Historically, food in Saudi Arabia has been somewhat of an enigma. Not much is known about authentic olden-day Saudi Arabian food and most of the food that is now part of Saudi cuisine can be traced back to other countries in the region, like Egypt and Yemen. However, Saudi food culture has emerged as an amalgamation of different influences that have been revised and updated to suit the local demands of the people.
When I first visited Saudi Arabia I was just bombarded with Kabsa. Chicken kabsa; meat kabsa; it was overwhelming. However, there is more to Saudi cuisine then just meat and Arabian rice. This post is intended to shed light on some of the famous and other hidden dishes in Saudi Arabia.
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What is Saudi Arabian Food like?
The Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia has retained religious and political significance due to the presence of the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Thus, this region has had a constant flow of people flowing through its regions, especially during the annual pilgrimage known as Haj.
Haj has been an international Islamic gathering that unites Muslims from all over the world for 5 days. During this time people would live together, pray together, and eat together. Thus, the cultural exchange between travelers and locals has had a strong impact on Saudi Arabian food.
Another impact that has influenced the food in Saudi Arabia has been the movement of different peoples, especially from other Middle-eastern and Asian countries, to Saudi Arabia. Therefore, as a whole, one can see traces of Turkish, Syrian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Sudanese, Afghani, Persian, and even Indian influences in the food of Saudi Arabia.
The best of Saudi Arabia’s Food
This up to date food guide of Saudi Arabia is divided into 4 parts to make it easy to read. Main dishes, pastry and sweets, street and fast food, and finally traditional Saudi drinks. You can click below to jump straight to one of the sections. However, the best thing is to read through the whole post to not miss a single dish.
Main dishes in Saudi Arabia
1. Saudi Arabian Kabsa
Kabsa is the staple food in Saudi Arabia. There are several variations, but the essence of kabsa is some meat or chicken served with a load of rice and some sides. It is normal for people to eat kabsa daily for lunch and dinner. I would say that it is the most common food in Saudi Arabia.
It is served on all occasions. It is like a mixture of everything, rice, meat, onions, and some other veggies and spices. It is consumed by the rich and the poor alike. Chicken Kabsa can be a reasonably cheap dish since people can order one big Kabsa and split it between 4 people. Kabsa is generally eaten with one’s fingers but it’s okay to use a fork or spoon if you prefer such.
When I worked in Saudi Arabia, my company used to serve us kabsa every single day. The way it was served was pretty much the same. We would get chicken kabsa 3 times a week and camel meat for the remaining 2 days. Sometimes the color of the Arabian rice was different or had different spices.
I found this lack of variety quite unusual and it took some getting used to. I also found that the rice portions in Saudi Arabia are quite large. I love rice but I’m not used to eating so much rice in one sitting. I suppose it is traditionally, made to be shared. Kabsa is not ideally a one-man meal. It’s a meal shared, divided, and enjoyed between friends and family. It’s another way for people to bond through food.
2. Arabic flat bread
The reason why the Arabic flatbread (Khobz) is featured in the main dishes section is that the Khobz is literally served with everything. From breakfast to lunch and dinner main dishes, arabşc break is always on the table.
The Saudi Arabic break is usually round and thin like in the picture below. The 2 layered flatbread is made of wheat flour, yeast, water salt, and cooked in a traditional or normal oven.
Haree is a unique Arabian dish that is made from ground wheat, meat and some spices. In Saudi Arabia, this porrige-like meat dish also includes tomatoes, peppers and spices like cardamom and drizzled with parsley over the top. Some say that Harees is prepared during the month of Ramadan and shared with those who are less fortunate.
Saleeg is rice cooked in a milky broth, topped with meat or chicken. Common in the Hijaz region and a speciality in Taif, Saleeg is also spiced with fat, cardamom and Arabic gum.
Sayadiya is a rare fish dish that is baked together with rice and vegetables in Jeddah. It is originally an Egyptian dish, commonly cooked in the Red Sea region.
One of the popular main dishes in the najd (Riyadh) region is Gursan. Traditional Gursan is baked at home. The dough of whole flour, water and salt is spread finely and baked. Then a special meat sauce is prepared and served on top of Gursan. Nowadays Gursan is pre-baked and sold in supermarkets. People have it with their choice of meat, chicken and vegetables.
Foul is a common breakfast meal, served accross the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, foul (smashed beans) has reserved its place in iftar meals for decades. Foul is served next to dates in every iftar meal across the region, and it is mainly bought from shops. Foul is also a popular dish at Yemeni breakfast restaurants. It is the most common breakfast in Saudi Arabia.
Another must in the region is samosa (dough traditionally filled with meat and onions). Samosa is a triangle-shaped spiced savory, commonly served as a snack or in Ramadan. It is not unique to Saudi Arabia but spread across the Middle-east and Asian regions.
9. Laham Hashi, camel meat
Due to the important role of the camel in Arab society, it is no surprise that the most loved and cherished meat in Saudi Arabia is camel meat. It is said to be natural and very healthy. It is not consumed very often because it is more expensive than beef. To be honest, if you are not a meat lover, you may find the smell and look of camel meat a bit strange. I got quite used to camel meat in Saudi Arabia but I still prefer beef.
This delightful bread is widely available all over Saudi Arabia. It is a relative of Afghani naan, a thick round bread that is freshly rolled by hand and baked in a traditional oven. Usually served with foul or Adas (lentils), tamees, sometimes called tameez is affordable and loved by all.
