If you plan on travelling to Saudi Arabia then, like any travelling to any country, you should know what to expect in terms of what food is on offer to visitors. There are many reasons to visit Saudi Arabia and trying the food should be a top priority.
Saudi Arabia is a country that only recently (relatively speaking) came into its wealth through the discovery of oil. As such it is only in about the last 80 years that their eating habits began to diversify somewhat. Due to their simple lifestyles, the recipes of the main food items were fairly simple and easy to replicate.
Traditionally the Saudis were much more nomadic in their habits and this was reflected in their more simplistic eating habits. These foods include flatbreads, spice mixes, and meats such as lamb and chicken. As older tribes of Saudis were nomadic and the climate is incredibly dry, they didn’t always have access to consistent sources of clean drinking water. As such some tribes were known uses of camel and goats milk to produce some of their food items such as cheeses butter and yoghurt. Rice and beans were also grown and added to their dishes, a trait which has continued to this day.
Dates are one of the most traditional food items consumed in Saudi Arabia, dating back hundreds of year, if not further, to the older tribes. They are added to many dishes or are eaten alone as a snack.
As many tribes travelled and settled near the coasts of the Red Sea of the Persian Gulf, fish was also included in their diet to add variety. The diet of the Saudis and availability of foods will vary depending on how close you are to the more developed and affluent areas.
Saudi Arabia is a country governed by Sharia law, which is derived from the Islamic faith. This places some severe restrictions on specific foods, as well as when they can be eaten during some religious seasons and celebrations.
The most well known of these is the total and complete ban on all alcohol of any kind. This includes brewing and importing it into the country, with punishments of the most severe kind for those caught breaking the law.
The second most well known of these limitations is the ban on all pork products. Pork is not allowed under Islamic law, however, it was mostly replaced with other meats such as chicken, goat, and camel which were consumed centuries ago. All other meats must be Halal and are therefore slaughtered accordingly before preparation and eating.
Also worth noting on your trip is not so much a restriction on the food itself, but more when you can eat it. If travelling during Ramadan then you will be limited on when you can eat as you would be expected to follow local custom and fast with the rest of the population when required.
Coffee, tea and milk are some of the most traditional beverages of Saudi Arabia, with the milk coming most often from sheep or goats. However, some more long-standing tribes, such as the Bedouin, continue to use camel milk as well. As mentioned before the milk is often turned into yoghurt, which in turn is made into a fermented or soured drink known as Laban or Leben.
Coffee is served often as a form of greeting and hospitality to guests, where it is brewed out of sight of the guest and then poured out for them. It can be seen as very rude for a guest to refuse such a show of hospitality so make sure to be polite and take your host’s offer.
In more modern times with more widespread wealth and availability, more and more options are available for travellers and guest to the country. These include fruit juices of many flavours as well as imported styles of coffee.
More modern dishes
As the wealth in Saudi Arabia grew so did the importing of more western fast food chains and a variety of other foods from across the globe. These days chains like McDonald’s are common in the more built up cities but are used more by foreign travellers looking for a taste of home, than by resident Saudis, who prefer the more traditional dishes. Do note though that although these chains may be western in nature, they are still governed by Saudi laws and will not serve things like alcohol at all.
Modernisation and improved wealth have also paved the way for improvements in industries such as agriculture and farming. This means that Saudi Arabia now produces its own dairy products and can easily provide a larger variety of vegetables to complement the traditional dishes.
Etiquette at the table
As with all countries with strong traditions, there are a few rules to abide by when eating in Saudi Arabia. Firstly, only use your right hand for eating. This comes under Islamic law as the left hand is to be used for personal hygiene only.
Also, it is considered rude to refuse something provided by your host. So if you’re offered a coffee, you would be doing well to take it, like it or not.
More likely than not a hand washing bowl will be provided and you will be expected to use it as most meals are eaten with the hands and without utensils. Bread is also used as a tool with which to eat your chosen dishes. In some places you may be offered something with which to eat such as a knife and fork, just make sure to only bring the food up with your right hand.