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Saudi food

Over the past seven months I have described many aspects of Saudi life, and one thing I haven't mentioned much is the food. As someone who enjoys a healthy appetite, this is very remiss of me. I suppose, living as I do in a western compound I am not all that exposed to local food. I am able to go to supermarkets and buy western food and there is a fair choice of that. Food manufacture is global now of course, and most things are available.The exceptions are pork products which are a religious no-no. People found trotter-trafficking at the airport are given a grilling whilst the product itself is confiscated. Customs staff are pretty hot on pork and alcohol, and every decent sized bottle brought in is peered at suspiciously, and must be opened if required.

Local food is sold in supernarkets, local shops and restaurants. I have never seen any street traders selling food, the only exception to that is at proper open air markets. In fact there aren't any street traders of any description. I wonder why that is, something until now I had never considered. There is a busy fast food scene, most of the unhealthy American joints are here, and drive throughs always look busy (apart from at prayer times of course). There are some nice clean and classy international restaurants with classy menus and prices for a special night out. At the other end of the spectrum there are Bangladeshi and Pakistani back street restaurants where one can get a meat'n'rice meal for 10 SAR (£2). On my compound there ia a resident's restaurant where a reasonable but unexciting menu choice is offered. Most weeks I make my own dinner during the week and eat in the restaurant at weekends.

I had a really nice meal last weekend when a group of eight of us were able to visit a different (much larger) compound where the restaurant was superior to ours, and had a lovely steak meal. This was garnished with pepper sauce and mushrooms, tomato and chips. Yummy.

So, in the normal course of events I have little exposure to traditional Saudi food. The staple ingredients are lamb, goat, chicken, camel, wheat, rice (imported surely?), dates, yoghurt and local vegetables. Unsurprisingly in Riyadh fish is not traditional, but is common on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea towns. A standard breakfast dish (I have tried it in hotels) is the unappetisingly named "foul medames". This is fava beans with herbs served as a mush, and from a distance resembles porridge. A main course might be "makbus" a.k.a. "kaabsa" which is a pile of basmati rice which has been cooked with and contains a meat and vegetable mix. This is spiced with anything from garlic to cardamon and lime. No two makbuses taste the same. I have liked some, and not others. There is a rather nice (in my opinion) pudding called "umm ali" which is a milky sweet rice and bread pudding that has sweet spices and raisins, pistachio nuts.

As explained in the previous blog "English and Arabic", the quality of a restaurant isn't always reflected in its menu. Typos are common, even in the best places. When in Mecca last month I dined in a very nice establishment, and I reproduce below an excerpt of the menu. And no, I didn't have the lobster!


What I have tried in Saudi so far has been OK, but I can't say that I will ever rush across the street just to get to a traditional Arabic restaurant if anything else is available nearby. For me a disappointment is the local coffee. Traditionally it is served from a tall pot called a "dallah" and as well as the roasted beans, local herbs are added. It is served black or green, and adding milk (a preference for me) is not an option. I do prefer latte.



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