After we got back from the Edge of the World, I was just planning to spend the remaining few hours before my flight wandering the Granada Mall. However, in the restroom of the mall, the first place I headed after the long drive, I ran into the lovely Saudi sisters again. As we got to chatting, I mentioned I my plans. They were surprised to learn I had only come to Riyadh for one day, and insisted that instead of spending my few hours alone, that I join them for dinner.
It is very strange for Saudi people to spend time alone if they don’t have to. I read about this before I came here. We westerners often value our “alone time”, but apparently that is not something our Saudi brothers and sisters share. Pretty lucky for me, since I get plenty of alone time in Tabuk during the school week, and am happy for some company on my adventures.
These ladies were very erudite and cosmopolitan. One had been born and partially raised in the US, and some had spent considerable time in Jeddah before moving to Riyadh. I believe that they all still lived with their families, and were thus still single. The oldest sister had a great job in finance and the others were finishing up their degrees hoping to get similarly good jobs.
They spoke English excellently, and often with their friend, the fourth Saudi to whom they were not related. I got the impression that the reason they resorted to English was not just for my benefit, but because their home dialects of Arabic were different enough that it was sometimes easier to use English to bridge the gap. Which explains why I heard so much English at GCON. The youngest said she’d actually taught herself English from movies and music, amazing! That kind of dedication and motivation is something I wish my own students had more of.
Riyadh is a very global city. It is a huge, bustling metropolis where one can get nearly anything. There’s even a Victoria’s Secret in one of the malls! So even being native Saudis, in the heart of the country’s capital, the ladies felt very far removed from their traditional Saudi culture, so for them, the day was about having a “traditional Saudi experience”. It sort of reminds me of folks from New York going out to Texas to have a “real cowboy experience”.
So after going to the desert and riding “Bedouin style” in the back of a truck, it was time for a traditional Saudi meal.
The Nadj Village is a cute little restaurant that mimics traditional eating styles. The waiting area has a little coffee reception spot and comfortable floor style seating. Beyond that, each group has a private area to dine, a mini-Istraha, some outdoors set up like tents and others indoors with thatched rooves and fireplaces.
As we were having coffee awaiting our room, I asked them if they knew about the American holiday of Thanksgiving. They had, and I told them that the day before (Thursday) had been Thanksgiving, and I had no celebration, so this would be like my Thanksgiving feast. They laughed and said there was unlikely to be any turkey, but that we could order some chicken and pretend.
The menu was full of food I’d never seen or heard of before. Of course there was the obligatory lamb chunks on rice on the menu, but these ladies had very set ideas about what they would eat.
A lot of Middle Eastern recipes involve first boiling then roasting a chicken. I’m usually opposed to the boiling of meat for any purpose, but as it turns out, there is a method to this madness. They use the water as a stock to make the soup or rice that the chicken will be served with, ensuring a blending of flavors and that no flavor is lost.
In Saleek, the chicken is boiled with cardamom. The broth created is then used to cook the rice base of the dish. I say rice, but its more like porridge. You cook the rice till its very mushy, then add milk, ghee and a kind of evergreen tree flavor called mastikah. The chicken is then grilled or roasted to give it a good outer crisp before being served atop the rice mixture. Due to the gloopy nature of the rice, a spoon is used to eat it. Yum.
This is a dish of meat cooked with onions and spices. The spices are mainly sweet, like clove and ginger, with some black pepper as well. The flavor of the meat is enhanced but not covered. This is eaten with pieces of bread. Oh such bread! The normal pita I’d become used to in grocery stores and restaurants here had been replaced with some amazing version that most resembled na’an, that Indian Tandoor bread cooked on the inside of a clay oven. The flavor and texture were amazing. I think we forget in the land of processed bread how wonderful a food it can be all by itself, soaking up the meat juices it was pure heaven!
Jareesh is another type of porridge, but this one is made with whole wheatberry or crushed wheat instead of rice (although the complete dish is served with regular rice). Once again, you start by boiling some meat to get a good stock, in this case lamb. This is a long slow cook to get a tender lamb and a flavorful stock. The wheatberry is then cooked in the stock until soft.
Traditionally, this is hours of stirring, making it a special dish for weddings or celebrations, but it looks like grocery stores here sell a kind of quick-cook jareesh that takes only about 15 minutes. Finally, layer the creamy jareesh, the regular rice and the cooked meat in a single dish, topping it with parsley and/or fried onions. Again, a spoon is permissible to eat with. Serious winter comfort food!
