Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East, and it’s culture and traditions have proliferated throughout the region. This is particularly true when it comes to food. The country’s arid climate and nomadic history have given rise to cuisine distinct in flavor and character, reflecting the bounty of the desert through the use of spices, rice, dates, fruits, milk, and meat.
Traditional breakfast in Saudi Arabia
Breakfast can be a relatively simple affair in Saudi Arabia. A spread of bread, cheese, and jam (typically date jam) is most typical. For something that involves a little more preparation, there’s shakshuka (eggs poached in a flavorful spiced tomato sauce) and banana masoub (a type of bread pudding).
Eating in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan
Visiting Saudi Arabia during Ramadan is a whole different experience, both culinary and cultural. It’s important to remember that Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country, and many of the same rules apply here as when visiting any Muslim countries during Ramadan.
This month-long period in spring is considered the most sacred month of the year for people of the Muslim faith. During this time, followers fasts every day from dawn to sunset to focus on spiritual discipline and contemplation. Smoking cigarettes and engaging in any sexual activity are also strictly prohibited. Businesses and schools may reduce their hours during the day or close completely, and special prayers are recited in the early morning and at night.
Fasting during Ramadan entails abstaining from all food and liquids between sunrise and sunset. What does this mean for visitors? Well, while travelers to Saudi Arabia aren’t expected to adhere to the rules of Ramadan, it’s important to be aware that since many restaurants will be closed, there won’t be many dining options available. It’s also considered extremely rude to eat or drink on the street (or anywhere in public) during Ramadan, so your meals will have to be consumed in private.
If you’re big on evening meals, however, Ramadan can be an interesting time to share a midnight feast with your Saudi friends. As you can imagine, people are pretty hungry after fasting all day, so they break their fast with a large meal after sundown. Thareed is one of the most traditional Ramadan evening meals. A spicy lamb stew, thareed is eaten with a thin flatbread, and was purportedly one of the Prophet Mohammed’s favorite dishes.
As for food restrictions outside of Ramadan, eating pork is forbidden year-round, as is drinking alcohol. Though these rules are rooted in Islam, foreigners are expected to abide by them.
The best foods to try when visiting Saudi Arabia
Dishes like matabaq, shakshuka, and thareed are classics, but they’re far from the only dishes you’ll find around the country. These are the other foods you should have on your radar.
One of the most popular street foods in Saudi Arabia is matabaq. This snack is made with thinly rolled dough that’s folded into a square around a filling of minced meat (typically chicken or mutton), eggs, vegetables, lemon, chiles, and spices before being fried. Exactly what makes it inside largely depends on the place it’s made, with variations that swap out the meat or egg, use different types of spices, or even make sweet varieties with fruit and cream.
The national dish of Saudi Arabia, kabsa is a staple of Saudi cuisine and one of the best Arabic dishes you’ll find across the Middle East. Made by cooking meat (often chicken, but shrimp, camel, or fish are also sometimes used) in water with rice and spices, this lunch dish is typically served on a large platter alongside salad. The name means “squeeze” or “press,” because cooking it involves pressing the ingredients in a single pot during cooking so the flavor permeates throughout. It’s the spices that really make this dish come alive, which most commonly involves clove, cinnamon, black pepper, saffron, and black lime.
One of the most traditional dishes originating on the Arabian Peninsula (specifically Yemen), mandi is a fairly straightforward rice and meat dish that generally uses lamb, goat, camel, or chicken. The most distinctive feature, however, is how it’s cooked. Mandi is cooked inside a pit, usually a tannour (clay oven). Dry wood is placed inside the pit, or oven, and burned until the wood becomes charcoal. The meat is boiled with whole spices while suspended inside the tannour above rice, and then the pit is closed and allowed to cook for up to eight hours. So, clearly, you’ll need a fair amount of patience to enjoy a mandi meal, but it’s worth the wait.
A staple across the region, shawarma can be found pretty much all over the Middle East — as well as pretty much any city in the world with a Middle Eastern cultural presence. Originating during the era of the Ottoman Empire, shawarma is a pita wrap containing meat, tomatoes and other vegetables, lettuce, pickles, and sauce. The meat is marinated and placed on a spit, which turns slowly in front of a fire or other heat source before being sliced off. The meat could be anything, but is usually lamb, chicken, beef, veal, turkey, or mutton that’s spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, and turmeric.
While dates are probably the most common sweet snack, ka’ak is among the most popular Middle Eastern desserts (and there are many, many incredible Middle Eastern desserts). The category refers to a variety of biscuits. In its simplest form, ka’ak is a hard, dry, corkscrew-shaped pastry that’s baked with sesame seeds and fermented with chickpeas. Inside, it can be filled with things like ground walnuts, dates, and pistachios, and it’s commonly eaten as a street food.
Even sweeter than ka’ak is jallab, a fruit syrup drink made with dates, grape molasses, grenadine syrup, rose water, and carob (a tree fruit that tastes somewhat similar to chocolate). It’s often smoked with Arabic incense to give it a strong aroma and soothing flavor. Beyond Saudi Arabia, jallab is popular in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.