The Souqs: A Week in Jeddah

I didn’t really want to go into many malls on my trip to Jeddah, but the souqs are the modern descendants of what once were the outdoor markets where farmers and traders would congregate to sell their wares. Its changed a lot since then, but I wanted to see it anyway. Al Balad has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has perhaps the best representation of what the old souq would have looked like, and Al Shati is up in one of the ritzier neighborhoods and is a pretty good representation of the modern souq. Enjoy!

Al Shati

Sadly, I have no pictures at all of this souq. I didn’t arrive until well after sunset on a Friday night, so the place was pretty much packed, and I didn’t want to upset anyone taking pictures with so many people.

This  souq is much more modern than Balad, but also smaller. There weren’t any multi story mall like buildings at all. On the outer fringes of the souq were some larger department stores. The souq itself was a sort of grid and multiple courtyard set up. See the satellite view on the map. There are two main courtyards that have a snack stand in the center, amusement rides for kids placed around the courtyard, and plastic bolted down chairs and tables in between.

It looks all nice and geometrical from the air, but on the ground its really disorienting, particularly since in addition to the air conditioned shops in the buildings, there are a myriad of tiny kiosks, carts and blanket top sellers in between them.

Not much ground to cover, but definitely plenty of shops. Every inch of building is a shop, plus all the ones in open space. I enjoyed going into the fancy abaya shops to see what the high class ladies of Jeddah were into. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous that we can’t wear more styles here in Tabuk, there were some really beautiful abayas there, and most of them weren’t too much more expensive than the ones I own.

I tried to find a new hijab that would be ok to wear in Tabuk but have a little bit of flair, but there just wasn’t anything like that. Everything was either very plain black or very very colorful.

There were also some nice jewelry places, selling gold and silver as well as other types. I’m not really that into jewelry, but I was looking for something nice to bring back to a friend in Tabuk. The silver is actually sold by weight, even when it is set with other stones, which I found interesting. Not a bad price, I guess. I found a delicate silver bracelet set with opals that would have been about 32$ US.

Remembering that Saudis tend to prefer gold, I found a little bracelet with heart charms on it, which she turned out to really like, so I feel like that was a mission accomplished.

I also found a really cheap clothing store where everything seemed to be 20 SAR (about 5$), so I got some clothes there. I got a pretty shimmery  skirt, that fabric that can’t make up its mind what color it is depending on how you look at it, sort of dusty rose and golden bronze. Its a little long, but I can hem it, and it follows my rule of not paying more than 5$ for clothes that need alterations. I got a lightweight black long sleeved open fronted shirt thing, since need stuff to wear over the tank tops at work. However, it tore in the laundry, so that may have been a mistake.

Finally, I found what may be the coolest steam punk skirt I’ve seen outside a cos-play competition. Its not real leather, but that’s ok. It’s also a teeny bit too small, but also way too long, so I’m just going to pull out the zipper and lower the whole waistline. Since I won’t be able to wear it until the winter sets in, or possibly until I get back to America, there’s no rush.

All in all, Shati isn’t pretty or historically significant, but its a fun place to shop that has a lot more character and flavor than a shopping mall.

Al Balad

This was one of my big to-do items since I found out I was coming to Saudi because of the UNESCO thing, so I set aside basically a whole day to to it, even though the souq doesn’t really get going until after 4pm. I got dropped of on the very edge of the neighborhood by a very passive aggressive taxi driver, and followed the stream of people walking toward the tall buildings while trying to puzzle over my gps map as to which direction I needed to go in.

It was just after Asr so still reasonably light. The first things I came across were tall mall like structures, but a little more like the Silk Market in Beijing than the other malls I’d seen in Saudi. Tall buildings stuffed with little stands and shops selling clothes, electronics, jewelry, perfume and shoes. Sadly, unlike the Silk Market, no shops selling artwork.

I drifted around several such buildings until I heard the call to Maghrib and sat down next to a fountain to wait for all the shops to reopen.

Finally, after leaving yet another high rise souq, I spotted some signs that pointed to the historical district. As I left the high rises behind, the area became a little shabbier but with a lot more character. There were a few permanent shade structures build over the main paths and an endless number of side alleys cross connecting the twisting roads. There were permanent shops with air conditioning along the larger paths, and people set up with rolling carts or even just blankets full of goods anywhere they could find a space.

More than anywhere else I’d been, I could see the influence of the Silk Road on the two cultures. The whole area reminded me of nothing so much as the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, the former western capital city of China. It really felt like there was a path connecting the two points nearly a whole continent apart.

img_0167Eventually, after walking in a few circles, I found the historical center. I didn’t take many pictures in the souq because there were so many people, and its really rude to take pictures of people here, but I managed to snap a few of the landmarks.

