Flavored with Tradition
Food from Saudi Arabia
Written by Lyn MabyPhotographed by Burnett H. Moody
Just over 50 years ago, Maj. R. E. Cheesman, British army officer and field naturalist, arrived on the eastern shore of the Arabian Peninsula to investigate the unmapped coastal area along the Bay of Salwa. Stowing part of his equipment aboard a fishing boat ordered to rendezvous with him each evening, he headed south from the village of al-'Uqair in the company of camel-driving Bedouins fresh from the interior. Early one morning the fishermen, thrashing about with sticks in shallow water, produced a catch they offered to share with the men on shore. The Bedouins, offended, said that they would rather eat a snake—for never having seen a fish before, how were they to know if in the law of the Koran the unfamiliar creature was haram or halal, forbidden or allowed?
Cheesman reported that the Bedouins ultimately relented, convinced, no doubt, that a fish was just a fish after all, and he considered the matter resolved. Yet, as recently as 10 years ago, sports teams from the Eastern Province along the Gulf coast had the words "Akkalat samak! akkalat samak!—fish eaters! fish eaters!" thrown at them when Najdis from the central regions were rooting for the home team.
In the land the explorers called "unknown Arabia," traditions die hard. But historically, tradition has been one thing to the eastern fishermen who roamed the Gulf, quite another to Bedouins of the central plateau of Najd, geographically isolated from alien contamination. And both stood apart from the customs of the more cosmopolitan Arab of the western cities beyond the tortuous rising mountains of the Hijaz, literally the "barrier."
Loyalty to custom and tradition is the virtue of all Middle East cooking, and many of the finest dishes of the Arabs' heritage are centuries old. Some are mentioned in pre-Islamic Arabic literature. Arab poets of the Middle Ages celebrate others—many of them relished today—in detailing the lavish banquets of the caliphs at Baghdad. Both peasant food and court cuisine spread with the marching armies of Islam, presumably adopting a herb or two along the way, and by now paternity claims are hard to prove. A dish one authority claims the Syrians took from Egypt, another is convinced the Greeks took from the Turks. Part of the table of present-day Saudi Arabia comes from this common culinary pool; part developed from the eastern, western, and inland traditions of the Peninsular Arabs themselves.
Nomads all over the Arab world speak proudly of their ancestors, the dignified old tribes of central Arabia renowned for their strength, courtesy and the selfless hospitality they introduced into a way of life otherwise austere. For centuries they clung to the food of the desert and the oasis: milk and meat, dates and imported rice. With this food the Bedouins of Najd structured their means of survival and their rituals. The Bedouins of today are members of the generation of change; Toyotas park beside their tents. But they respect and still often follow the traditions of their people, and they recall with honor the way their fathers lived.
A Bedouin always had milk — milk from his camels, drunk fresh, or milk from his goats, made into buttermilk and curds. He always had dates, abundant and easily transported. If he was well-to-do he had rice, some flour, even coffee. And should a visitor of some standing arrive, the Bedouin host was obliged to slaughter a sheep and honor his guest with the classic Arab feast: trays heaped high with rice, succulent mutton, and flat rounds of unleavened bread. Sometimes there would be extra bowls for dates and for butter to dip them in, and little murmurs of satisfaction would greet this added richness. But in general the meal would be taken in silence, a sign of politeness to the host's food.
In the home of a settled town Najdi, the feast would likely be the more luxurious kharuf mahshi: baby lamb stuffed with rice, nuts and raisins, rubbed outside with a paste of onion crushed with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and browned all over in bubbling sawn, clarified cow or goat butter, before roasting. Rice might be the expensive 'ambar variety, prized for the fragrance it exuded when aboil. All around the great center tray would be small plates of tomato, cucumber, cooked pumpkin, apricots and cuts of melon. At the end would come the coffee and the incense.
Foremost of the obligations of hospitality in Arabia is the preparation and serving of qahwah 'Arabiyah, Arab coffee, unsweetened but flavored with cardamom. Today the process is relegated to the kitchen, but in the old tradition it was man's work and something of a ceremony whether conducted over Bedouin campfire or town hearth. For each occasion a handful of beans was roasted fresh, and the ring of the brass mortar and pestle with which they were pounded to powder was music to the ears of expectant guests. Pots of several sizes stood ready. Into one went the remainder of yesterdays batch, fresh water and, when that reached a boil, the fresh coffee. Lifting the pot from the fire just as it threatened to froth over, the host dropped a few crushed cardamom seeds into the brew to make it digestible, then quickly poured it into a smaller, polished pot where a piece of palm fiber stuffed into the spout served as strainer. The tiny, handleless Arab coffee cup is smaller than the Chinese teacup, and is only partly filled with a few steaming sips. Good manners prevent the guest from taking more than three servings. He signals when finished by shaking the empty cup with rapid little movements of the wrist, and he knows it is time to go when the host passes the mabkhar, or hand censer, trailing the filmy smoke of frankincense or scented wood.
