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Saudi Arabia

Food, Dining, & Drinks

WARNING: Terrorist threats linger in Saudi Arabia, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Saudi Food - Dates
Dates

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.

Culinary Influences

Saudi Food - Arabian chicken and rice
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.

Staple Foods

Bread: there are numerous varieties of bread in the country including a flat bread called fatir, a spiced bread called hawayij, and arikah
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

Dining Etiquette

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.

Drinks

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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This page was last updated: March, 2013