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Food, Dining, & Drinks
WARNING: Terrorist threats
linger in Saudi Arabia, please read this
travel warning before going!
Much of the land Saudi Arabia occupies is desert
so the number of foods locally available is somewhat limited. In much of eastern
and southern Saudi Arabia the historic diet consisted of little more than dates,
camel milk, and occasionally camel meat. However in other areas the historic diet
is much more varied.
In many parts of Saudi Arabia numerous foods were
easily grown, including wheat, rice, beans, and dates. Animals were also present,
including camel, sheep, goat, and chicken. Along the coasts were a wide variety
of sea animals, including grouper, mackerel, nagroor, shrimp, crab, and lobster
among others. Due to this diversity in region and in wildlife, the historic diet
in Saudi Arabia varies, but is based on the local foods and animals available.
Arabian chicken & rice
For most of history there were few alterations to the diet of
Saudi Arabia, as the people lived off the land and many of the people, especially
in the desert, were nearly isolated so no outside influences could penetrate the
desert borders. Later in history, as traders arrived on the coasts and people entered
the region by land, the diet was substantially changed.
With the rise of Islam came the rise of power in Damascus (modern day
Syria) and soon their spread of influence brought new foods to
Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This food, called Levantine (also known
as Lebanese) cuisine arrived and vastly altered the local diet. This influx brought
hummus, tabbouleh, and spices that are now common in Saudi Arabia and throughout
much of the Middle East.
The region later changed its food due to outside influences from the seas as well,
particularly as the Europeans sought to control trade
in the Persian Gulf. The Persians, Indians, and even the
Europeans arrived with new ingredients and ideas that changed the cuisine. This
led to the greater prevalence of certain foods, the introduction of others, and
new spices that arrived.
Although Saudi Arabia is somewhat isolated in numerous
ways, food has not been one of those ways as foreign foods have arrived to Saudi
Arabia in great numbers and today America food is easy to
find in every large city. Despite this outside influence, most traditional dishes
remain the same, but ethnic foods are now more common and available, especially
American food as well-known American chain restaurants are easy to find.
Bread: there are numerous varieties of bread in the country including
a flat bread called fatir, a spiced bread called hawayij, and
Hummus: a dip consisting of mashed chickpeas (garbanzo beans),
tahini, garlic, and lemon
Rice: numerous types of rice exist and it tends to be either a
side or a base for many dishes
Tabbouleh: a "salad" generally made of parsley,
bulgur, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Kapsa: the national dish is chicken and rice with vegetables
Kebab: numerous styles exist, but usually with a base of roasted
lamb or chicken and vegetables in pita bread
When eating in the home of Islam, Saudi Arabia,
there are a couple etiquette rules related to Islam you must know and follow. First,
dress very conservatively, which means your entire legs and arms should be covered;
for women all skin should be covered with the exception of your eyes (although legally
you can show your face, few women do so). Second, it is generally not accepted to
eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse.
Due to this, many restaurants are divided into a "Men Only" section and
a "family section." This makes traveling with anyone of the opposite sex
other than immediate family difficult, if not impossible in Saudi Arabia. If you
are with someone of the opposite sex who is not in your family (a co-worker for
example), don't eat together.
If you get by those first two rules (much easier for men than for women), try to
arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes
at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but men should not touch
the hand of a woman, although you should greet and acknowledge everyone. Prior to
sitting down, everyone will likely wash their hands and you should follow them as
you will likely be using your hand to eat. Let your host seat you and when sitting
be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the
soles of your feet at another can be offensive.
Once the food is served, and you will likely be served first as the guest or second,
after the elders, your host will indicate you may begin eating with the word "sahtain"
or "Bismillah." Try a bit of everything offered as turning down
food is rude. Eat as the locals eat; in some settings this means eating directly
with your right hand (and your right hand only, in fact your left hand should remain
out of sight if not in use), but in other settings you may be offered dining utensils
(cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand,
fork in the left). If a knife is not present, most locals will hold the spoon in
their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold
in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your
right hand. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was
more than enough then place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position. After
everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and
wash your hands once more. After this you may be asked to stay for coffee or tea,
an invitation you should accept to avoid offending your host.
If dining in a restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Many hotel
restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service
charge is included and you're in a nice restaurant or a hotel restaurant, leave
a tip of 10%.
Celebrations & Events
The Saudis celebrate weddings, reunions, and the
arrival of a special guest in nearly the same way. Historically the arrival of a
guest was a rare occasion and due to that encouraged the slaughter of a sheep, camel,
or goat. Today this is still the case for weddings and other large gatherings, but
for most occasions, the event only requires that a meat is served; today that meat
is most commonly chicken or meat from a sheep (lamb or mutton). These meats are
traditionally boiled and served with rice and soup.
The two religious festivals are celebrated in much the same way. Eid al Fitr
is an event filled with numerous foods, which differ from family to family, but
always includes dates and generally also consists of various meats or fish, grains,
and vegetables. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday
that requires fasting for 30 days.
The second major food celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated
after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able
Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and
meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.
The most traditional drinks in Saudi Arabia are
coffee and tea, which are also the most commonly offered drinks to guests. Coffee
comes in numerous styles, but Arabian coffee and Turkish coffee are the most popular.
Juices, milk, and soft drinks are also readily available so no matter your tastes,
there will be plenty of options.
As a Muslim country, Saudi Arabia has no alcohol
available and it is illegal to consume or transport alcohol in the country.
The tap water is generally safe to drink in Saudi Arabia.
If you do drink the water (or the ice or salads washed in the tap water), many people
may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different
from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.
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