The most important tip I can give you on Saudi Arabia local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Saudi Arabia, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Saudi Arabia
Like all other businesses in Saudi, restaurants are supposed to close during prayer hours, which they usually dim off the lights and refuse service. Jeddah is well-known for its restaurants and cafes which can be found in every corner of every street. While Riyadh restricts its cafes to malls or outside the city. Smoking is banned indoors throughout the country’s major cities, this law is very strict and restaurant owners will take it seriously as it risks closing their business.
Smoking is allowed in the city in open areas only, which have very pleasant cold winds in winter evenings, but hot humid air (in Jeddah) in summer evenings. Indoor smoking is only allowed outside major cities. Fast food Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere (e.g. Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr., Little Caesars). Meals invariably served with fries and Coke cost SR10-20. Some local imitators worth checking out include: Al-Baik – fried chicken- in Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah, but not Riyadh Kudu – Saudi sandwich chain Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia’s large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SAR10. Just don’t expect frills like air-conditioning.
Fast food is certified halal in Saudi Arabia. Pork will NOT be served in Saudi Arabia, as pork is forbidden in Islam. Caution needs to be applied when eating in such restaurants since they do not follow western health and safety standards. Local cuisine The national Saudi Arabian dish is the Kabsa (orange/red coloured rice with lamb or chicken with strong essence and spices, but not chilli) it is similar to the Indian Briyani but not quite the same. The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SAR3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich.
The Egyptian mashed fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips like hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad). Finding restaurants that serve actual Saudi cuisine is surprisingly very difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants, they are usually of lower quality. Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places or if you’re really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home. Mandi Chicken or mutton cooked with rice in a pot suspended above a fire.
What to Drink in Saudi Arabia
With alcohol, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated people of the opposite sex all banned by law, it’s fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife. Coffee shops Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but also snacks. These are strictly a male domain in some cities like Riyadh, while they are very family oriented in Jeddah and surrounding cities.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom’s malls. As for the coffee (qahwa) there are two types: Turkish “black” coffee prepared in the traditional middle eastern way, served in a very small cup called “finjan” usually served with, or without, sugar. The other type which is strictly found only in Saudi Arabia is the Arabic “white” coffee, made in the traditional Arabic style. Spiced with cardamom (usually), but can contain saffron, cinnamon or ginger, it is strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with dates, also served in a small fingan, which distinctively looks different from the finjan of the Turkish coffee. Arabic coffee never contains sugar.
The etiquette is to wiggle the little cup when you are done with the coffee to have it taken. “Red” Tea (chai), is normal tea, which usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na’ana). Green tea is normal herbal tea. All served in tiny cups. Arabs are well known to include sugar in their tea and coffee. Alcohol Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country by law, although the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expats, where homebrew wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling booze in quantity, then expat or not, Saudi law applies. A foreigner may not get the sentence a local would, but can expect a few months in jail, public flogging and whipping, followed by deportation.
There is a local white lightning known among foreigners as “siddiqui” (Arabic for friend) or just as “sid”. This is generally horrible-tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is a risk of inexpert distilling making it downright poisonous. The stuff is emphatically to be avoided. Do not drink and drive! is good advice anywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident, or otherwise attract police attention, the consequences might be serious indeed. Soft drinks In Saudi, this non-alcoholic apple-flavored Bud’s for you As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of various 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 Saudi champagne, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, ie. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc essences. You can even get apple-flavored Budweiser! Tap water Tap water throughout the country is NOT safe to drink, in the summer tap water can be a very hot. Bottled water is readily available and cheap at SAR2 or less for a 1.5L bottle, so many visitors and residents choose to play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.