This savoury snack is commonly served in Yemeni restaurants, suggesting that it comes from Yemen. It is a lightly filled pan fried bread, similar to the Indian parata or the turkish Gozleme. it is usually filled with eggs, meat, onions and some spices. When freshly made, mutabbaq can be a delicious meal on its own too.
Famous Pastry and sweets in Saudi Arabia
12. Arika / Hineni
Hineni is a tasty dessert that is made of a combination of crushed dates and crumbled bread. It is also routinely served with cream and sweetened with honey, condensed milk, and drizzled with almonds. This treat can be enjoyed during breakfast or as an after-dinner sweet.
Ma’amoul is a famous dated centred biscuit or cookie. It is made from semolina or regular flour and comes in many varieties. It is commonly served during special occaisons, celebrations and sometimes on regular days. It is best enjoyed fresh but can also be bought from your local grocery store.
Basbousa is a famous Egyptian cake or sweet that has made its way all over the Middle-east and even as far as Greece, Turkey and Armenia. It is basically a semolina based cake with coconut that is soaked in syrup. It is a really sweet treat but I don’t think you want to have too much of it. A similar variety is the Turkish treat Revani.
15. Umm Ali (Om Ali)
Another famous Egyptian desert, Umm Ali is dubbed the national sweet of Egypt. The name, which means Ali’s mother, is also kind of interesting. This tasty bread pudding is usually topped with nuts and raisons, cream and burned at the top, making it look just as good as it tastes. Umm Ali is really loved all over Saudi Arabia.
A cardamom and rosewater flavored cookie, sometimes with coconut, is especially famous in the famous noethern regions of Saudi Arabia. I’m talking about Qassim and Ha’il. It is said that in Qassim Kleeja is an important part of their wedding ceremony.
Another great Yemeni invention that is common in Saudi Arabia is Masoub. It is described as a whole-wheat bread banana pudding. It usually includes nuts, honey, raisins, cream, and even cream cheese at times. It is really a sweet and yummy treat.
Street & Fast Food in Saudi Arabia
18. The Yemeni Breakfast
If you ever find yourself hungry in Saudi Arabia in the morning then you should seek out your nearest Yemeni breakfast spot. These spots are generally open in the morning only because they specialize in providing a fully loaded breakfast.
A Yemeni breakfast includes foul, shakshouka, or Lahsa (eggs), stir-fried chicken strips with onions and peppers, Kibda (fresh liver), and all of this is enjoyed with Yemeni bread. The perfect drink to wash down this major munch is a ‘Shai Adeni’ which means Aden tea, named after a region in Yemen. This tea is spicy, sweet, and served with hot milk, similar to the Karak, below.
This fried chicken fast food franchise is by far the most loved in all of Saudi Arabia, especially by the youth and working class employees. The brands were previously only available in the Hijaz region, which greatly upped their demand. It was so sought after that people would drive 100s of kilometers from Riyadh to Jeddah, fill their cars with Albaik and then return to Riyadh to re-sell it on the street for a profit.
I found this really amazing. In 2017, Al Baik finally opened its first stores in the central Riyadh region, in the quiet southern city of Al Kharj. Amazingly, the city of Kharj had quickly become overcrowded with youth from Riyadh city and elsewhere who couldn’t wait to get their hands on Albaik.
A staple in The Sham region (Syria-Jordan), falafel is another sought after treat in Saudi Arabia. It can be served on its own or rolled into a shawarma wrap mixed with salad and sauce. Some see it as a quick and tasty alternative to meat.
The shawarma is the epitomy of Middle-eastern street food. It can be eaten as the first and last meal of the day. No matter where you are, you can always get a freshy cut and rolled shawarma wrap in any city, town or village in Saudi Arabia. The chicken shawarma is a staple for students in Saudi Arabia. It is a great meal for anyone who needs a quick meal on a budget.
Traditional Drinks in Saudi Arabia
22. Arabic Coffee
An exotic and unique brand of coffee, Arabic coffee looks, smells, and tastes like no other. You either love it or hate it, with no middle ground in-between. However, if you spend a considerable amount of time in Saudi Arabia, you’d best learn to love it, as you will have to get used to accepting it wherever you go.
It is seen as the most basic symbol of Saudi Arabian hospitality. It is served in businesses, cafes, homes, on the streets, at companies, hotel lobby’s and the list goes on…
23. Camel Milk
Camel milk has been an enduring lifeline for the bedouins for millennia. It has at times, been the sole source of sustenance for the people of the desert. It is believed to be extremely healthy and a cure for diseases and ailments. Current research shows that camel milk is a great source of protein, fat, and vitamins.
24. Karak Chai
The Karak chai is a descendent of the Indo-Pakistani masala chai (tea). It is a strongly brewed tea made from loose tea leaves. Its taste is elevated by the addition of cardamom, bags of sugar ( I really mean bags. It is sweet as hell) and the final touch is to use evaporated milk.
Many people get conditioned into thinking that the only food available in Saudi Arabia is the big American food franchises. It is easy to fall prey to this idea since American food is everywhere. However, if you look a bit deeper, you will discover that behind the bright lights of KFC and MacDonald’s, there is some really good traditional food that is surprisingly enjoyable.
Which one of these foods have you tried in Saudi Arabia? Is our Saudi Arabia food bucket list missing a dish that we need to try on our next trip? Please let us know in the comments below!