As I mentioned in the first part of my Riyadh Food Review, I was invited by Saudi Arabia’s Culinary Arts Commission to experience both iftar, or the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, as well as the growing Riyadh food scene.
Whereas yesterday’s post gave an overview of two luxurious iftar spreads in the Saudi capital, today’s post will give a brief look at a number of other places to grab a bite, Saudi food or otherwise.
The first place I was invited to check out was a casual arrangement of food vendors in front of the King Fahd National Library. Since actual street food regulations are quite strict in Riyadh, roughly three months ago a laid-back place to grab snacks and drinks was set-up at this public park, conveniently next to the prominent library.
The Culinary Arts Commission (CAC) was a sponsor of this project, which sees budding chefs and foodies alike preparing their special versions of balilah, a Saudi chickpea salad, mutabbaq, a filling Saudi pancake stuffed with a variety of savory or sweet ingredients at a kiosk called Al-Taif Chef, and even Neapolitan-style pizza and chocolate chip cookies.
My suggestion– buy a few samples, then picnic in the library park. The atmosphere is relaxed, and then eats, overall nice.
With its main branch located on the nocturnally bustling Tahlia Street, Café Bateel is primarily known for one thing: Saudi dates. Given that dates have been consumed throughout Saudi Arabia for millennia, there are more than a few types of dates that you can try, including Ajwa (slightly less sweet), Sukary (sounds like “sugary,” right? that’s because it is), and Barhi, which is likely eaten fresh as opposed to dried.
Round out the date sampling with a slice of date and pecan cake, and wrap it all up with a date coffee, then you will be wired for an all-night feast.
As someone who only drinks one shot of espresso after a long-haul flight, I think I had more coffee over my few days in Riyadh than any one year prior. But coffee is a part of a Saudi culture … not the newfangled drinks or shakes, but coffee itself.
That’s why our next stop was Toqa Coffee. In part, it was for the marshmallow cream coffee, but also it was to admire the modern architecture intermixed with Saudi motifs.
After a short interlude at an Egyptian shisha café, my colleagues and I went to a Saudi-Italian mash-up called Bal’harm. Already quite full by this point, I was asked to try one specific dish: ravioli with camel meat.
I’ve got to say, even as a ravioli fanatic, this fusion worked quite well. After all, it’s pasta, and it’s meat– I’m sold.
The next day was slightly calmer.
Before iftar at the Ritz-Carlton, I had a tour of the carpet souk (market), the neighboring coffee bean souk, and a wildly popular restaurant called Alafrah serving ful medames, or fava bean stew; I didn’t eat there, as it was too early, but people were lining up to bring the ful medames home for iftar and/or suhoor.
First, here’s a cookie that I surreptitiously ate in the car. It’s called a kleja, and it contains cardamom and black lime; the inside is liquid, so put it in the oven for a couple of minutes for best results.
For dinner that evening, I had a reservation with another CAC colleague at a family-friendly Saudi restaurant called Tofareya.
Not being terribly familiar with Saudi food, I was looking forward to this meal more than most. I knew that many Saudi dishes included rice and meat, but that was just the start.
Naturally, depending on the region of the country, certain spices, methods of cooking, and/or ingredients will be favored.
Per the Tofareya menu, the center dish topped with chicken is called saleeq; the rice is prepared like risotto, and has milk, mastic (a regional plant that made chewing gum chewy), and cardamom.
On the left is red jareesh, or cracked wheat cooked in tomato sauce with shredded meat.
At the top, qursan, shredded dough with meat and tomato sauce.
Finally, on the lower right with the pumpkin jutting out, marqouq. It’s a meat stew with vegetables, generally including pumpkin, carrots, and zucchini.
This was all accompanied by Saudi qahwa, or coffee, and a nice conversation.
I may have been somewhat full at this time, but everything tasted quite good. I’d be curious to know the history of the dishes, in particular why stews are so popular in a typically hot and dry climate.
My last full day in Riyadh was punctuated by three vastly divergent settings.
It started off in the most prominent Shami district, in other words, the area known for Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Palestinian food.
A third CAC associate was most familiar with the Shami zone, thus he volunteered to take me on a tour of the food, drink, items most commonly found during Ramadan, and everything in between.
It was a bona fide hit for my taste buds, as I grew up with a lot of those Lebanese flavors (not at home, but in the neighborhood). Not to mention, I’ve got a major Achilles’ heel for baklava and künefe/knafeh.
Al Sudah is a cool place, as the restaurant specializes in a traditional way of cooking in ‘Asir province, in the southwestern part of Saudi Arabia. (Coincidentally, Al Soudah is the name of a city in ‘Asir province)
In essence, lamb (or camel) is thrown into an iron pot buried underground, then covered with wood, markh tree leaves, and straw. Cloth is placed on top of that, so that the heat stays in the pot. After 2-3 hours, the meal, called heneeth, is ready.
Simply scoop up the rice and meat with your hands — it’s family-style, after all — add some yogurt, lemon juice, and/or hot sauce, et voilà!
The meat easily separates from the bone, so heneeth is a dish made for fussy eaters.
You can’t find too many restaurants like this in Riyadh, so visit Al Sudah for some fun desert cooking.
The last meal of my food visit to Riyadh was at a restaurant called Takya. Takya is located in an upmarket dining and shopping area called Bujairi Terrace, in a larger historical and governmental district called Diriyah.
The restaurant showcases contemporary versions of Saudi meals — to the point that some are recognizable only by taste — and with an artistic tinge.
I may not know the name of all of the desserts, but that one on the left, the dates covered in a crispy sugar shell, was something else. Apparently, it was Takya’s take on areekah, made with mashed dates, crumbled bread, and cream. What an oeuvre on a plate.
I was going to write I’d go back to Takya in a heartbeat, but really, I’d go back to every single one of the places I tried while in Riyadh.
It was a delicious time, albeit brief, in which I learned a bit about Saudi food, the burgeoning Riyadh gastronomic scene, and most importantly, about what the Culinary Arts Commission represents.
It would be great to explore more hyperlocal Saudi cooking methods and raw materials, especially to see the process of how olive oil, dates, and coffee start from farms and hit the stores. But why try to shove all of these experiences into one trip? Saudi Arabia is absolutely worth repeat visits.