Alwaffa Printing Press
Photographs courtesy of Saudi Aramco.