“Rose water is often the secret ingredient in complex-flavored Saudi sweets and even traditional coffee, lending a subtle hint of floral essence that plays well with other iconic flavors, like honey, date and cardamom,” says cookbook author Felicia Campbell. “Muhalbiyah, a rose water-scented pudding that is a Ramadan staple, is one of the best ways to enjoy the distinctive flavor.”
The sweet distillate has also been used in health and beauty products since the Middle Ages. Applied to skin on its own or in a cream formulation, it has anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. It is also thought to act as an antibacterial, which can reduce acne. Rose water also has antiseptic qualities, so it is used to help clean and treat cuts and burns. Moreover, studies have shown that the oil derived from Rosa damascena (commonly known as the damask rose, which is related to the Taif rose) has pharmacological benefits, acting as an antidepressant.
For some Saudi flavor at home, try distilling your own rose water. First, choose your roses wisely. According to the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, red and pink roses that have a deeper color and thick petals have the most intense traditional rose smell. (Taif roses meet these criteria, which is why they yield such a potent distillate.) You’ll need a large pot with a lid (preferably a glass one), a glass bowl that has a smaller diameter than the pot, and several bags of ice. Once you’ve gathered your equipment, follow these steps.
If you’re curious to see the distillation process play out on a larger scale, visit the Al Gadhi Rose Factory when you’re in Saudi. Not far from the center of Taif, the factory is open to visitors during the harvest season, from early March until the end of April — when tourists can also see local farmers standing in line outside to have their rose petals weighed on antique scales. The factory’s 100 traditional copper alembic pots, housed under a corrugated iron roof, are in near-constant action during the distilling season. Each pot will distill tens of thousands of petals at a time to create a few liters of rose water — just 12 grams can fetch as much as SAR1,600 (almost US$430). In a season, a team of 15 people may process close to 100 million rose petals, working almost round-the-clock.
Learn more about where you can buy rose-derived products in Taif on visitsaudi.com.
—Didi Gluck is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience reporting on travel, culture and style for publications including Travel + Leisure, JWM, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.