Saudi Arabian cuisine
- 1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
- 2. HISTORY AND FOOD
- 3. FOODS OF THE SAUDIS
- 4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
- 5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
- 6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
- 7. FURTHER STUDY
the cuisines and foods of Saudi Arabia
1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Saudi Arabia, the third-largest country in Asia, constitutes about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. The other countries that share the peninsula—Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait—are all much smaller in area. A narrow plain runs along the Red Sea coast. The Hijaz Mountains (Al Hijaz) rise sharply from the sea. At least one-third of the total area is sandy desert. There are no lakes, and except for artesian wells (wells where water flows to the surface naturally) in the eastern oases, there are no rivers or streams where water flows.
2. HISTORY AND FOOD
The people of Saudi Arabia are descended from tribes of nomadic sheep and goat herders and maintain many of the traditions of their past. Traditional foods like dates, fatir (flat bread), arikah (bread from the southwestern part of the country), and hawayij (a spice blend) are still eaten by Saudis today, although most Saudis have settled in towns and cities and no longer follow the nomadic lifestyle. Saudi Arabia is also home to Mecca, the origin and spiritual center of Islam. The culture, as well as the laws of Saudi Arabia, is founded on Islamic principles, including the dietary restrictions against eating pork or drinking alcohol.
In the 1930s, oil was discovered on the Arabian Peninsula. Income from oil has allowed Saudi Arabia to become modernized and to begin to develop stronger industries in other areas such as agriculture. Saudi Arabia now produces all of its own dairy products and most of its own vegetables. Many foreign workers are needed to maintain the new industries, and foreign foods as well as fast food chains are now available in Saudi Arabia. However, it is mostly the foreigners who eat those foods; most Saudis prefer traditional fare.
2.1 Fatir (Flat Bread)
Authentic fatir is made with toasted barley flour, not widely available in the United States. Flour tortillas baked in a warm oven over a metal mixing bowl for 3 to 4 minutes will simulate the shape of fatir.
- 1 loaf frozen white bread dough, thawed according to package directions
- Turn the thawed bread dough out onto a floured surface.
- Divide it into 6 pieces. Flatten each piece under the palm of your hand and dust lightly with white flour.
- Roll out one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered with a damp dish towel, to make 6 flat breads about 10 inches in diameter. The bread will be very thin, so handle it carefully.
- Spray the outside of a wok with cooking spray and set the wok, upside down, over a burner on the stove. Heat it over medium-high heat.
- Wearing oven mitts, carefully lay the bread over the curved surface. (This will be awkward. If the mitts make it impossible to handle the dough, use two spatulas or wooden spoons to lift the dough and drop it onto the wok.)
- Press down gently, using a wooden spoon, to make sure all parts of the bread touch the cooking surface.
- Cook for 1½–2 minutes. Using tongs, carefully turn the bread over and cook the other side.
- When the bread is fully cooked, remove it from the wok and wrap it in a kitchen towel to keep it warm.
- Cook the remaining breads the same way.
Serves 6 to 10.
2.2 Hawayij (Spice Blend)
This spice blend keeps for a long time in a well-sealed container.
- 2 Tablespoons black peppercorns
- 1 Tablespoon caraway seed
- ½ teaspoon cardamom seed
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
Note: Ground spices may be substituted for the spices listed.
- Combine the peppercorns, caraway seeds, and cardamom seeds in a dry skillet and toast over high heat for 2–3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
- Put the toasted seeds in a mortar or spice mill and pound or grind them to a powder. Alternatively, wrap in a clean dish towel, place the package on a hard surface (such as the garage floor or sidewalk) and pound with a hammer. All the spices should be pounded to a powder form.
- Add the saffron threads and pound or grind again. Transfer the spices to a mixing bowl.
- Add the turmeric and mix well.
Store in a glass or plastic container with a lid. (An empty spice jar works well.)
2.3 Haysa Al-Tumreya (Dip for Dates)
- ¾ cup flour
- ½ cup shortening or vegetable oil
- Dates, pitted
- Combine the flour and shortening or oil in a saucepan.
- Heat over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is golden brown.
- Remove from heat and pour onto a plate.
- Serve while hot with a bowl of pitted dates.
Serves 6 to 8 as a snack.
3. FOODS OF THE SAUDIS
The people of Saudi Arabia are very traditional and eat the same foods they have eaten for centuries. The average meal of the Bedouin nomads who remain in Saudi Arabia is much simpler than that of the urban Saudis who make up the majority of Saudi Arabia’s population today. However, the basic ingredients are the same: fava beans, wheat, rice, yogurt, dates, and chicken are staple foods for all Saudis. Saudi Arabia has over 18 million date palms that produce 600 million pounds of dates each year.
