Category Archives: food

ostriches in Saudi Arabia

I saw a video today that reminded me of something I spotted in a Carrefour (grocery store) in Riyadh 4 years ago:

Local ostrich?!?! … I never knew that ostriches could be found in Saudi Arabia, but indeed, the now extinct Arabian ostrich used to roam broadly across the Arabian Peninsula.

I’m not aware of ostrich meat being particularly common in Saudi cuisine, but apparently there is a market for it. But perhaps any market for their meat is too much for these plucky animals:

I don’t know about you, but I am rooting for this animal to fly (run) away to freedom!


how to gain 7 pounds in 60 days …

… it’s easy – just move to Riyadh.

Yes, that’s right my friends, you might notice that I will be a bit pudgier around the edges next time you see me. So now that I’ve put it out there, no need for any polite inquiries (“Hmmm, there’s something different about you, Camelgirl … did you change your hair?”).

My weight has pretty much been steady for the past several years. I would say I am just average in height and weight – a standard US size 8-10 (sometimes I fit size 4 – vanity-sizing at its best!) Is that average nowadays? I’m not sure.  Anyway, most people who know me know that I really enjoy good food and meals are one of the highlights of my day. For the most part, I have been able to get away with just exercising maybe 3-4 times/week.

This strategy clearly has not worked for me in Saudi Arabia. Since coming here 2 months ago, my pants have been steadily and definitively getting tighter on me. I am still averaging about 3 workouts per week , but clearly the Saudi lifestyle has had a significant impact (despite sweating it out around the Pregnant Woman’s Walk). I can identify several factors at play here:

1. Eating late. Dinner time averages at around 9:30 pm here. Then it’s bedtime shortly after (hey, I need my 9 hours!), so instead of burning off the calories by being up and about for the rest of the evening, my food is being happily stored away somewhere safe … like around my hips. (See also #3 below.)

2. Dinner preceded by dessert. Although an excellent idea in theory, it does not bode well for the waistline. As you may know, it’s traditional to serve Arabic coffee and dates when you have guests come over. Nowadays, it is also very fashionable to serve chocolates, mini cup-cakes, squares, and other delectable sweets alongside the dates. It’s irresistible.

Of course, following dinner, there’s the usual dessert buffet too.

3. The ubiquitous housemaid. Most households (and I’m talking about just your standard middle-class Saudi family) have at least one housemaid who, as far as I can tell, works all day, 7 days a week. Note that this is a practicality more than a luxury for most, given the size of people’s homes and families, as well as the (im)practicalities of everyday life in Saudi (e.g. the traffic, women can’t drive, shops closing for prayer time 4 times a day …). We have a lovely, cheerful lady from Indonesia working for Camelmum. She is pretty busy, cleaning the house, doing laundry, washing the dishes, preparing meals, mopping the floors, sanitizing the bathrooms, dusting the furniture (amazing how much fine dust accumulates here)  … I have to admit to being a bit spoiled by it. And even when I’m cooking, I can’t deny that it is nice to have someone help with the grunt work that comes with cooking, like chopping up the onions, or washing the pots and pans afterwards. All these little tasks one usually has to do at home definitely add up, and there’s a noticeable effect when you suddenly are relieved of those responsibilities. It’s no joke when people expound housework as an effective workout routine.

4. Car culture. As I’ve discussed before, Riyadh is not exactly a pedestrian-friendly city. People drive everywhere. Bike-to-work week? Walk-to-work week? Nope, won’t hear about those. And there’s no public transportation to speak of, so no stairs to climb in metro stations or sprinting to catch a bus. And on the escalator: stand left, walk right? Not standard practice here. The general sentiment seems to be that escalators are more for riding rather than for facilitating movement.

Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking. I can’t blame things completely on the Saudi lifestyle. There are definitely days that we could have dinner at our usual hour … and I suppose I could do some of the dishes and chop my own onions! Maybe my eyes are bigger than my stomach. And the pre-dinner sweets? I could say no (sometimes). Obviously I need to go to my gym more frequently, but then that would mean organizing with Camelman to drive me, but usually he has to go to work when I can go to the gym, so that means I have to arrange for another driver to take me, and then that means I’d have to make sure that I fit my other errands around the prayer times, and then … well, things get complicated.

dining out in Riyadh

If you haven’t already guessed by some of my previous posts (and certainly those who know me know this well) – I love food and eating out. Dining out in Riyadh is certainly a unique experience:

1. Take Away: The ubiquitous take away places typically serve sandwiches and other quick snacks, like shawarma, ‘subba’ (which literally means ‘cement’ – it’s a wrap sandwich stuffed with falafel and a boiled egg, and sits like cement in your stomach – but it’s oh so good!), hummus, ‘fool’ (mashed beans), and the like. I’ve already hailed Mama Noura, which is a local favorite. Most of these places are not strictly take-away – many actually have some seating for people (i.e. males) to eat, but I have never seen one with a family section. This means that when we get a hankering for some Saudi fast food, I get to sit in the car while camelman goes in to fetch our orders. It’s not much fun for me as I am stuck in the car and miss out on all the hustle and bustle of these places. But the food is definitely worth the wait!