The best description I have from asking around is that this is a “kind of dough with meat & vegetables (zucchini, eggplants, pumpkin, potatoes, etc). This fits my memory fairly well, as I do remember some orangeish dish that I scooped a large slice of eggplant out of and found completely delicious. I’m hoping some of my online contacts come through with a recipe eventually, because I’m not sure what all the other flavors were beyond guessing at the standard Middle Eastern spice blend, favoring a combination of sweet (clove, ginger, cardamom) and hot (black or red pepper).
Sabeeb with honey
Described as “village brown bread topped with honey” these teeny little pancakes were no more than 3 cm across. The flavor reminded me in a way of buckwheat pancakes. The texture was very firm and slightly chewy. Sabeeb can be savory or sweet. My hostesses ordered the sweet version. The honey may have been melted or watered, because the bread wasn’t so much topped with honey as saturated with it. There was some debate over the proper eating method as the west coast ladies attempted to use the spoons, but the Nadj region lady informed us fingers were more appropriate. They’re also good leftover. I had the rest for breakfast the next day. Om nom nom.
I tried looking a recipe up on google, no luck. Fortunately I remember this one pretty well. It was our dessert. In addition to more arabic coffee, my hostesses ordered some warm gisht. This is generous bowl of dates that have been cooked with flour, butter, cream and spices. It should not be confused with a cake or cookie or really any kind of baked good. It isn’t. There’s very little flour in the mix, just enough to get the butter, cream and spices to stick to the dates, really. And although it was served warm, I can attest that cold leftovers are also quite delicious.
I wrote all the names down at the restaurant, but looked them up again for more details here in the blog. I think now that I’ve found some recipies, I might have to try my hand at making a few myself so I don’t have to wait until another serendipidy takes me to a traditional restaurant.
We spend a happy couple of hours chatting and eating. We took lots of pictures, many of which I cannot share because of the modesty culture here, but the rest you can see on my facebook page.
We shared stories, I told them about my experiences in Jeddah. They thought the taxi driver marriage proposal was so funny, they made me repeat it so they could record it. They loved instagram and snapchat. It almost felt like being back in America, everyone constantly looking at and checking their phones.
I showed them some pictures of the Pacific Northwest, camping trips and day hikes I’ve taken around Seattle. “This is your home?” one asked. I told them Seattle was very green with rain almost every day. She looked at me sincerely, concern in her eyes tempered with a wry twinkle, “Are you sure you’re ok here?”.
They showed me pictures of a Saudi engagement party and told me about some of the engagement traditions. They talked about the difficulty of being an adult still stuck living at home, wanting their own lives and freedom but constantly being checked up on and required to answer to parents. It may sound like a teenager’s lament, but bear in mind at least one of these ladies had finished her Master’s and had a good job of her own.
And, like all Saudi hostesses, they told me I didn’t eat enough even when I thought my stomach would explode.
As the evening drifted on, we chatted and drank coffee and nibbled on the remains of our sabeeb and gisht. Finally they called a driver to come pick them up and it was time to part ways.
They’ve invited me to visit them again, if I’m able to go back to Riyadh, to show me more parts of their city. It’s funny, because in America, extensions of friendship to those met briefly on a shared flight or chance public encounter are so often a veneer, a polite nothing. Especially in Seattle, where the Seattle freeze makes it more challenging to meet anyone except through those you already know. (which seems sad and boring to me, but hey).
Here in Saudi, they are quick to extend friendship, and they mean it.
Had I met with a group of beautiful successful ladies in the US, I would have expected to be shunned and avoided because I do not meet their social standards of beauty, wealth or culture. At best, I would expect nothing more than polite but shallow interactions, and to never hear from them again even if we exchanged email or facebook.
But these ladies were genuine in their concern for me, a stranger alone in their country, and I really think that they had as much fun as I did. They did reach out to me in email later, sending along more photos and letting me know they read my blog and hopped to see me again soon, and I plan to make a point of returning to Riyadh at least once more before I leave just to see them again.
The depth and warmth of the people I meet here in Saudi continues to amaze and delight me. This place and these people are so much more than I could have imagined or expected, and I am thankful this Thanksgiving to have spent it here with them.