As a visitor to Saudi Arabia’s main cities, you will certainly be amazed by the huge number and variety of restaurants. Just name the concept and there you’ll have it. All the giant international restaurant chains have been enjoying consistent high revenues for years, for one main reason: Saudis love food!
The culinary culture and history of Saudi Arabia is a very interesting one, as it keeps changing dramatically over the years. Two factors have governed the basics of Saudi cuisine: first, the soil available in what is geographically one big desert, and second, the remoteness of its community. The country is large, but the soil overall is almost fruitless except in minor areas. Many years ago, before the advent of Islam, life was extremely hard. The few main ingredients available were dates and camel milk, and even camel meat was considered a luxury. The area was almost isolated; there were no chances to get other ingredients from outside. The only busy area where people from different regions came across each other was in Makkah, where they came for their spiritual journeys as well as for trade. There, what became available were previously unobtainable foodstuffs such as goats, lambs, chicken, ghee, beans, rice, wheat…
After Islam reigned, the frequency and the size of convoys to nearby rich cities, such as Cairo and Damascus, became important. The influence of Levantine cuisine started to reach the Arabian Peninsula, and this is when dishes like hummus and foul found their way to Saudi tables. In addition to this, the increase in the amount of Muslim pilgrims reaching Makkah and Madinah from the land and sea introduced a huge culinary culture exchange between Muslim countries such as India, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, North Africa, and many others. Pilgrims used to bring their own ingredients and spices to cook their own food, and thus introduced them to the locals. This gave a strong improvement to the methods of cooking and kinds of spices use in local cuisine and enriched dining options where fish, whole lamb, and rice, all cooked in different ways, became familiar.
The real culinary revolution came after the petrol boom. In addition to the Muslim countries mentioned above, Americans and Europeans attracted by the huge expansion of oil-related industries settled in Saudi Arabia. With them came the Western lifestyle, adding another overwhelming culture to the food scene of Saudi Arabia: FAST FOOD. Nowadays, authentic and original Saudi cuisine can mostly be found only in distant tribes untouched by modernity, although a more sophisticated treatment of authentic cuisine has been making a comeback through restaurants such as Aseel in Jeddah.
The root of all this history is visible in Saudi Arabia’s main cities: on one of Jeddah’s diverse streets you will find Saudi kabsah & mandi, Bokhari rice, Yemeni mugalgal and kebda, Afghani foul, Egyptian falafel and a live Indonesian Sate BBQ outside an Indonesian TOKO shop!
This beautiful & versatile culinary show is what makes Saudi Arabia a unique culinary and touristic destination in the region, where a wonderful blend of Islamic culture can be felt wherever you go.