Saudis rank as the highest consumers of broiler chickens in the world, eating an average of 88.2 pounds of chicken per person per year. Saudis are strict Muslims and, following Islamic law, do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Lamb is traditionally served to honored guests and at holiday feasts. According to Islamic law, animals must be butchered in a particular way and blessed before they can be eaten, so Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of live sheep.
Camel (or sheep or goat) milk has long been the staple of the Bedouin diet, and dairy products are still favorites with all Saudis. Yogurt is eaten alone, used in sauces, and made into a drink called a lassi. Flat breads— fatir, a flat bread cooked on a curved metal pan over a fire, and kimaje, similar to pita—are the other mainstay of the nomadic diet that are eaten by all Saudis. These breads are used at every meal, in place of a fork or spoon, to scoop up other foods.
3.1 Kapsa (Chicken and Rice)
- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 small to medium onion, chopped
- 3 teaspoons ground cardamom
- 1 can (about 2 cups) chicken broth
- 1½ cups water
- 1 tomato, chopped
- 1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon lemon rind
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Salt to taste
- 1 small snack box of raisins
- 1 package of skinless, boneless chicken (4 breast halves
- 1 package of skinless, boneless thighs (4 to 6 thighs)
- 1½ cups white Basmati rice
- Preheat oven to 300°F.
- Wash chicken thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels.
- Put chicken in a baking dish and bake in preheated oven until fully cooked (about 30 minutes).
- While the chicken is baking, heat oil (medium-high) in a large pot. Add chopped onions and 1 teaspoon of cardamom, stirring constantly until browned.
- Add chicken broth and 1½ cups water to pot. Add remaining 2 teaspoons of cardamom, tomato, tomato paste, garlic powder, lemon rind, cinnamon stick, salt, and raisins to the browned onions and water.
- Cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 2–3 minutes. Add the rice.
- Bring to a boil then immediately turn the heat down to low. Cover the pot tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, check the rice to see if it has absorbed all of the liquid.
- If the rice is dry but not soft yet, add a little more water and continue to simmer. Do not stir the rice! The rice is done when all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is soft.
- When both the rice and the chicken are cooked, place the rice on a platter and put the chicken on top in the middle.
Serves 6 to 8.
3.2 Kimaje (Flat Bread)
This bread is traditionally served warm from the oven and is used to scoop up other foods.
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1¼ cups lukewarm water (more as needed)
- 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3½ cups all-purpose flour (more or less as needed)
- In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water.
- Add oil, sugar, salt, and 2 cups flour, and stir until smooth.
- Add just enough of the remaining flour to make a dough that is not sticky and is easy to handle.
- Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
- Put the dough in a lightly oiled, large mixing bowl and move it around to grease all sides with the oil.
- Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm place to rise, for about 1 hour, until the dough doubles in size.
- When the dough has risen, punch it down and move it to the lightly floured work surface. Divide into 6 equal balls.
- Place the balls side by side on the work surface and cover with the towel. Let them rise for another 30 minutes.
- After they have risen, flatten each ball with a lightly floured rolling pin or the palm of your hand, until it is a circle about ⅛-inch thick and 6 inches across.
- Using 3 cookie sheets, place 2 breads on each so that they are not touching, cover them with towels, and let rise for another 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 450°F.
- When breads have risen, bake in oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown and puffed.
3.3 Laban Drink (Yogurt Drink)
- ½ cup ice water
- ½ cup plain yogurt (unsweetened)
- 4 to 6 ice cubes (optional)
- Combine water and yogurt in a blender and blend until smooth.
- If you do not have a blender, put water and yogurt into a tall glass and stir briskly until smooth.
- Serve, over ice cubes if desired.
4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim nation. The national holidays are Islamic holidays, including Ramadan (a month of fasting from sunup to sundown), Eid al-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan), and Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice). Two of the Five Pillars (requirements) of Islam are to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and to give aid to the poor. Eid al-Adha, which occurs at the end of the month of pilgrimage, reenacts the story of God giving Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. It also fulfills the requirement to give to the poor, by having a lamb ritually slaughtered and donating the meat to those in need.
Most Saudi holiday meals include thick soups, stuffed vegetables, bean salads or tabbouleh (a salad made with bulgur wheat), hummus, rice, and the flat bread that is eaten with all meals. Dates, raisins, and nuts are served as appetizers or snacks, and sweet desserts finish off the meal. Ornate rugs are laid out on the floor and dishes of food placed on them. The feasters sit cross-legged on the floor around the rugs and eat with their fingers or bread, sharing from the same dishes. Hands are ritually washed, in accordance with Islamic law, before and after eating.
