CULINARY

Tastes of Saudi: Najd

From floor-style dining to private local cooking experiences, discover the rich and deeply rooted culinary traditions of Saudi’s heart in the Najd region.

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Najdi cuisine, and the hospitality and generosity of its people, is renowned throughout the Kingdom. Making guests feel welcome and at home is paramount.

Though predominantly arid, the region of Najd is varied, made up of deserts, small mountains, plateaus, valleys and plains. This ruggedness is counteracted by its cuisine which is typically rich, warming, and filling. Traditionally all over Saudi but in Najd in particular, guests are always greeted with coffee and dates or sweets. Majlis, recognised by UNESCO on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritages, is a dedicated space for receiving guests. These Majlis are everywhere in Saudi although no region or country can put claim to them as they are found in the UAE and Oman too.

Food from the Najd region is earthy, rustic and hearty. Dates, wheat, butter, as well as vegetables and meat are abundant in the cuisine. This is a result of the local products grown and farmed in the region. The Qassim province in the Najd highland in particular boasts very rich agricultural crops due to its climate, water quality and fertile soil. Traditional products include grapes, lemons and oranges which come from its oases. This province also farms livestock, from camels to sheep and goats. Qassim is also one of the largest producers of wheat in the Kingdom. As a result of its bountiful produce, many regional culinary delicacies and dishes hail from this area. The capital of the Qassim province, Buraidah, is also famous for its large production of quality dates, and each year they hold the largest date festival in the world.

Key dishes to try

Mataziz

Also spelt Matazeez, this is one of Najd’s most well-known dishes, particularly in the area of Qassim. Rich and carb-filled, mataziz is a thick, spiced stew of meat and vegetables that is cooked along with circular discs of pasta-like dough, a bit like dumplings. Wholemeal flour from the Qassim region is considered the most ideal to make the dough for the discs, as it is said to impart a unique flavour. It’s a nourishing meal that is commonly eaten for lunch or dinner in winter, as well as for Ramadan. Mataziz is also given to new mothers to provide them with much-needed sustenance post-birth.

Ghorsan

Also spelt goursan or qursan, this is a hearty dish that can be served as a hot starter or main meal. In essence ghorsan is a thick and flavourful meat and vegetable stew. In some restaurants it can be served atop thinly sliced pieces of dry bread which customers can mix in with the stew so the bread can absorb it. Alternatively the stew can be cooked and served with the bread in it. In both preparations ghorsan is garnished with onions. Ghorsan is another specialty of the Qassim area in Najd.

Hinaini

Hinaini is a comforting and warming regional dessert that is particularly beloved in the Najd region. Although it’s eaten all year, it’s most commonly enjoyed in the winter. Hinaini is made by crumbling freshly baked wheat bread and then mixing it with de-pitted dates or date paste and ghee until it reaches a custard-like consistency. In some preparations milk is also added when mixing the ingredients together and the ghee can also be salted. To serve, hinaini is garnished with dates. Although it’s usually eaten as a sweet, it is also consumed as a meal on its own.

Kleija

Kleija is another sweet that hails from the Qassim province. A stuffed circular-shaped biscuit, it has a very distinct waffle-like or latticed imprint on the top. This pattern is made using a special wooden mold. The crisp outer shell of the biscuit contrasts with its soft-filled centre. This can vary with anything from date molasses or date paste to cinnamon and nut-sugar. The biscuit dough made with flour is also prepared with a variety of ingredients like honey and/or with spices like cardamom or even dried lime powder. Kleija is commonly served and enjoyed with traditional Saudi coffee.

Masabeeb

Masabeeb, also known as sabeeb, is a type of Saudi pancake. Masabeeb can be served on its own, as a savoury treat or dessert. It varies in size and ingredients across the Najd region. The sweet variation can include spices like turmeric, cinnamon and saffron, and can be either drizzled or even served with a side of honey, butter or ghee, which are used as dipping sauces. A savoury version could include a cooked topping of tomatoes and onions with spices or simply spring onion. Masabeeb is a common meal or snack for breakfast, popular during winter and also Ramadan.

Where to try these dishes

Najd Village

This is one of the most popular restaurants in Riyadh to experience Najdi cuisine, hospitality and culture. From their majlis sitting room to wait before being seated, welcoming guests with coffee and the scent of incense (bakhoor) to Najdi decor, visitors can even enjoy traditional floor-style seating. The restaurant uses traditional methods, ingredients and utensils to ensure the food is authentic. Here you can try mataziz, ghorsan, hinaini and masabeeb in both the simple, sweet and savoury styles. Najd Village has three locations. At their King Abdulaziz Road branch they have a museum that can be visited upon request.

Al Majlis Alkhaleeji

At Al Majlis Alkhaleeji in Riyadh, 70% of the dishes served hail from Saudi with a specific focus on Najdi cuisine. Their seating is floor-style only and all dishes are based on authentic recipes passed on by the owners’ grandmothers and senior women in their community. Hinaini is their most requested dish and considered one of the best in the region. The bread used to make it is baked freshly in-house. Another specialty is their Najdi lamb available in a single portion or ordered 24 hours ahead for a whole lamb which is accompanied by a bed of 15kg of rice.

Hihome Cooking Experience

Al-Bandari Ali Al-Balawi is a home cook who also runs cooking workshops from her home in Riyadh. She teaches a vast range of Saudi dishes from kabsa to marahif (a type of Saudi crêpe), as well as specialties from the Najd region including masabeeb and hinaini. Her workshops offer a three-meal cooking experience where visitors can select the dishes of their choice from a provided list to make together. Bookings for Al-Balawi’s classes can be made via HiHome - a website that connect tourists with local families around the Kingdom to cook and eat together in their homes and farms.

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 Riyadh, it’s really easy to get to the Saudi capital. 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. If you're travelling from the US, SAUDIA offers direct flights to Riyadh from both New York City and Washington, D.C. The Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) operates several bus routes in the city, while taxis and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Careem offer even more flexible ways to navigate Riyadh. Due to launch in early 2024, the Riyadh Metro will transform the city’s public transport network further, with six Metro lines and 85 stations planned.

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.

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