Continuing on, I found the food area where fresh produce and meat was on display in every window and cart. And eventually wandered in to what seemed to be a home goods area. I’d clearly left the fashion/jewelry/perfume area and found the place where the locals came to get what they needed.

I parked it on a concrete block to wait out the Isha’a prayer closings, then set about to get my own shopping done. I wanted something to make my hijab easier (pins, clips, a different style, whatever), and I wanted my own shisha pipe (hookah). I knew I should be able to find both in Balad.

The first part was pretty simple, since there were tons of little stands selling abaya and hijab stuff. I wasn’t sure what to ask for, though, so I had to go by looking at what was on display. Eventually I found these little head band/do rag like things that are designed to go under the hijab. They cover the upper forehead and keep the bangs from falling. Also, they create a better surface for the hijab itself to drape on than hair which is pretty slippery.

I got two for 5 SAR each and man does it make a huge difference. I don’t think I’ll use them just going to and from school because there’s no point, but when I’m going shopping, especially if I’m walking in lots of wind, its great to know I have an easy way to keep the darn thing from slipping out of place and won’t have to be fighting with it every 5 minutes to hide my hair again.

The shisha pipe was more challenging. I’d tried to find one in Tabuk to no avail, and I’d asked some folks online who lived in Jeddah where to go, but really didn’t get any solid answers (you know, like an actual store name and Saudi version of address) just vague areas of town, or even whole roads with no cross streets. Google was also no help, since as I observed previously, most businesses aren’t registered with them, so don’t show up in searches or on maps.

After almost 4 hours of wandering the Balad neighborhood and various souqs without spotting a single shisha, I finally decided to bite the bullet and ask for directions. Its not that I’m opposed to asking for directions. I love asking for directions, but cultural barriers such as language, gender and people trying to sell me stuff I don’t want made me hesitant to talk to anyone in the souq.

I picked out one of the home wares shopkeepers, figuring his livelihood relied less on tourists than on regulars, and tried my Arabic, amounting to the very complex sentence “where shisha?”. Hard to mess that one up. He seemed surprised (women don’t often smoke in public), and repeated shisha? miming the act of smoking the water pipe. Nam, yes. I replied. He did some pointing and gesturing while describing directions in Arabic I had no hope of understanding, but the gestures were clear, go back up this road and turn left. So I thanked him, figuring that if all else failed, I would ask directions again in a couple blocks.

As it turns out, they were excellent directions. I took the first left and almost immediately ran into a small shisha shop. The men inside were very young, they looked like high schoolers, and I assumed their family must own the shop for them to be working in it. One of them spoke very good English and they were quite pleased to help me out.

The young man made sure that his compatriots didn’t short weigh the shisha tobacco I bought, made sure to take apart and reassemble the pipe so I could see how it worked, and threw in some foil. I don’t know if I should have haggled, or if I could have gotten a better price, but I got the pipe with a nice hard-sided/padded interior carrying case, a half kilo of shisha, a huge box of coconut husk coals, and a box of shisha foil for less than 30 USD, and they were nice, so I’m not going to complain.

My missions all accomplished, sight seeing and shopping, I legged it over to a larger road to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Definitely a place worth wandering around. Pretty sure you can buy anything that’s for sale in the Kingdom here, and its pretty. I didn’t get to see the Museum because it was closed by the time I found it, but it gives me something to look forward to on another trip.

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The Restaurants: A Week in Jeddah

Staying in a hotel means not cooking for yourself for a while, so naturally, I tried a lot of restaurants. The heat and quantity of food did mean that I usually only went into 2 a day, but since I hate fast food, I did get a pretty good culinary cross section. One piece of advice, bring your own water. In Saudi, water isn’t free. In fact, even the cheap water costs more than the gasoline, and restaurants will charge 10-30 SAR for something you can get for 1-2 SAR in the convenience store or from your hotel concierge. I didn’t go walking without a bottle because of the heat, so I often still had some by the time I got into a restaurant and not one of them complained. Plus, then I could use the money I saved to get one of the delicious juice, tea or coffee drinks 🙂

Indian

My first night in Jeddah, I had a long walk along the Corniche just outside my hotel. I didn’t really want to stay out any longer because I was pretty tired and wanted to get up early the next day, so I popped into an Indian restaurant on the way back. I don’t know the name and can’t find it on a map, but its pretty hard to miss if you’re walking between the Hyatt and the Corniche park area.

