CULINARY

How Saudi’s gastronomic scene has evolved

From its origins in the home to fine dining, discover the elegant flavours and breadth of Saudi cuisine, from milky risottos to spiced seafood.

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Historically, Saudi cuisine was enjoyed in the family home. This ritual of sharing mealtimes helped to maintain and strengthen connection.

Over time but particularly in the last century, Saudi has experienced significant cultural and economic shifts. The creation in the 1930s of what is now Saudi Aramco, as well as the Saudi government’s launch and implementation of Vision 2030, has led to increases in tourism and the country’s workforce both locally and internationally. Local eating habits have transformed, with more people eating out or ordering in, and less emphasis on cooking in the home. Saudis also love to spend time outside when it’s cool enough and it’s not uncommon to see groups sitting on the ground around an array of dishes sharing a meal together. These tend to be more traditional dishes, ones that can be made in one pot such as kabsa. It’s also relatively common for passersby to be invited to join the group. Hospitality is boundless in Saudi and it’s lovely to be able to share in the experience when possible.

Saudi cuisine in the past

Saudi cuisine has a long and rich history that is deeply rooted in a culture of sharing. For centuries, from its ancient trade routes to Islamic tourism, Saudis have always welcomed merchants and pilgrims coming in and out of the Kingdom. This encouraged cultural and culinary exchanges resulting in the introduction of what remain beloved ingredients in Saudi cuisine, like rice and cardamom for example.

Other influences on Saudi cuisine also came about from neighbouring countries with many dishes being shared across the region to this day. However, the essence of true Saudi cuisine reflects the country’s regions and resources.

“In the past, Saudi's cuisine was primarily based on the available local ingredients, which were often influenced by the country's arid climate and nomadic lifestyle. Traditional Saudi cuisine is characterised by simple, hearty, and flavourful dishes,” says Yasmin Hamza, the Saudi head chef behind the Middle East’s first zero-waste dining restaurant, Indulge Thyself.

“As for dining out in the past, there were limited options compared to modern times. In urban areas, small eateries and food vendors were prevalent, serving simple local dishes. However, dining out was not as common as it is in contemporary Saudi,” continues Hamza.

Staples of Saudi cuisine

In the past and today, there are a number of traditions and ingredients that remain ever present in Saudi cuisine. Wheat is a key ingredient in local breads, porridge-style dishes like jareesh or mashghutha, as well as many savoury and sweet snacks.

Dates are inextricable from the Kingdom’s culinary roots. Not only is the fruit used in Saudi cooking, but its syrup, edible flesh and even its leaves are used to impart flavour when cooking meat. Even before it was grown in the Kingdom, rice was a mainstay in Saudi cuisine, either in dishes or as a side. This can be seen today from kabsa to saleeg. In terms of protein, in the west (Red Sea) and east of the Kingdom (Persian Gulf), seafood is prominent. Traditionally, lamb and camel meat was eaten in the country’s central areas, while beef was only found in the south.

Another tradition is Saudi coffee (formerly known as Arabic coffee), also known as qahwa (its Arabic name). Served to welcome guests, it is the symbol of Saudi hospitality. Saudi coffee has such a deep cultural and culinary significance in the Kingdom, that in 2015 it was placed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Saudi cuisine's evolution

Welcoming the culinary cultures of others continues in Saudi even today. According to chef and consultant, Faisal Aldeleigan, the birth of what is now Saudi Aramco brought an American influence into the Kingdom. The introduction of American meat for example, brought a whole new dining culture into Saudi and in some instances turned plant-based recipes into meat-based ones.

“When I eat a burger, I eat it because of [Saudi] Aramco. [Saudi] Aramco played a big role in exchanging culture, because when the Americans came to work in Saudi, they brought their food,” shares Aldeleigan. “When we were trying to document the origins of the eastern province, we found that some of the dishes were only cooked using vegetables at the start. Nowadays they’re cooked with chicken and protein”.

In more recent times there has been a renaissance and modernising of local resources like dates for example. “Vinegar, molasses, date powder. You will see a lot of products nowadays coming from dates. Fillings added to dates, [date] creams they put in chocolate. Either [producers] are using the date and making different things from it like vinegar, or the date itself becomes a part of the dessert,” says Aldeleigan.

Saudi gastronomy today

Dining culture in Saudi is undergoing dramatic changes that are making the Kingdom a genuine global player and culinary tourism destination. Apart from the presence of international dining options like global food chains and fine dining restaurants, new trends and modernisation of the culinary landscape are contributing to fast-paced changes.

Yasmin Hamza has observed this firsthand. From the uptake of food delivery culture to an emphasis on healthier options. She also notes cafe culture, the presence of food trucks, culinary festivals, as well as the role of social media in influencing the industry. Above all, she’s noticed changes occurring within her country’s local cuisine.

“Nowadays, a multitude of culinary experts and eateries are delving into the world of fusion cuisine, blending the rich tapestry of traditional Saudi flavours and ingredients with innovative international culinary methods and ideas”, shares Hamza. “It’s important to note that these changes in Saudi’s cuisine and dining options reflect a broader shift in the country’s culture and society. The government’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to diversify the economy and promote tourism and entertainment has played a role in these developments by opening up the country to more international influences and opportunities”.

Traditional dishes to try in Saudi

Hassawi rice

This short red grain rice hails from Al-Ahsa and is one of the world’s most expensive varieties. Traditionally it’s crushed in a mortar and cooked with meat, vegetables and spices. For an authentic version, try Al Kout Hotel Restaurant.

Jareesh

Jareesh is the Kingdom’s national dish. Reminiscent of savoury porridge, it’s made by slow cooking cracked wheat with ingredients like buttermilk or tomatoes, vegetables and spices. In some areas it’s also topped with meat. Sample it at In Your Heart in Riyadh. Najd Village in Riyadh is also the ideal place to sample many of the Kingdom’s special foods.

Coastal seafood

Spiced and fried, or grilled on charcoal and always served atop rice, fresh seafood is a must-try at traditional fish restaurants in Saudi’s coastal areas. When in Dammam, go for the hamour (brown spotted reef cod) at Alsayyad Albahry.

Qursan

Part of the central Najd cuisine, Qursan is a hearty dish made with thin pieces of bread ladled with a meat and vegetable stew and topped with onions. At Aseeb in Riyadh, Qursan is one of their most popular dishes.

Saleeg

Saleeg is a beloved milk-based risotto from the Hejaz region, particularly the mountain city of Taif. Originally it was topped with lamb or camel meat, but today it’s more commonly served with chicken. Try this creamy, comfort food dish at Bait Al Saleeqq or Al Badia Restaurant, Al Salama, Taif.

Practical Information

Visas

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It’s surprisingly simple and easy to get an e-Visa for Saudi and the process is very similar to applying for an ESTA for the USA. Over 50 nationalities are eligible to apply for an e-Visa, including people from the UK and USA, with it costing (at the time of writing) 535 Saudi riyals (about £115 or US$143). Applications are swift and nearly all applicants will receive a response within three working days – most within 24 hours. To apply for your Saudi e-Visa, visit the official Saudi Tourism Authority website. If you're from the USA, UK or the Schengen Area, you can also apply for a visa on arrival into Saudi. It's slightly cheaper than an e-Visa, too, at SAR480 (about £102 or US$128).

Getting there & around

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With plenty of direct flight links from the UK to Saudi, it’s really easy to get to the country. Saudi’s national airline SAUDIA flies to Riyadh three times daily from London Heathrow, while British Airways also offers a regular service from Heathrow with daily flights to the capital. SAUDIA also operates twice daily flights to Jeddah from London Heathrow and daily flights from London Gatwick. If you're travelling from the US, SAUDIA offers direct flights to Riyadh from both New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as direct flights to Jeddah from New York City, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Local customs

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To really embrace Saudi life and pay respect towards its traditions, there are a few local customs you should abide when travelling around the country. Both men and women should wear clothing that covers their elbows and below their knees when out in public. If you’re heading to the coast, it’s still expected you dress modestly. For more information on what to wear when in Saudi, see our full guide here. When meeting and greeting locals, whether it’s a market stallholder or a private guide, say hello with ‘salam alaykum’, which means ‘peace be upon you’, as well as offering a handshake.

Weather

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You might think it’s hot all year round in Saudi but it’s a little more nuanced than that. The best time to visit Riyadh is between October and March, when temperatures can dip as low as 20°C during the daytime and rarely exceed 30°C. Summer months in Riyadh can get extremely hot, with temperatures often above 40°C between June and September.

FAQ

Is English spoken in Saudi?

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Arabic is the official national language but English is widely spoken.

What’s the currency of Saudi?

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The currency of Saudi is the riyal, with the current rate (at the time of writing), around SAR4.76 to the UK£. You’ll need to pre-order money before you travel, as in the UK it’s not usually stocked in currency exchange booths.

What’s it like travelling in Saudi as a female?

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We think you’d be surprised! To find out more, read our first-hand account on what it’s like to travel in Saudi.

What’s the time difference in Saudi?

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Saudi follows Arabia Standard Time (GMT +3) all year round.

Want to see more of Saudi?

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