The Bedouins have a saying that translates to ... "he makes coffee from morn till night." It is a way of describing a generous man, and no greater praise can be given.
The date is the Arabs' universal staple. Nutritious and high in caloric value, it was the very means of survival for nomadic tribes when times were lean, and it is still the food with which the Bedouin or townsman is likely to begin and end his day. Dates and coffee are the traditional offering to a caller; dates stuffed with almonds are a popular confection; dates baked into tiny, sugared cookies known as ma'mul are essential to the proper celebration of 'Id al-Fitr, the festival that comes with the close of Ramadan, the month during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. And as it was the Prophet Muhammad's practice to break his fast with dates, so the Muslim of today will do so because, as he will say, "It feels more religious."
Hunayni, a date concoction prepared especially for wintertime breakfasts, is a classic dish of Najd. Pitted, ground dates are mixed over the fire with great quantities of butter; the mixture is thickened with flour of semolina, seasoned with cardamom, simmered and stirred until nearly stiff. The result is a rich dish sure to suffice until suppertime and prescribed for pale children and pregnant women. If the house and traditions were of "older days," the thickening agent would be bread taken fresh from the charcoal oven found in every kitchen and the dates from a big, square bin built into the corner to hold a year's supply. Dibs, the thick, sticky syrup that collected at the bottom, was drawn off by a spigot. Dibs from the bottom and fresh dates from the top made a combination considered absolutely ambrosial.
Habb, the Arabs' wheat, grows in the central highlands and the oases areas of Saudi Arabia. Just as the Lebanese and Turks have their burghul, the Saudi Arabs have jarish: wheat kernels, soaked, dried and crushed—much favored in Najd and the al-Hasa oasis of the Eastern Province as a rice substitute. Jarish may-be simply boiled and served with a topping of chopped hot pepper and onion, or it may be browned in butter or oil and then cooked into a sort of pilaf with chunks of meat, chopped onion and tomato for the richly flavored dish called mufallaq.
Wheat country is also bread country, and unique to Najd are three dishes that might be labeled bread-fortified stews. All begin with lamb and a mixture of vegetables. The lamb is first braised with onion, salt, pepper and pinches of cinnamon and turmeric; then tomatoes, eggplant, beans, chunks of big, yellow-fleshed squash, qar' and pieces of the little pale green zucchini, kusah, are added. The dishes are assembled for baking by alternating layers of the meat-vegetable mixture with thin layers of bread— circles of bread baked especially for the dish called qursan, layers of unbaked dough for marquq, and little, flat rounds of dough to simmer and float about, dumpling-like, in the sauce of the more liquid mataziz. Despite the similarity, each has its own staunch advocates, and they're hearty fare, all three.
Unless the month is Ramadan, elaborate sweets are not considered essential by the rather conservative Najdi, whose preference is more likely to be fruit—local apples, apricots and quinces, or succulent grapes, figs and pomegranates shipped from the fruit growing area of Tayif in the Western Province. There is, however, a regional "candy," and it's made from the strange, misshapen citrus called utrunj, a lumpy, overblown and rather grotesque lemon. The thick, cotton-like inner rind is cut into finger-length strips, and then simply marinated for about two hours in the juice of the fruit plus sugar and water.
The common denominator of the country's bread basket is the flat, round, barely leavened khubz 'Arabi, much the same whether a product of commercial bakers or the domed, charcoal-fired village ovens: hollow, with an inner pocket good for stuffing, and soft and chewy, good for absorbing sauces. In the east one also finds tamis: bigger, crustier, and punched with holes; in the west, shurayk, golden, lozenge-shaped, very light and soft, and 'aysh samuli, a skinny loaf. In the Central Province is the variety known as khubz ruqaq, "worked bread," a Ramadan specialty elsewhere but in Najd made the whole year round. It's made of flour, salt, water and date syrup, dibs, and it's baked on a large, slightly convex black iron griddle. Starting with a ball of the somewhat gummy dough at one corner, the cook works it all across the surface with fast little sweeps of the heel of her hand—an amazingly dexterous procedure considering that the bread, if properly made, is the thickness of a cornflake. Quickly, as the bread heats through, she checks over the surface, picking off any lumps that might mar the complexion of the finished produce. Then, working fast, she loosens the crusty edges with a knife and flips the golden sheet free with a flourish. The bread is crisp and fragile when cooled, but while hot it is soft and easily folded. Small portions of hot khubz ruqaq are sometimes made into little egg-filled packets. The name for this savory, usually prepared for children, is hinnuwah. The word comes from "sympathy," and surely it is the cook, not the child, who deserves it.