2. ‘Traditional’ Restaurants: By ‘traditional’, I mean that they serve Middle Eastern cuisine (most popular seem to be Saudi, Lebanese, and Turkish restaurants). Of course, there are separate family and bachelor sections. Here’s an example of the spread you can get (and before you get too excited – no, that is not a real beer on the left, just non-alcoholic beer, i.e. wheat and barley juice):

But the unique experience of going to these sorts of restaurants is that when you sit in the family section, you actually get your own room. (Yep, your own private dining room, or at least an enclosed booth, so that you’re protected from the prying eyes of male strangers.) When you need service, there’s a buzzer in the room to call for the waiter. Speaking of service, try ordering a beer. Chances are, it’ll come a bit warm, or at least room temperature. So when you complain that it is not cold enough, they come back with a glass of ice. (Iced barley juice! I know … why do we even bother?) There’s usually no music and you don’t get the usual restaurant background noise of the waiters bustling about and the din from other diners, so there’s not much ambience. As camelman says, you might as well just eat at home.

I haven’t taken many photos of the inside of these sort of restaurants, but here’s a shot of a restaurant we once stopped at when we took a pit stop at a highway gas station.

You can see some of the tables curtained off for the family section. This place was obviously a bit of a dive.

One of our favorite ‘traditional’ restaurants in Riyadh is a Turkish restaurant called Al Saraya (although it’s been iffy lately). But the hilarious thing about this restaurant is the interior decor. It’s filled with stuffed animals – but not the type you had as a kid. Imagine sitting in a family section booth, with a giraffe looking over your table. And imagine eating your dinner with these guys gleefully grinning at you:

3. Trendy, western-style dining. And finally, there are more upscale, western-like restaurants popping up more and more. From my experience, most of these places are more about presenting a trendy facade rather than providing quality food and service. The decor is very fancy and actually looks kind of lounge-y, with dark booths, moody lighting, and sometimes even a bar.

We have a hypothesis that the owners are betting on the fact that one day, alcohol will be allowed in the country and when (if) that happens, they will be very well positioned to open the first nightclubs. In the meantime, these are the venues that tend to be more popular with the twenty-something crowd. There are still the nominal bachelor and family sections, but the family sections have few booths and certainly no private rooms. Most of the tables are set up in the open and we have observed in the past several years that groups and families with young Saudi women are more willing to sit there and even remove their niqabs. Sitting at an open table in a restaurant may seem like no big deal to us, but to me, it represents another sign of change in Saudi society.

camelman: AKA donkeyman

When we’re in Saudi, camelman thinks he’s a donkey. Consider this: since I cannot drive myself or even go out for a walk around the neighbourhood by myself, I am completely dependent on camelman to cart me around. Whatever my whim, camelman is at my beck and call.

courtesy of

When I need to renew my exit-re-entry visa (so I can return to Saudi the next time), who goes to the visa office to line up for hours on my behalf? Camelman. When we tried to get a 1-year multiple re-entry visa (difficult to get, unless you have wasta), who went to the majlis to speak on my behalf? Camelman (but it was all for naught). When I have a craving for Mama Noura shawarma, who goes out to fetch the take-out to satisfy my appetite? Camelman. When I need to get out of the house for some exercise, who takes me out for some air? Camelman. When I have an appointment at the university, who delivers me? You betcha – camelman! All this while he has to juggle his own work schedule and social engagements.

Life of a Saudi guy = donkey work.

How much more efficient Saudi life could be if only they allowed women to drive!

Speaking of donkeys … beware the ‘meat’ option next time you are on a Saudi Airlines flight:

Wednesday night, girls’-night-in

Every Wednesday night, to start off the weekend, my mother-in-law hosts a dinner for the women of the family. It’s like a girls’-night-in, but without the wine and chick flicks. Her daughters and daughters-in-law are the regulars, along with their daughters and pre-teen sons. The men have otherwise gone out (escaped?) for the evening. Everyone gets dressed up (think fancy blouses and floor-length skirts, although hemlines have been slo-owly, slightly rising over the past couple of years) and the party gets going at around 8:30 or 9 pm. To be honest, I have been to, perhaps, only a handful of Saudi homes for such dinner parties, but from my experience, they all follow a typical format.

The evening begins with Arabic coffee (light coffee flavored with cardamom) and a whole assortment of pastry sweets, chocolates, and meaty, fresh dates. Quite delectable. And I love the idea of having dessert before dinner. Dinner is usually served about an hour later, around 10 or 10:30 pm, and it might be something like this:

You definitely will never go hungry if you are a guest in a Saudi’s home! This was the first girls’-night-in party I attended and to show appreciation for the guest of honor (who was me that evening), my mother-in-law had a feast of a whole lamb prepared – see if you can spot the lamb’s head in this photo. It was great (the food, not the head). Growing up in an Asian household, I only knew of plain rice. The rice here is flavored with fragrant spices, including cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon bark, and dried lime (loomi). The lamb meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and soft. Good thing that the sweets were served before dinner because there is definitely no room for dessert after these feasts.

fast food nation

I grew up on stories from the 1001 Arabia Nights – Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I had a very romanticized vision of the Middle East in my mind and I imagined that I would be mingling in crowded souqs full of color from rich textiles, exotic spices, camel caravans, dust kicking up from the ground – you get the picture. So imagine my surprise and dismay the first time I landed in a Middle Eastern country – glittering western-style malls, American chain restaurants and stores, and fast food restaurants galore. Lots of them.

But if you’re going to have fast food in Riyadh, nothing beats shawarma from Mama Noura. This is not your typical North American over-stuffed, thick-as-a thermos shawarma/donair wrap that’s soggy with lettuce and tomatoes. These shawarmas are only about 5 cm in circumference and contain chicken (or lamb) freshly shaved off the meat stack, garlic mayonnaise, hot sauce, a french fry, and maybe a bright pink pickle (not sure what it is, maybe a radish?) wrapped in a warm, soft pita. And, they’re only 4 riyals each (about $1). Mama Noura is actually a Turkish restaurant (not Saudi) but it doesn’t matter – you haven’t had real shawarma until you tried this.