Home Starts in the Kitchen: A nostalgic look at Saudi cuisine

Home Starts in the Kitchen: A nostalgic look at Saudi cuisine

Saudi chef and food writer Maher Alnammary reflects on the unifying role food and cooking play in nourishing bonds that unite us as a nation
18 September 23
Nostalgic Saudi Cuisine

Home, however one defines it, creates a sense of identity and belonging, and as the well-known saying goes, it is “where the heart is.”

Sharing, Caring and Connecting

Saudi has strived to strengthen cultural connections and establish its unique culinary identity. Despite the resistance and hardship some might find in making a cultural leap, Saudi’s young scholars, artists, and craftspeople admirably accomplished it by referencing the past for inspiration through ambitious lenses of the present – to create a sustainable, vibrant, and lasting culture for future generations.

Our hospitality and deep-rooted Islamic belief system emphasises respect for one's elders. It also stresses on a strong sense of community that fosters sharing with immediate family, neighbours, and visitors from far-off lands. Cooking and food often take centre stage in translating these virtues.

Reflecting on my childhood, one memory stands out above all others – my grandmother in the kitchen. I can still taste the love she infused into every pastry that graced her old, creaky kitchen table. With each bite of warm dough, cheese, and za'atar, I always felt her warmth and care envelop me. Her food made our connection tangible, and whenever I needed her, I knew exactly where to turn. It's no wonder people say that "the kitchen is the heart of every home." For me, it will always be where I found my grandmother's heart, full of love and ready to nourish my soul. I owe so much to my grandmothers, being blessed with their influence on my journey as a chef; they have been and will always be my culinary idols.

The kitchen is special because it serves as the heart of home – it’s where we share meals, drinks, and conversations with loved ones. It's a warm place where memories are made and stories are passed down. This generational connection, this gathering around the table, is a pillar of the Kingdom’s – if not the entire region’s – culture.

As I sat next to my cousin Maha at a recent family gathering, she shared a fond childhood memory of how she would return from school and have lunch with our grandmother.

“I hated okra with a vengeance; its texture gave me goosebumps,” she said. “Still, I go back to the sounds and smells I experienced. It’s where I keep her memory with me.”

Okra, which she makes for her children using the beloved air fryer, is now a favourite. “It's how I fixed the texture, and it's a healthy improvement to the dish,” Maha said.  

To think that a simple stew could hold so much emotion is astounding, and is also why many grow to enjoy dishes they loathed as children.

Eluding the Stereotypical

The history of Saudi’s hospitality is evident in the welcoming and munificent culture of its people. Visitors are treated with genuine cordiality and generosity, whether around a feast at their table or casual gatherings with a cup of traditional Saudi coffee, embodying the warmth of a remarkable nation.

While exploring the various regions, the unique dishes served there, reveal a rich history and narrative. Despite the peninsula's significance as a trade and Silk Road hub, the locals ate what the land, sea, and sky provided. The fanciful image of Arabians feasting on rare fruits under ostrich feathers doesn’t reflect that time accurately. Our ancestors predominantly farmed or raised livestock for sustenance, and meat was a rarity reserved for Eid celebrations.

Despite Saudi cuisine appearing homogeneous and one-dimensional, to truly experience and understand regional customs, one must willingly look beyond the stereotypical facade and prepare to engage in conversations with those who call the peninsula home. Its prism of accents and dialects, customs, and conventions with, at times, unique seasonal favourites, flavours, and flair, have much to offer those who look for them. There is a wealth of beauty to discover behind the veil.

While we live in an era with everything available year-round, a lot of traditional home cooking still adheres to the seasons. In the summer, seafood and crop-based dishes take precedence, while heavier meats and stews made with preserved ingredients are reserved for winter.

When revealing household customs across the Kingdom, it is not surprising that the clichéd norm isn’t what you would probably find. The staple ghee, wheat bread, honey, and legume dips for breakfast have rapidly been replaced with vegan butter, fancy spreads, wheat cereals, and acai bowls, yet there is still a yearning for dishes from simpler times with a mélange of flavours that intertwine with nostalgia.

In the south, bread is broken and shared with samna, a rich and nutty clarified butter laced with local honey, and the comforting, simple flavours subtly tell us of how our ancestors nourished their souls with natural bounties. It’s a testament to our humble-to-grandeur journey. Adopted dishes from near and far are delivered with our unique spice blends, where gulaba and foul are served with crisp tandoor charred bread from South and central Asia.

The Call of the North

In the culinary world, local sourcing and creating menus that celebrate their region’s seasonality have become a trend for success. This movement, also known as the slow food movement, began gaining traction in the western world in the late 1970s by activists and chefs like Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters. However, the peninsula’s nomadic and Bedouin tribes have done this for ages.

Visitors to northern Saudi can experience the bounties of a rugged and harsh terrain. Here is where dishes rely heavily on animal fats and dairy mixed with grains from neighbouring fertile crescent and eastern agriculture, plus a variety of native wild plants like samh. Its seeds are toasted and milled into a rich and nutty nutrient-dense flour, used to make bread disks baked on an open fire. The intoxicating aroma of the toasted seeds can be described as pumpkin seeds on steroids. A genuinely amazing time can be had exploring the northern territories and indulging in the various tasty desert truffle dishes during the rainy season. Take note: these truffles have a very short and specific season.

Southern Delights

The southern region boasts an exceptional experience that people love to share. The lush greenery, mild climate, and abundance of water sources make it a haven for nature lovers. The mountains are a sight to behold and their seasonal fruits and vegetables are a vital component of the region's cuisine. Southerners take great pride in their agricultural prowess, particularly coffee production, and celebrate their seasonal crops with annual festivals. With its rich heritage, breathtaking landscapes, and hospitable locals, the area is undoubtedly one of the country’s most sought-after tourist destinations.

Travelling for work, I had the pleasure of experiencing the food traditions there. Their blend of spices and cooking techniques set them apart, while sharing similarities with neighbouring Yemen. I especially enjoyed marquq, a medley of lamb and vegetables or, how I personally want it, a hearty vegetable stew, with added kneaded dough, cooked low and slow to absorb the delicious aromatics and spices. I was pleasantly surprised to find a similar dish, beef stew with dumplings, during my travels in the US south.

The Best of the East

In the Eastern Province, we find Al Ahsa’s oasis palm groves, the vast and aptly named Empty Quarter desert, and my hometown. As I was raised there, I can attest to its people’s kindness, and I’m reminded constantly of their virtues when I visit. Their doors and hearts are always open, and families are happy to take you in as their own, at any time or during any meal.

Unsurprisingly, the regional cuisine prominently features lots of date products. Traditional dishes and pastries, like hasawi bread, and date delights such as molasses, are commonplace, alongside innovative ways of using the blessed fruit. You can find date mustards, flavoured butter, sourdough bread, and even sparkling date mocktails in modern cafés and restaurants.

The Western Way

In the Red Sea area, a part of western Saudi, there’s a diverse range of traditions and cultures that have been shaped and influenced by the millions of pilgrims who flock to the two holiest Islamic sites. Makkah, in particular, has played a pivotal role in Middle Eastern and Islamic history, serving as a bustling centre point, where pilgrims, merchants, and their caravans have traversed its ancient roads for centuries. The rich tapestry of history is palpable in every corner of the region.

The traditional home-cooked meals fuse Bedouin, Levantine, Indian, Javanese, central Asian, and pan-African flavours with the countless historical sites that are as ancient as the religion itself. These delicious dishes, ranging from mantu and yaghmoush, to sambal and amba, are sure to tantalise even the most discerning of palates. And let's not forget about the sweet dishes, which are far too numerous to list and will undoubtedly require several return trips to savour them all.

When you plan your trip here, make sure to allocate enough time to discover all the historical marvels and meet the friendly and often light-hearted locals who will greet you with open arms. It's an incredible region worth exploring.

Spotlight on Riyadh

As our tour draws to a close, I invite you to cast your gaze at the vibrant heart of transformation – Riyadh. Located in the central region of Najd, it is a hub for lively crowds, heavy traffic, and joyous celebrations that signify the emergence of new beginnings and social advancements.

An epicurean’s wonderland, you can find numerous traditional restaurants that offer the region's signature mathlootha, a feast that allows you to experience one of the local rice dishes. There’s also qursan, made with thin layers of wheat bread, covered with tomato sauce, vegetables, and lamb. Then there’s jereesh, which is coarsely ground cracked wheat simmered in a spiced broth.

Additionally, there are several avant-garde restaurants that push the boundaries in delivering exquisite Saudi fine dining experiences. Riyadh is home to opulent plazas and travel destinations such as Diriyah Gate and Qiddiya, perfect for travel enthusiasts.

Saudi’s culinary evolution now marches to the beat of the passionate hearts of cooks and chefs across the Kingdom, where the tides of change beckon dreamers to pursue the reality of their imagination.