Food is a focal point of travel, especially when you take time to get to know a place through its cuisine. Plan a trip to Saudi Arabia, and your taste buds won’t be disappointed at breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.
Kick off your day with a traditional Saudi breakfast. Opt for a classic, simple spread, such as flatbread, cheese and date jam, or try the savory shakshuka or the sweet Saudi banana masoub.
Shakshuka: This breakfast dish of poached eggs cooked with a tomato and onion sauce is savory and spicy too, thanks to ingredients such as cayenne, chili and cumin. Shakshuka gets its name from the Arabic word “shakka,” which means “stick together,” and it refers to how well the eggs, tomatoes and other ingredients do just that. Easily made in one pan, shakshuka is popular throughout the Middle East and northern Africa.
Saudi Banana Masoub: Made with overripe bananas, ground flatbread and cream or milk, masoub is similar to banana bread. The dish is topped with a variety of treats, most commonly nuts (specifically almonds), honey and raisins.
“In Middle Eastern culture, lunch is the main meal of the day,” says Majed Al Muhanna, a heritage food documenter in Saudi Arabia. Al Muhanna says traditionally a cold, liquid yogurt called laban is consumed at lunch (especially in central Saudi Arabia). “Yogurt is never between meals. It’s with lunch,” he says. In addition to drinking leben, midday is the ideal time to try some of Saudi’s most popular entrees, including its national dish: kabsa.
Kabsa: Stemming from the Arabic word “kbs,” which means “pressed,” kabsa features ingredients that are pressed (cooked) together in one pot. A regional lunchtime favorite, kabsa is the national dish of Saudi Arabia. It can be prepared with a variety of ingredients, but the three staples are rice, vegetables and meat. In Saudi, the dish’s meat could be beef, goat, lamb, chicken or, on occasion, camel. Cloves, cinnamon, saffron, cardamom, bay leaves, black pepper, nutmeg and loomi (sun-dried black limes) are used to flavor the dish.
Matabaq: Matabaq is made with stretchy dough similar to roti and resembles a stuffed and fried pancake. The name of this dish means “folded” in Arabic, and it refers to the way the dough is folded around its fillings, including meat, garlic, eggs, curry, peppers, ghee, onions, mint and coriander. Though the exact origin is not clear, the dish is said to have been invented in Yemen and Saudi Arabia around the same time and was influenced by the Indian population in both countries. Find it fresh from food stands across Saudi.
Traditionally, dinner is a lighter meal, but Al Muhanna says this is changing. With both men and women working, and workdays getting longer, dinner is becoming more like lunch, he says. Here are two Saudi Arabian traditional foods to finish off the day.
Jareesh: One of the oldest dishes in Saudi Arabia, jareesh (also known as harees) consists of boiled crushed wheat, onion, rice, meat, broth and spices, such as parsley, cumin and coriander. The final product, which is especially popular during the month of Ramadan, has a consistency somewhere between porridge and a dumpling.
Thareed: Even older than jareesh, thareed is said to date back to pre-Islamic times and to have been a favorite dish of the Prophet Muhammad. Similar to a lamb stew with a kick of spice, thareed is made by stewing halal meats and vegetables and is served over a thin piece of bread.
If there were ever a time to eat dessert, it’s on vacation — especially in Saudi, where there’s a wide variety of traditional sweets, from pastries to buttermilk cookies.
Umm Ali: Almost everyone loves Umm Ali, also spelled Om Ali, which translates to “Ali’s mother.” Popular across the region, this pastry is filled with honey, nuts, cinnamon and milk and is baked until golden brown. Find it at many dessert cafés across the country.
Ma’amoul: Stuffed with pistachios, walnuts, almonds and, of course, dates (and sometimes date pudding), ma’amoul has a crumbly, shortbread-like exterior that melts right in your mouth. These adorable cookies are made with a wooden mold to get their signature pattern, and they smell of the cinnamon and cardamom that’s baked inside. Ma’amoul are often served during celebrations in Saudi Arabia.
— Lisa Zimmermann