I got myself a veggie korma and some naan and headed back to the hotel. Important side note, the restaurants here don’t give you plastic eating utensils. They sort of assume that folks are just taking the food home to eat, I guess. So I had to improvise a spoon out of the foil, yay girl scout training! Also, good food.

BBQ

img_20141001_232826On my way back I’d spotted a BBQ restaurant and figured I’d try it another night. I think BBQ might be international code for “meat cooked over fire”. We have an assumption about BBQ in America that involves a sweet yet tart sauce, but this place seemed like it was trying to represent the BBQ of every nation on earth focusing on America, Brazil and the Mediterranean.

I got the lamb chops with mint BBQ sauce and a side of grilled veggies. It was quite excellent. No room for desert, but I finished off the night with a turkish coffee, lightly spiced with cardamom.

Cafe Aroma

This might be my favorite restaurant in Jeddah (close to a tie with the Marina). The restaurant itself is built to mimic an outdoor garden cafe. Its divided by little stone walls, fountains and trellises, and the ceiling is inset and painted to look like a beautiful blue sky. It gives the illusion of sitting in a cool oasis while allowing one to escape the heat and humidity.

The menu is varied, mostly Western style food with a few traditional dishes. There are breakfasts, salads, pizzas, pastas and entrees of meat and fish. I had the Shakshouka on my first visit. Its a poached egg dish with tomatoes and onions. As my culinarily inclined US roomie pointed out, it might be impossible to find an egg and tomato dish that I don’t like. Another meal I had a sort of chicken stir fry and a green mint tea.

IMG_0165I also had some coffee and tiramisu for dessert. The tiramisu was actually served in a portion size that was slightly smaller than my coffee cup, which was refreshing because I’m so tired of American oversized but underflavored desserts. This one was a taste explosion in every bite, although I’m sure they had to use a non-alcoholic beverage to soak the ladyfingers.

The staff are attentive and polite without being obsequious. The food is really good, plentiful and reasonably priced. Its possible to eat healthy there, which is not always easy here in the land of meat and starch. The atmosphere is soothing and you can spend a few hours lingering over a meal either while waiting for the sun to drop low enough to walk the Corniche, or unwinding and cooling down after a night exploring the town.

The Marina

This one is the close runner for favorite. Just a teeny walk south of the Park Hyatt (like half a block) there is a building set back a bit from the road. Apparently they use this for art exhibits and business expos, but if you walk through it, you reach the Marina and Yacht Club. There’s a lovely restaurant there where you can eat indoors or stay on the balcony overlooking the water and the people walking below.

I had two separate people recommend this place to me when they heard my hotel was near the Hyatt, one among the group of South Africans I’d met on my first night on the Corniche, and the other a Palestinian lady I met at the beach. So I decided I should definitely check it out.

img_20140929_211600In addition to the stunning view, there is a fabulous (if expensive) menu and a great shisha menu too. I got myself a veggie pizza and a lemon mint shisha. The food was good, but this wasn’t a surprise. The shisha is really what I want to talk about.

In the US, any time I’ve had a hooka, its been with these pre-packaged, kind of dried out cubes of tobacco. Here the shisha is a goopy sticky mess of molasses, flavor and tobacco– fresh. The shisha was brought out in a large hooka pipe, and the waiter placed a new plastic disposable mouthpiece at the end of the hose and pipe handle. This was pretty cool because it allowed them to use these high quality hookas without having to worry about cross contamination.

The shisha was delicious, and there were a fleet of coal bearing shisha attendants who circled around making sure we all had fresh coals, and blowing the ash out of the dishes to keep the shisha as fresh as possible. After a while I got myself an iced mocha. Most places seem to equate ‘iced’ with ‘blended’ and this was no different, but the quality of the chocolate and the coffee was much higher.

They were having a promo on the shisha to buy one get one free, so I ended up staying until almost 2am watching the people walking on the waterfront below, reading my book, sipping my coffee and smoking shisha. Cost me around 55$ US for the diner, the coffee and the shisha and probably about 4 hours of relaxing evening.

Additionally, I’m told they have a great brunch deal at 11am that includes a full breakfast and a shisha for something like 180 SAR, which is a pretty good deal.

Park Hyatt

Right next to the Marina, and probably much more famous is the Park Hyatt. It seemed like a must do for the trip, so on my last night in Jeddah, I headed over to the Hyatt for diner  and shisha. I compare this to the Marina because they are similarly located and offer similar services.

