About the food of Saudi Arabia

Taken from Habala Valley in Abha, the view shows the depth of Sarawat Mountain Range. Photo by Wajahatmr.

Taken from Habala Valley in Abha, the view shows the depth of Sarawat Mountain Range. Photo by Wajahatmr.

Let’s rub the glitter of the New Year out of our eyes and spend this week feasting on Saudi Arabia. If, perhaps, you over-indulged during the evening’s festivities, this alcohol-free country will be apropos. Dotted along her sandy slopes and rubble-tumble mountains, from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, we find groups of people sipping on hot tea, enjoying richly spiced lamb stews, and riding camels. But let’s not stop there… My friends, we also find groups of people zooming along in cars, processing petroleum fields, and eating pizza.

Or shall I say…  ”pizza”…

Maps and flag courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

Maps and flag courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

This is a land of duality. Take this “pizza,” for example. Otherwise known as Aysh abu Laham, we’re talking spiced flatbread topped with lamb, spring leeks, and lemon-tahini sauce. This dish, like much of Saudi Arabia, has elements of the familiar (hello, pizza shape), but taste entirely different to a westerner (goodbye tomato sauce; this is all about fennel, black cardamom, and tahini). Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still find Domino’s in Saudi Arabia… but in people’s homes, it’s all about tradition.

While some gather around dining tables, others enjoy their meals on low tables or floor mats and eat with the right hand. Family culture is strong, and nowhere is this more apparent than at dinnertime. As explained to Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations, families are spared the company of single guys in restaurants, and even a solitary booth can be shuttered for a family’s privacy. (Incidentally, the show also draws attention to a distinct population that love camel’s milk and even camel meat – though it seems the youth aren’t clamoring after these traditional eats with the same enthusiasm as their elders).

Rub al-Khali desert in Saudi Arabia. Javierblas.

Rub al-Khali desert in Saudi Arabia. Javierblas.

Looking for a bit of rice? Try one Saudi favorite, kabsa with chicken, raisins, almonds, fennel, ginger, or maybe cumin. On the side, nibble a tomato, cucumber, and onion salad. For breakfast, buckle up to ful medames, a dish we already made for our Egyptian Global Table.

Thirsty? Aside from the wonderful teas and cardamom coffee, you might enjoy a yogurt drink which will keep you cool during the scorching hot days (we actually made something similar before). Speaking of yogurt, what about a yogurt and barley soup?

Finally, there’s poetry in the sweets. Want cake? No problem, as long as you enjoy the sweet perfume of rose water and orange blossom water. Each bite tastes like a garden, or deep, true love. Or perhaps you’d rather enjoy the haunting tease of cardamom in cookies… either way is grand.

As we enter this New Year, let’s enjoy a little Saudi proverb:

“There are some who make a dome out of a grain.”

a.k.a. There are some who make a mountain out of a molehill. 

What will you make with your grain in 2013?

 panoramic overview of the city of Makkah (Saudi Arabia) taken from the crescent located at the top of Abraj-Al-Bait-Towers in about 585m height. It was built from 67 single photos. It covers about 180° from west over north to east. Photo by Wurzelgnohm.

panoramic overview of the city of Makkah (Saudi Arabia) taken from the crescent located at the top of Abraj-Al-Bait-Towers in about 585m height. It was built from 67 single photos. It covers about 180° from west over north to east. Photo by Wurzelgnohm.

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  1. Happy New Year! Looking forward to your traveling adventures! By the way, I just bought the book Food52 and was thrilled to see you there! I had no idea, what a nice surprise!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Ah, yes! Those “quesadillas” are wonderful… it was quite an honor to win that gluten free competition :) I just received my cookbook a month or so ago and can’t wait to try some of the other recipes in there! Happy New Year!

  2. I’m looking forward to this week! Happy New Year! We’re making Spanish and Russian foods to celebrate (we’re Americans living in Ecuador…we just love the idea of a global table!)

  3. CanadianLibyan says:

    Hi there,
    Thanks for the great articles; they are very interesting and informative. and I’ve really been enjoying them.
    I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out but “Aysh abu Laham” translates as “Bread, father of Laham” :-) Perhaps a more accurate transliteration might be “Aysh bil laham”-bread with meat. But nevermind, whatever you call it, it’s delicious!
    We eat camel meat in Libya, too, and as exotic as it might sound, it is really very bland (or at least, I find it so- beef has much more flavour) although it is surely healthy in that it is very lean with almost no fat at all. It is also very tough unless cooked for hours in a stew or sauce of some sort. I think a pressure cooker would come in handy.
    Thanks again, and Happy New Year.

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Interesting on the translations… thanks! Who/what is Laham? I looked it up but didn’t find anything.

      • CanadianLibyan says:

        Laham is more commonly transliterated as lahm, but I would not say it is incorrect to write it “laham” and anyone who speaks Arabic would surely know what you meant. “Abu” means “father of” :-) while “bil” means “with”.
        The word lahm has the accent on the first syllable and the “h” is pronounced forcefully (Arabic has what you could call 2 “h” letters). Elham has the accent on the second syllable with the “h” again being forcefully pronounced.
        Elham baqar=beef
        Elham bel=camel
        Elham kharoof-lamb/sheep
        Elham d’jaj=chicken

        More than you ever wanted to know about the pronunciation of “meat” in Arabic, eh? lol

        • Sasha Martin says:

          Ohhh so “Bread, father of meat”… in a way? I love it! :)

          • CanadianLibyan says:

            Another little twist on this is that “aysh” is used in various countries in the Middle East, the Gulf States, and North Africa to refer to whatever the mainstay of a particular country’s diet is. In some countries it refers to bread, in others where rice is mostly what is eaten the rice is referred to as “aysh”, in Libya a dish called bazeen which is made from barley (the main grain grown there and which the Libyan diet was traditionally based on) and is served with a tomato-based stew is also known as aysh.
            And the word “aysh” itself means…life, to live, or to survive/something that enables survival.
            Language is so cool…

  4. So looking forward to the semolina cake with lemon and rose… surely the type of snack I will love and make plenty of !
    Happy New Year (though I think I already left a message previously with my wishes) and let’s see what becomes of my grain, or what I make out of it. I’m ready for surprises.

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