Food in Saudi Arabia
Eating is one of the few pleasures allowed in Saudi Arabia, and obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Unlike other businesses that kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants allow their patrons to sit and eat behind closed doors during prayer time. New customers are usually only allowed to enter after prayer has ended.
Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and more than a few chains that hardly venture outside America (e.g. Hardee’s, Little Caesars). Meals, always served with fries and Coke, cost SR10-20. Some local imitators to look out for are:
- Al-Baik – fried chicken- in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Taif, but not in Riyadh.
- Baak – pizza (thin crust and pretty good), roast chicken, lasagne, sandwiches.
- Kudu. Saudi sandwich chain
- HerfyBurger. Largest fast food chain in the country, 100 % Saudi owned
- House of Donuts – “The Finest American Pastries” – a chain founded by Saudi students who studied in America
Even cheaper are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia’s large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, serving large thali platters of subcontinental cuisine for under SR10. Just don’t expect bells and whistles like air-conditioning.
The Middle Eastern staple shwarma (kebab) is widely available in dedicated small shops, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich. The Egyptian fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips such as hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad).
Finding restaurants that actually serve Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. Your local Saudi or foreign host may be able to show you some places or, if you are really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home.
Drinks in Saudi Arabia
Since alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and socialising with unrelated persons of the opposite sex are prohibited, it is fair to say that no one comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.
Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serves not only coffee and tea, but also hookahs (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are a male-only domain. As part of the government’s efforts to restrict smoking in major cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh, establishments serving shisha are either relegated to the outskirts or offer outdoor seating only.
If, on the other hand, you are looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion of competitors have a firm foothold in the kingdom’s shopping centres. These generally welcome women, although there were several arrests of unmarried couples “mingling” in 2008.
As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, you should try mirra, which is prepared Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it is strong and tastes great, especially drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) is usually drunk with sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na’ana).
Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police usually turn a blind eye to foreign expat housing complexes where home-brewed wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling alcohol in large quantities, Saudi law applies, expat or not. A foreigner may not get the punishment a local would, but he can expect a few days or weeks in jail, public flogging and deportation.
There is a local white flash known among foreigners as “siddiqui” (Arabic for friend) or simply “sid”. This is generally terrible tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is the danger of it becoming downright poisonous through improper distillation. The stuff is to be avoided at all costs.
Don’t drink and drive! is good advice everywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident or otherwise attract the attention of the police, the consequences can be serious indeed.
As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of different fruit juices, ranging from the ordinary (apple, orange) to the downright bizarre (banana-lemon-milk-walnut, anyone?).
Non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks are popular. Two of the most common are juice bubbly, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, i.e. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often heavily flavoured with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences. You can even get apple-flavoured Budweiser!
Tap water in the larger cities is generally considered safe, although it is not always particularly tasty and can be very hot in summer. In winter, however, flood water can enter the tanks. In a major flood in January 2011, an estimated 70 % of the storage tanks in Jeddah were affected and some cases of dysentery were reported.
Bottled water is readily available and cheap at SR2 or less for a 1.5 litre bottle, so many visitors and residents play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.