Eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Unlike other businesses which kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants will let diners hang around and eat behind closed doors through the prayer period. New customers are generally not allowed to enter until after prayer is over.
Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and not a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere (e.g. Hardee’s, 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, Mecca, Medina and Taif but not Riyadh
- Baak – Pizza (thin crust and quite good), fried chicken, lasagna, sandwiches
- Kudu. Saudi sandwich chain, founded in 1988.
- Herfy Burger. Biggest fast food chain in the country, 100% Saudi-owned.
- House of Donuts – “The Finest American Pastries” – a chain started by Saudi students who studied in America
Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia’s large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SR10. Just don’t expect frills like air-conditioning.
The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 3-4 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 difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. 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.
With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated people of the opposite sex all banned, it’s fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.
Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but water pipes (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are strictly a male domain. In a government effort to minimize smoking in major cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, establishments that offer shisha are either banished to the outskirts of towns, or offer exclusive outdoor seating arrangements.
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. These usually welcome women, although 2008 saw several arrests of unmarried couples “mingling”.
As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, try mirra, made in the Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it’s strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na’ana).
Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, 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 days or weeks jail, public flogging, and 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.
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, i.e. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences.