There are few written records to help us trace the development of Saudi Arabian cooking. In addition to our knowledge of the available foodstuffs, however, we can find three major influences that shaped the food and the cultural values shown in Saudi cooking: the nomadic Bedouin, the ancient Arabian dominance of the spice routes, and the food restrictions given in the Qu'uran.
As in many parts of the Middle East, Saudi Arabians inherited cultural values from the nomadic Bedouin who prized honor, valor, chivalry, and hospitality. Reinforcing these principles was the ancient Arab dominance of the spice trade which brought a continuous stream of foreigners, pausing to rest in their travels.
The ancient Arabian tradition of hospitality that developed continues unchanged to the present day. How well one treats one's guests is a direct measurement of what kind of person he or she is. It is common practice to allow for an extra portionwhile cooking a meal, in order to be prepared for an unexpected guest. When a meal is over, there should always be a good portion of food left over otherwise one might think that a guest had not been fully satisfied. To a Saudi Arabian, entertaining is joyous and it is considered an honor if a guest can be persuaded to remain for another meal. The guest would respond with a gift for the host.
The Qu'uran states that pork is impure, that animal blood is a pollution, and that alcohol is strictly forbidden. There are no bars in Saudi Arabia. Alcohol being forbidden, there are severe penalties for breaking the law, and this applies to all nationals regardless of religion. Arabic coffee and fruit drinks are popular alternatives. Alcohol-free beers and cocktails are served in hotel bars. Bedouin coffee, served without sweetening and flavored with cardamom is the beverage of honor that overrides mere alcohol.
Serving coffee to visitors is an age old custom derived from Bedouin hospitality traditions and an important part of Saudi Arabian generosity. The ritual of coffee serving is called gawha and is bound by rules of etiquette. In the presence of his guests, the host will roast, cool and grind the beans. Using a mortar and pestle, he will add cardamom pods in equal or more measure to the coffee beans during the grinding process. When the coffee is brewed, the host pours for his guests - traditionally only men. Unsweetened, fresh dates, a staple in the Saudi Arabian diet, are served with the coffee. The Bedouins have a saying that translates to ... "he makes coffee from morn till night." It is a way of describing a generous man, and no greater praise can be given.
Genuine Saudi cooking, but for a few of the sweets, is rarely to be found in restaurants. Saudi food is food of the home, where cooking and eating are intensely social activities, preparation falling on the shoulders of the housewife. During Ramadan where everyone fasts during the day, the hungry housewife spends her days preparing an evening meal that is a feast. There's an old Arabic proverb" "The woman killed herself with work, yet the feast lasted only a day!"
Saudi Arabian Foods
The Saudi Kingdom is well known for its variety of traditional dishes that reflect the diversity of the regions and the custom of the people. Most of the dishes contain meat, rice, wheat, vegetables and spices that give these recipes a special flavor. One of Saudi Arabia's most famous dishes is Al-Kabsa. Al-Kabsa is made of rice cooked with red or white meat or chicken in a pot. A variety of spices and salads can be added to the dish. Al-Kabsa is considered a staple dish throughout the Kingdom.
Meat is cooked in various ways. A popular way of preparing meat is called Al-Mandi. This utilizes ancient techniques of cooking, first employed when man discovered fire. A lamb or chicken, prepared with rice, spices and water is barbecued in a deep hole in the ground that is covered while the meat cooks.
Another unique Saudi Arabian way of preparing and serving meat is Mathbi. Al-Mathbi involves grilling seasoned lamb or chicken on flat stones that are placed on top of burning embers.
There are many other popular dishes in the Saudi Kingdom like Jarish. Jarish is prepared by cooking wheat with Laban (sour milk) or milk and adding spices to it. Jarish may be simply boiled and served with a topping of chopped hot pepper and onion, or it may be browned in butter or oil and then cooked into a sort of pilaf with chunks of meat, chopped onion and tomato for the richly flavored dish called mufallaq.
Qursan is another dish which consists of dried thin wheat loafs which are saturated with gravy and cooked in a special way.
Saliq / Selek (lamb with milk and rice), is a simple, bland dish, the best known of all the rice dishes in Saudi Arabian cooking. It's almost like a hot rice pudding, the rice first half-cooked in meat or chicken broth and then with milk, stirred and simmered for about an hour until soft.
Another popular meal which is called Mathlutha is created by combining rice and Jarish. Mathlutha is usually served with red meat or with chicken and is cooked in either the Al- Mathbi or Mandi style.
Saleeg is another dish made by cooking rice with milk until the mixture becomes solid. It is then served in a bowl with butter sprinkled on top of it and poached meat. Different kinds of gravy, cooked with vegetables and meat, are also common in the Kingdom
The coastal areas are famous for seafood and rice dishes. Al-Sayadiah is an example of such a dish. It consists of fish cooked with rice and onions.
Local food is often strongly flavored and spicy. The staple diet is kubez bread (flat, unleavened bread) which accompanies every dish.
Aysh abu laham is described as "something like pizza." The Suadi Arabian spon on the Italian classic, it starts with leavened dough, egg-rich and flavored with seeds of fennel, and black caraway. This is baked in the shape of a thick-bottomed pie shell, then filled with fried mutton, chopped kurrath or spring onion, and topped with a sauce made from tahinah.
Rice, lentils, chick peas (hummus) and cracked wheat (burghul) are also common. The most common meats are lamb and chicken. Beef is rare and pork is proscribed under Islamic law. The main meat meal of the day is lunch, either kultra (meat on skewers) or kebabs served with soup, salad, bread, rice, tomatoes, onions and other vegetables. Arabic cakes, cream desserts and rice pudding (muhalabia) also feature in the diet.
Mezzeh may include up to 40 dishes. Foreign cooking is offered in larger towns and the whole range of international cuisine, including fast food, is available in the oil-producing Eastern Province and in Jeddah. Restaurants have table service.
Other regional favorites are kubbat maraq- balls of rice spiced with turmeric, pepper, cumin and dried lime are shaped around a center of fried ground meat, onion and parsley and set to simmer in a sauce flavored with tomato; and fi qa'atah - a three-layered dish served as rice on the bottom, meat in the middle and almonds on top. It's cooked, in fact, top side down, for the name literally means "at the bottom."
During a Saudi Arabian feast it would be most likely to eat the luxurious kharuf mahshi, baby lamb stuffed with rice, nuts and raisins, rubbed outside with a paste of onion crushed with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and browned all over in bubbling sawn, clarified cow or goat butter, before roasting.
Wheat in Saudi Cooking
Wheat is one of the most common cereals used throughout the world and a good source of energy. With its essential coating of bran, vitamins and minerals, it is an excellent health-building food.
Bulgur is a quick-cooking form of whole wheat that has been cleaned, parboiled, dried, ground into particles and sifted into distinct sizes. It comes in four distinct grind sizes (as well as the whole kerne)l which provides different textures and cooking properties for a variety of food applications. Often confused with cracked wheat, bulgur differs in that it has been pre-cooked. Unlike cracked wheat, bulgur is ready to eat with minimal cooking or, after soaking in water or broth, can be mixed with other ingredients without further cooking. Bulgur can be used in recipes calling for converted rice. By contrast, wheat berries, the whole kernels, require extensive soaking and prolonged cooking.
Prepared by such ancient civilizations as the Babylonians, Hittites and Hebrews, bulghur has been a staple since at least 4,000 BC with some sources suggesting 6,000 BC. Not only the Saudi Arabians, but also the Romans and Egyptians recorded its use as early as 1,000 BC. Common in the more easterly Mediterranean regions, it is also has a long history in Ukrainian and Central Asian cuisines where both bulghur and cracked wheat are used along with kasha, or braised buckwheat groats. Ancient Romans called bulghur cerealis, Israelites dagan and in some Middle Eastern regions it is still called arisah, translated by Biblical scholars as 'the first of the coarse meal' and was originally prepared as a porridge. Whole wheat berries that are crushed to varying qualities of texture are called 'cracked wheat' and require cooking. These are also found in 3 grades of coarseness: fine, medium and coarse, the choice of which depends on use and preference.
Whole wheat kernels that are steamed (hence pre-cooked ), dried and then crushed are called bulghur. Because the processes is more involved, bulghur is the more expensive product and is more tender than cracked wheat. It has a pleasant chewy texture, is easier to digest and tastier.
Are they interchangeable? This depends on whether the recipe requires cooking or not and your own degree of purism. A salad recipe such as tabbouleh is uncooked, and so requires true bulghur as do recipes where bulghur is brought to the boil, cooked for a moment then left to rest off heat to swell as in a pilaf. Recipes requiring longer cooking times or coarse grain bulghur can be replaced with cracked wheat, but will need more cooking time. Saudi Arabian cooking uses both. Tabbouleh is one of the more famous and popular Middle Eastern salads which use bulghur, and every cook has favorite variations.