“Food is a symbol of hospitality in the Arabian Gulf,” says Felicia Campbell, an author who specializes in food of the Arabian Gulf. “As part of Islamic and Bedouin culture, it is a great honor to be able to feed a traveler or anyone who shows up at your doorstep, and this is especially true in Saudi Arabia,” she says. Rice is served on massive platters and crowned with roast meat or chicken, and it is meant to be shared, eaten by hand from a communal platter that is bountiful enough to accommodate a crowd.
So, exactly what might you find on a communal platter? The foods are largely tied to the terrain: Saudi Arabia is 95 percent desert, home to the Empty Quarter known as the Rub Al Khali, and many traditional dishes reflect the ancient trade caravans and nomadic lifestyles of desert dwellers.
Basmati rice and heavy spices from the East were easy to transport on long caravans, musky dried black limes were carried from neighboring Oman, and local dried dates and camel’s milk were essential to the ancient diet. (Although these days, you’re more likely to find camel’s milk in the form of a fancy camel milk latte.) To this day, dates — as well as qahwa, a lightly roasted coffee ground with cardamom pods and flavored with saffron and sometimes cloves — remain vital to the culture of hospitality. In fact, both are routinely offered to guests entering a home, or even an office.
A typical Saudi breakfast is quite simple, explains Campbell, who has spent years in the Middle East. “It may be dates and qahwa or bread with cheese — the dates and coffee will continue to be enjoyed throughout the day,” she says.
Lunch is traditionally the main meal of the day, and it almost always includes a rice dish, like kabsa, considered the national dish of Saudi Arabia. Kabsa is richly spiced (every household tends to have its own favorite seasoning blend) without being piquant or having much “spicy heat.” The flavorful rice is topped with roast chicken, meat or even fish, and a tomato and chili salsa is often served on the side to brighten it up, along with a simple chopped salad. In contemporary homes, dinner is served late and is a lighter meal, often sandwiches, a Western-style dish or a hearty soup.
As a Muslim country, alcohol is not served in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t limit the beverage offerings in the country. Some favorites include fresh juices — everything from hibiscus to orange and mango — and nonalcoholic juice cocktails, as well as qahwa and all types of tea.
When it comes to dining out, Jeddah and Riyadh are such international cities that they offer regional foods from all over the Middle East (and from all over the world). This can make it tricky to decipher which dishes are unique to the kingdom. But here’s a clue: compared with foods from elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi fare is more rustic and comforting, with hearty rice dishes, savory porridges and stews as staples. (The breads are even unique, with paper-thin ragag breads and even paratha being more common than pita.)
If you want to order like a local, during the holy month of Ramadan, ask for jareesh (also known as harees) after sundown. This cracked wheat and lamb porridge is seasoned with black pepper, dried black lime, cinnamon and sometimes cloves.
Some other Saudi go-tos to try (in addition to the aforementioned kabsa)? Saleeg, a white rice that is cooked in chicken broth and a touch of milk until it breaks down into a soft, creamy, porridge-like texture. It’s seasoned subtly with cardamom, salt and black pepper and served with roast or boiled chicken on top. There’s also thareed, a savory bread pudding: Torn pieces of thin khubz (bread) are added to a stew of chicken or other meat, vegetables and typical Saudi spices. And if you have room for dessert, try kleicha, a popular cookie often filled with dates.
For epicurean travelers, KAEC, a new city in Saudi Arabia, has a vibrant culinary scene — everything from fine dining to fast food.
— By Didi Gluck