When Major Cheesman landed on the Gulf coast to begin his first expedition, he stepped ashore where civilized man had lived 4,000 years before the beginning of the Christian era. Trade routes through the Gulf later linked the Indus Valley with the Tigris-Euphrates river plains, and caravans from the southwest corner of the Peninsula bore spices and incense to the eastern shore. Somewhere along this coast middlemen grew rich in the famed Chaldean port of Gerrha, whose ruins Cheesman dearly wished to find, as men still do. But the ancient cities vanished into time, and for centuries eastern Arabia knew little of the world beyond the Gulf, little food beyond the food of Gulf waters and the rice and dates of nearby oases.
The Arabian Gulf swarms with food fish. A few that once were highly prized are now seldom eaten: na'ud, shark, reputedly delicious if boiled for hours, and lukhmah, sting-ray, beaten with rice into a sort of puree. But the fat-fleshed grouper, hamur, the porgy, shfri, and king mackerel, kan'ad, are daily food up and down the coast, either made into a stew as humble or rich as the larder allows or fried and taken with rice. The rice might be makbus, pink from the addition of tomato paste, or muhammar, slightly ruddy and a bit crusty from either dibs or carmelized sugar with which it is cooked. More elegant is the dish mashkhul, made with tender, trout-sized gray subayti. The fish is slit open and filled with onions that have been sauteed in oil with ground cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and black pepper, a blend called buharat the Saudi housewife buys ready-mixed. Then fried whole in the same spice-flavored oil, the fish is presented with a garnish of limes atop a bed of rice.
The Gulf yields a skinny but succulent crab, qubqub, small catches of a variety of lobster locally called 'urn ar-rubiyan, "mother of the shrimp," and huge nets full of the fat, pink rubiyan, among the best shrimp in the world. With a bit of word play and a few spices one arrives at murabyan, a shrimp-rice casserole in which the shrimp is first fried with onions, garlic, chopped coriander, and a dried, black lime, laymun aswad, pierced to release its flavor. The black limes, hard as a rock and almost weightless, are important to cooks from Iraq to Iran and down to Oman, the source of most of those found in Saudi Arabian markets. Piquant, tart, used either whole or ground, they are to housewives of this area almost as indispensible as the onion.
Other regional favorites are kubbat maraq: balls of rice spiced with turmeric, pepper, cumin and dried lime are shaped around a center of fried ground meat, onion and parsley and set to simmer in a sauce flavored with tomato; and fi qa'atah: a three-layered dish served as rice on the bottom, meat in the middle and almonds on top. It's cooked, in fact, top side down, for the name literally means "at the bottom." The meat is very spicy: thick slices of lamb, occasionally veal, first rubbed with cumin, allspice, garlic, salt and pepper are hours later braised in water with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. The rice is delicate, with only a touch of rose water infused with saffron sprinkled over the fine-grained Peshwari rice from Pakistan.
Street vendors in the Eastern Province offer a fried version of mutabbaq, a filled, hot savory more likely to be baked if made by a housewife in Hijaz, where it originated. In either case, mutabbaq has many, many layers of tissue-thin pastry, all folded around a filling of ground meat, chopped onions, minced kurrath, a long green leaf of the garlic family, and beaten eggs. There's also a banana-filled mutabbaq which Malaysian Muslims took back to their homeland after discovering it during their pilgrimage to Mecca.
Yellow split-pea flour is the basis of a tasty snack called by the simple and obviously borrowed name kabab. Yeast, grated potato, a small tomato, onion, hot green pepper, garlic, a bit of dried lime and a touch of dried coriander seed and cumin all add up to a very spicy dough. It sits for two hours and then is fried by teaspoonsful dropped into hot oil; the golden balls are a marvelous blend of flavors and positively featherweight.
