This past March, I was invited by Saudi Arabia’s Culinary Arts Commission, a division of their Ministry of Culture, to discuss and experience the rapidly evolving food scene in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Led by Mrs. Mayada Badr, who has an extensive background in the culinary arts, the Culinary Arts Commission (CAC) was introduced in February 2020 with the following vision:
- To research and document historical Saudi cuisine
- To promote Saudi cuisine on the world stage
- To help make Saudi Arabia a culinary destination
I found that everyone on the CAC team was quite dedicated to those three main goals, and that all had brought their unique backgrounds and talents for the benefit of Saudi Arabia.
My visit happened to coincide with the start of Ramadan (رمضان), the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, when the new crescent moon can be seen. Ramadan is particularly notable because it is believed that the first words of the Qu’ran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during this time.
Consequently, Ramadan became the time to brush up on reading the Qu’ran, to show mercy, and to offer forgiveness.
However, to most non-Muslims, it is best known as the month of fasting between sunrise and sunset.
That also means, from dusk to dawn, there’s a lot of food to be enjoyed.
For a short primer–
- suhoor (سحور) is the meal eaten pre-dawn, before one begins to fast
- sawm (صوم) means fasting
- iftar (افطار) is the meal that breaks the fast at dusk; given the hunger pangs by that time, it’s generally buffet-style
For part one (of two total parts), let’s visit a pair of delectable iftar spots in Riyadh.
The Ministry of Culture’s Ramadan Tent
On the first night of Ramadan, I was presented with a VIP ticket to the Ministry of Culture’s Ramadan Tent, located close to the burgeoning economic district of the metropolis.
Forming part of the greater Ramadan Season series of events, the Ramadan Tent is open from 17:00 – 03:00. For iftar, you can feast on the culinary delicacies of not only the Middle East, but also Italy and South Asia. Then, just outside of the tent, there’s shopping, entertainment, and snacks/drinks to enjoy. Once you’ve gotten your fill of everything else, you can go back inside of the tent for suhoor offerings.
I had some nice conversation with locals and tent staff; people were in especially good spirits because this was the first “Covid-19 is in our rear window” Ramadan season.
And I gobbled up just about everything that I put on my plate.
(I’ve got a number of photos for your viewing pleasure; there were purple lights everywhere, so please forgive the purplish hues spotlighting everything.)
Iftar at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh
How could an event like the Ramadan Tent be topped? Well, it wouldn’t need to be topped, but it did find match at the opulent Ritz-Carlton Riyadh.
Originally designed as a guest house for visiting dignitaries, it … definitely shows.
Once I got over the fact that the hotel wasn’t built with me in mind, I made my way over to the Saudi coffee display in the lobby.
During Ramadan, it wasn’t in use, but typically someone would be there to show guests the elaborate ceremony involved in preparing coffee, Saudi-style. There’s even a type of coffee found only in Saudi Arabia/Yemen, called Khawlani (and here I thought there was just Arabica and Robusta).
n.b coffee in Arabic is قهوة (qahwa). Depending on where you are in Saudi Arabia, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, or saffron might be added. Not to mention, 2022 was the Year of Saudi Coffee!
On with the food, right?
I was intrigued to find the buffet not outside, nor in a standard issue restaurant setting, but wrapped around the Ritz-Carlton’s swimming pool.
Seating however, was entirely outside … quite nice when you’ve got wonderful March temperatures like that (summertime might be another story).
As for the food, there was a good mix of Saudi, Levantine, random (e.g. sushi), Indian, salads, and dessert.
In particular, I had a long chat with the pastry chef, who then prepared a giant plate of regional and Western desserts for me. One of the more memorable dishes was umm ali, a bread pudding-like dessert originally hailing from Egypt, and consisting of puff pastry, milk, cream, and a bunch of other goodies such as a coconut, various nuts, and sometimes raisins.
I had a blast at both the Ramadan Tent, and the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh iftar, but there’s something I haven’t shared with you yet.
Iftar represented only one piece of a day’s meals. There were heaps more things to eat — and to drink — but after all of that buffet fun, was I up for the task?
Stayed tuned for Part 2 of this Riyadh Food Review!