The food at the Hyatt is downright gourmet awesome. I splurged on the salmon. Now, I’m a good cook, not a chef or anything, but I like my food to taste good, so I learned how. Most of the time a restaurant is just a place that makes food I could make, but don’t want to be bothered to. Every so often, however, there is a meal that makes you remember why it is culinary art. The last one of these for me was that little diner off the Oregon coast on my Thor’s Well camping trip. The Park Hyatt was another.

Starting from the bread. Fresh and made on site if I’m any judge. It wasn’t right out of the oven, but was likely less than an hour old. There was a light dusting of flour from the baking process and a light taste of sourdough that made me believe the dough had been well rested and even slightly fermented before baking. It was hard to resist filling up on the bread alone while waiting for my meal.

IMG_0272I’m picky about salmon. The Red Sea is famous for its seafood, so I decided the chefs here should have a clue. They managed to serve me a slice of salmon filet that was still moist even on the thin edges. The fish was so lightly breaded it was just a thin crust of crumbs and herbs that gave a light contrast to the texture and flavor of the fish without overwhelming it. The potatoes were tiny fingerlings sliced in half and pan fried with rosemary and sundried tomatoes. Accents included a small scoop of caviar and a kind of white cream sauce. I alternated combinations to see how the flavors blended. Not a meal you want to talk or read through, because it might distract some of your attention away from your taste buds.

img_20141004_224831I did not have room for desert, but I stepped out onto the terrace for coffee and shisha. The Park Hyatt has the best view of the King Fahad fountain around. The outdoor seating area is right on the water and includes a small decorative pool, a couch lounging area, and a dining table area. There are outdoor air conditioners to keep the dining area cooler and drier than the surrounding areas. In this respect, it outdoes the Marina with an even more stunning view and a cooler environment that is not dependent on the sea breeze.

However, I think I’d still go back to the Marina if shisha and coffee was my goal. The coffee at the Hyatt was quite nice, but not quite as good, and I think they may be the only place other than Starbucks that actually served coffee over ice instead of blended. However, the shisha menu was much more limited in flavors, only about 1/4 the options as the Marina. Also, when the hooka was brought out they used a disposable hose, rather than just a mouthpiece, which meant that the hose and handle were all plastic. Maybe that’s more hygenic? I’m not entirely sure, but I can say that the feel of the full weight hose and handle are much more appealing than the plastic.

All told, the Hyatt is a great place for a delicious meal with a great view, a decadent indulgence.

Sushi Yoshi

I passed a little sushi place on my way back from the Corniche on my first night and decided I really needed to have Sushi in Jeddah. So, Tuesday afternoon [redacted] and [redacted] came to take me to dinner and we went to Sushi Yoshi. Turns out this is a small chain, so we didn’t go to the one by my hotel, but rather one up on the north end of the Corniche that overlooked the sea. The family section was on the second floor, so we actually had a really great view.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a chain sushi joint in Saudi, even in a coastal city, but it turned out to be quite delicious. I’d say mid-range price, reasonable for the quality and quantity of food. I’m a little spoiled by our conveyor belt sushi in Seattle, but really, 30-35$ per person for a large sushi dinner is pretty good.

Also, I don’t think I could ever get tired of eating dinner on the ocean front. Ever.

La Plage

I’ll talk more about the beach itself in another post, but La Plage beach had a restaurant as well. The prices are about what you’d expect from a nice restaurant, possibly a little on the low side for a private resort, on par with Aroma and less expensive than Hyatt.

img_0135I chose the Oriental (by which they meant Middle Eastern) breakfast and logged into the wifi. A delicious meal of sliced tomatoes, some kind of pickled vegetable, fresh cheese, labneh – this creamy yogurt stuff that’s like a halfway point between cream cheese and sour cream, some beans in a tart sauce, mint leaves, olives and pita. Everything came in separate little dishes so I could mix and match. Who knew mint and tomato were such a great combo? I made a little wrap with the cheese, tomatoes and mint and it was so yum! The rich cream was a nice compliment to the tart beans, and the olives and pickled veggies were little refreshing bites in between. I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view.

Later in the day I came in for some snacks and an iced (blended) coffee. I’m pretty sure they put frozen whipped cream on my coffee. Ridiculously good.

On the weekend, apparently they also have a sushi menu, but it was really expensive, and I’d already had my sushi fix for the week, so I stuck to the regular menu.

I think if I lived in Jeddah I’d have to find a way to learn to sleep after work so I could go out late at night to enjoy the Marina, and I’d never save any money from going to La Plage every weekend. I might also gain 30 lbs even if I did go for a walk on the Corniche every night. *Sigh, but it was nice while it lasted.