Saliq, a simple, bland dish, is the best known of all the rice dishes of Saudi Arabia. It's almost like a hot rice pudding, the rice first half-cooked in meat or chicken broth and then with milk, stirred and simmered for about an hour until soft. It must be flavored with cardamom and absolutely must be scented with a hint of mustaka (gum arabic), the aromatic resin of the mastic tree. Mustaka is more expensive and far more delicate than luban, frankincense, but like it recalls the days of the incense trade. Saliq is most typically served with meat or fowl and the universal Arab salad: parsley, onion, hot green pepper—all finely chopped, lemon juiced and salted.
Finally harisah : an ancient dish and one that is almost a cult food on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere the name is also applied to a sweet, but in the Eastern Province it's wheat and meat and it suffers no lukewarm opinions. It takes on character when described as made in a tiny Gulf village 30 years ago! The wheat was beaten until finely crushed in a hollowed-out section of palm-tree trunk used especially for this purpose. Then sifted free of husks, the grain would be placed in a large cooking pot with water, salt and chunks of mutton, and the pot nested among large stones heated by a fire in the sand—and left from morning to sundown. The cooking done, a soupy liquid was removed from the top and the thick mix beaten with a flat paddle, over and over, slapping again and again against the side of the vessel. Hard, steady work—at least a half-hour—the beating would cease only when the harisah was completely blended, amorphous, somewhat glutinous. Nothing remained now but to spread the stiff porridge about an inch deep on a platter and place a small portion of oil in a slight depression at the center. Saudi Arabs either love harisah or leave it. And in the Western world there's nothing quite like it, except maybe haggis, without the bagpipes.
Mecca has for centuries been the most cosmopolitan city of Arabia. Even before the time of the Prophet it was an important center of the caravan trade, bringing supplies from India and the Far East up from the port of Aden to Suez and the Mediterranean world. With the coming of Islam, Mecca and the other cities of the Hijaz rose to world significance just when the rest of the Peninsula was beginning to slide behind the veil of mystery. Turks, Afghans, Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Berbers and Indonesians on the annual pilgrimage gave Mecca a cosmopolitan air—and they lent new varieties and flavors to the food of the Hijaz.
Paradoxically, the best time to sample Hijazi cuisine is during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and the evening meal is lavish.
At the end of the long day of hunger and, more trying, thirst, the Ramadan fast is broken with a few sips of water. Meccans drink water from Zamzam, the well revealed to Haggar by the angel Gabriel according to tradition, eat a few dates, and sip qamar ad-din, a thickish drink prepared from sheets of dried, pressed apricots, chopped and pureed with water. The meal itself begins, always, with a thick, nourishing soup made from soaked wheat and meat stock, rich with chunks of lamb, sharpened with a bit of fresh tomato, and spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and, indispensible here, the dry, curled, grayish leaf of tree wormwood, shaybah, "old man." Then come the brown Egyptian ful, beans cooked with tomato, onion and oil, and next the beloved sambusak, paper-thin pastry' made up in triangular shapes stuffed with ground meat, onion, and hot with the pungent leafy coriander, kuzbarah, or the long, spike-like green of the garlic family, kurrath. So much for starters.
The meal may continue with shakshukah, eggs gently cooked on a bed of fried onion, green pepper and tomato, followed by one or two main dishes. There might be kabsah: chicken or lamb sauteed with onion, garlic, fresh tomato, tomato puree, grated carrot and grated orange rind. When the meat is cooked, it is removed and rice goes into the pot to simmer in the rich sauce. All put together for serving, it takes a garnish of raisins and almonds.
'Aysh abu laham is a local specialty the Hijazis describe as "something like pizza." A leavened dough, egg-rich and flavored with seeds of shamar, fennel, and habbah sawda, black caraway, it is baked in the shape of a thick-bottomed pie shell, then filled with fried mutton, chopped kurrath or spring onion, and topped with a sauce made from tahinah, sesame seed puree.
There might be a fish dish, perhaps hut sijan: tiny perch, slit open, seasoned with garlic, lemon and cumin; fried and eaten whole; or samak humar: fish baked with a sweet-sour sauce made from dried tamarind; or a large hamur (grouper) laid open and covered with onion, tomato, garlic, hot pepper and cumin—baked and then served with lemon, sometimes laymun mukhallal, quarters of lemons pickled with vinegar and turmeric.
A sweet, one soft and cold, is the customary way to end such a banquet, either the elegant mahallibiyah, a delicate pudding of ground rice and milk, ever so lightly flavored with orange-blossom or rose water and decorated with almonds and pistachios; or sagudanah, tapioca or sago pudding similarly scented and flavored.
