Riyadh Food Review, Part 2 of 2: Local Finds

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.

Street Food

Culinary Arts Commission --Street Food Sign
Culinary Arts Commission –Street Food Sign

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.

Sage Tea with Mantu (Meat Dumpling)
Sage Tea with Mantu (Meat Dumpling) @ Street Food Riyadh

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.

Café Bateel

Café Bateel, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Dates, Date Cake, and Date Coffee @ Café Bateel, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

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.

Toqa Coffee

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More coffee!

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.

Camel Ravioli at Bal'harm Saudi Italian Restaurant
Camel Ravioli at Bal’harm Saudi Italian Restaurant

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.

Kleja Saudi Cookie
Kleja Saudi Cookie
Supermarket at the Riyadh Coffee Bean Market
Black Limes, Myrrh, and Frankincense at a Supermarket in the Riyadh Coffee Bean Market
Alafrah Ful Medames Restaurant Exterior
Alafrah Ful Medames Restaurant Exterior
Alafrah Ful Medames Restaurant Interior
Alafrah Ful Medames Restaurant Interior

Tofareya Restaurant

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.

Saudi Dishes at Tofareya
Saudi Dishes at Tofareya

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.

Sham Dreams Restaurant
Iftar Take-Home Spread of Culinary Delights, Sham Dreams Restaurant
Sweet Cheese Dessert but Can't Recall the Name, Arafat Sweets
Sweet Cheese Dessert but Can’t Recall the Name, Arafat Sweets
Chicken with Sumac 'Taquito' at Just Tawooq
Chicken with Sumac ‘Taquito’ at Just Tawooq
Palestine Map
Palestine Map


Syrian Raspberry Juice Vendor, Riyadh
Tilt-Shifted Syrian Raspberry Juice Vendor, Riyadh (only during Ramadan)

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

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.

Al Sudah Saudi Restaurant, Riyadh (1)
Al Sudah Saudi Restaurant, Riyadh (1)
Eating the Traditional Saudi Way, Relaxed, and on the Floor
Eating Heneeth the Traditional Saudi Way, Relaxed, and on the Floor

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.

Al Fresco Dining at Takya, Riyadh
Al Fresco Dining at Takya, Riyadh

The restaurant showcases contemporary versions of Saudi meals — to the point that some are recognizable only by taste — and with an artistic tinge.

Five Types of Bread with a Dill Yoghurt Sauce, and Orange Marmalade Olives
Five Types of Bread with a Dill Yogurt Sauce, and Orange Marmalade Olives
Mantu (Meat Dumplings) and Mathlotha (Rice and Durum Wheat Balls Stuffed with Black Lime and Red Chili)
Mantu (Meat Dumplings), and Mathlotha (Rice and Durum Wheat Balls Stuffed with Black Lime and Red Chili)
(Left) Girsan, or Bread Rolls with Vegetables and Black Lime Syrup, and (Right) a Tasty Meat and Rice Dish
(Left) Girsan, or Bread Rolls with Vegetables and Black Lime Syrup, and (Right) a Tasty Meat and Rice Dish
Takya Desserts
Takya Desserts

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.


Riyadh Food Review, Part 1 of 2: Breaking the Fast (Iftar)

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.

Crescent Moon over Riyadh's Kingdom Centre
Crescent Moon over Riyadh’s Kingdom Centre

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.)


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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.

Ritz-Carlton Riyadh Lobby
Ritz-Carlton Riyadh Lobby


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.

Saudi Coffee Ceremony Display @ the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh
Saudi Coffee Ceremony Display @ the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh

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.

Ritz-Carlton Riyadh Swimming Pool
Ritz-Carlton Riyadh Swimming Pool (with the iftar buffet in the background)

Seating however, was entirely outside … quite nice when you’ve got wonderful March temperatures like that (summertime might be another story).

Outdoor Seating
Outdoor Seating

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.

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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!

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