4.1 Rice, Saudi Style
- 3 cups rice
- 1 Tablespoon oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ cup golden raisins
- 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon cloves
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 Tablespoon cardamom (ground, not whole pods)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
- ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted
Note: To toast pine nuts and almonds, heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet. Add nuts and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until nuts are golden in color.
- Measure rice into a bowl, cover with cold water, and allow to soak for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook onions and garlic in oil over medium heat in a large saucepan.
- After the rice has been soaking for 15 minutes, add it with tomato paste and raisins to the meat mixture.
- Add seasoning (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, salt, and pepper) and stir to combine. Lower heat and cover.
- Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Check to be sure the mixture isn’t too dry. If there is no more liquid visible, add a little more water (½ cup at a time).
- Continue simmering for about 10 more minutes, until rice is tender.
- Serve dish garnished with the toasted nuts and accompanied by plain yogurt.
4.2 Tabbouleh (Bulgur Wheat Salad)
- 1½ cups fresh parsley, stems removed, washed, and drained
- 1 cup bulgur wheat
- 2 cups boiling water
- ½ cup green onions, washed, trimmed, and chopped
- 3 tomatoes, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons crushed dried mint leaves
- ½ fresh lemon juice
- ¼ cup olive oil (more or less as needed)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Finely chop the parsley (or cut with very clean scissors).
- Place chopped parsley in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
- Place bulgur in a small mixing bowl, cover with boiling water, and let soak for 30 minutes.
- Drain bulgur and squeeze out excess water with your (clean) hands. Add bulgur to parsley.
- Add onions, tomatoes, mint, lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper to the bulgur and parsley mixture. Toss well, adding more oil if needed to coat mixture.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
- Remove from the refrigerator and let return to room temperature before serving.
- 2 cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- 6 Tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste—available at ethnic food shops or supermarkets or organic/health food stores)
- 3 large cloves garlic
- ¼ of the liquid from 1 can of chickpeas
- ⅓ cup lemon juice
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Olive oil
- Fresh chopped parsley
- Combine chickpeas, tahini, garlic, canned chickpea liquid, and lemon juice in a food processor or blender and puree to a smooth paste.
- Thin with more liquid from the canned chickpeas, if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a serving bowl.
- Mix olive oil with a bit of paprika to make it red and drizzle it on top of the hummus. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with pita bread.
5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
Saudi customs for mealtimes and table etiquette come from both their nomadic tribal heritage as well as their Islamic tradition. Based on nomadic habits of herding animals throughout daylight hours, daytime meals are small, with a large meal in the evening.
The month-long celebration of Ramadan builds on this tradition, requiring a complete fast from sunup until sundown, with a large meal after sunset. Saudi meals are eaten sitting cross-legged on the floor or on pillows around a rug or low table (as though in a tent), sharing food out of the same dishes. Food is usually eaten with the fingers or a piece of bread. Following Islamic law, only the right hand is used for eating, as the left hand is considered “unclean” because it is used for personal hygiene. Ritual hand washing is completed before and after eating.
Dates and sweet tea are favorite snacks for Saudis, and buttermilk, cola, and a yogurt drink known as lassi are popular beverages. Coffee has been a central part of Saudi life for centuries, with an intricate ceremony to prepare and serve it. Preparing the coffee involves four different pots in which the coffee grounds, water, and spices are combined and brewed before being served in small cups. It is considered very rude to refuse a cup of coffee offered by the host, and it is most polite to accept odd numbers of cups (one, three, five, etc.). Saudi men spend a great deal of time in coffeehouses, drinking coffee or tea and talking.
5.1 Qahwa (Arabic Coffee)
- 3 cups water
- 2 Tablespoons ground decaffeinated coffee
- 3 Tablespoons cardamom (coarsely ground)
- ¼ teaspoon saffron (optional)
- Boil the water in a pot. Add the coffeeto the water and bring to a boil over low heat. (In Saudi Arabia, the coffee would be strong and highly caffeinated.)
- Remove from the heat and allow coffee grounds to settle.
- Put the cardamom in another pot, strain the coffee (removing the grounds) into the second pot, and add the saffron.
- Bring back to a boil and serve immediately.
Serves 8 to 10.
6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
The Saudis in general receive adequate nutrition. The country’s agricultural practices have been modernized and the government has made significant investments in irrigation. Saudi farmers grow and raise almost enough crops and livestock to meet the needs of the population.
According to the World Bank, less than 4 percent of the population experiences inadquate nutrition, and nearly 90 percent
of Saudi citizens have access to adequate sanitation.
7. FURTHER STUDY
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Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students . Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1995.
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U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council. [Online] Available at http://www.us-saudi-business.org (accessed May 2, 2001).