But for special guests more sweets must be served, and there are many that are made especially for the Ramadan season. Luqmat al-qadi, "judge's morsels," spoonsful of soft, light dough, sometimes lightly spiced with cardamom and saffron, .fried gently in oil and then dipped in syrup; qatayif: store-bought pancakes stuffed at home with nuts or cheese, then fried and covered with syrup; basbusah: semolina cooked with sugar syrup, baked into squares and sometimes served with a topping of qishtah, the Hijazi's answer to the Englishman's clotted cream; or kunafah: top and bottom layers of pastry that resembles shredded wheat, a middle layer of white goat cheese, butter and pine nuts, and over all after it's baked—once again—sugar syrup scented with rose water. The well-known sweet tooth of the Arabs is indulged in Ramadan, and never are rewards better earned.
Genuine Saudi food, but for a few of the sweets, is rarely to be found in restaurants. Saudi food is food of the home, where cooking and eating are intensely social activities. And so it falls to the housewife, herself fasting, to spend her days preparing these splendid Ramadan evening meals. There's an old Arabic proverb—"The woman killed herself with work, yet the feast lasted only a day!"
Made with Chicken
1 Ib. American rice
1 frying chicken, cut into eight pieces
1 cup corn oil
2 medium onions, sliced
5 cloves garlic, pounded to a pulp
1 can tomato puree (2 ½ ozs.)
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 medium carrots, grated
grated rind of one orange
6 cardamom pods
4 sticks cinnamon
4 tbsps. raisins
4 tbsps. almonds, soaked and split
Wash the rice and cover with water to soak for at least 15 minutes before cooking. Sautee the onion in oil until it begins to brown. Add the chicken pieces, tomato puree, chopped tomatoes and garlic and stir for about five minutes over low heat. Add three cups hot water, the spices, salt and pepper to taste, the grated carrot and orange rind. Cook about 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is done.
Remove the chicken and keep warm. Add the rice to the sauce and cook slowly over low heat for about 15 minutes, or until cooked dry. Arrange the chicken on top of the rice on a platter, and decorate with the raisins and almonds. Serve hot.
3 cups jarish (crushed wheat) 4½ cups water
1 Ib. lamb or beef cut into large chunks
2 onions, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
2 tomatoes, chopped, or 1 small can (2 ½ ozs.) tomato puree
Wash the wheat and soak for two hours in water to cover. Brown the meat in oil or shortening, add the chopped tomato, salt, pepper and 1 cup of the water. Simmer until the meat is tender and set aside. Drain the wheat and fry it gently in oil or shortening, stirring constantly, until it begins to turn color. Add the meat mixture and the remaining 3½ cups of water to the wheat, cover, and cook until all the water is absorbed and the wheat is fluffy. Fry the onion and place it in a depression in the center of the wheat. Cover and allow the mufallaq to steam over a very low flame for about ½ hour. Stir the onion into the wheat and turn the mixture out onto a platter, picking out the biggest of the meat pieces to place across the top.
'AYSH ABU LAHAM
1 Ib. flour (half all-purpose, half unbleached)
5 rounded tbsps. shortening
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. dried yeast
½ cup water
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. black caraway seeds
½ Ib. ground mutton
½ cup chopped kurrath
4 tbsps. tahina
1 tbsp. vinegar
½ cup water
4 cloves garlic, mashed
Blend the flour, salt and shortening until the mixture resembles pie crust, then pour over it the yeast softened in water and the beaten eggs. Grind the fennel seeds in a blender and add them along with the black caraway, left whole. Mix the dough well with the hands, knead briefly and place in a bowl, greasing the top of the dough with shortening. Place the bowl in a warm spot for about four hours, until the dough doubles.
Knead the dough briefly a second time, then roll out and shape into a 12-inch round pan. building up the edges to make a rim. Dough should be about an inch thick in the middle. Bake in a 350-degree oven about 45 minutes.
Fry the mutton, drain off the fat, and add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and add the chopped kurrath, allowing it to cook in the steam. (The tops of spring onions may be substituted.)
Blend the sauce ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Place the cooked meat in the center of the bread and pour the sauce over the meat. The sauce recipe may be doubled and half used to pass as a side dish.
Lyn Maby is a long-time resident of Saudi Arabia and an editor of an English-language weekly there.
This article appeared on pages 32-40 of the November/December 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.