Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mmmm Good! The Flavors of Arabia

Admittedly, I am not a great cook. My husband, on the other hand, is a fantastic cook and has done most of our family’s cooking over the years. He enjoys it tremendously, and unlike me, can whip up a gourmet meal in minutes, without once looking at a recipe. He has a natural gift for cooking. However, the subject of cooking is one that I get the feeling I would rather avoid here in the Kingdom because cooking is definitely considered a woman’s job here. I can tell by the sideways glances and stunned looks I get when I say that my husband does most of the cooking in our house that maybe I should keep this little bit of information to myself around here. I have always said that I would enjoy cooking so much more if there was no heat involved! My body runs hot to start with (I have extra natural insulation!), and in a hot kitchen, I am just not comfortable. I do roast our Thanksgiving turkey, make good mashed potatoes and a mean lasagna, and am also pretty good at cookies and desserts. But most things where I have to stand over a hot stove, forget it! I will play the role of dishwasher and assistant chef to my husband in the kitchen the rest of the time.

We can make or get most American foods here. For breakfast we can have typical American fare of eggs (but no bacon or sausage - pork is forbidden here, for ancient religious reasons), coffee, fruit juices, French toast (Adam's favorite), pancakes, or cereal with fruit. But traditionally, breakfast for the Arabs here is much different. My favorite choice is the "Foul" (pronounced fool) which is a deliciously flavored fava bean dish. It's a vegetarian dish that is so flavorful, it tastes like it has meat in it. It can be made with onion, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and salsa type ingredients. Many mornings after Adnan and I drop Adam off at school, we will often stop by one of the many little shops where you can buy foul, along with fresh local hot-from-the-oven tasty breads called "Tameez." For about $1 US, we get enough foul and tameez to easily feed four people breakfast. I wait in the car while Adnan walks up to get it. Usually there are at least a dozen other men customers, dressed in their traditional garb, to get their breakfasts too. The tameez is large and flat, like pizza, and varies in its appearance and flavors (seeds, spices) depending on where the guy who makes it is from, like maybe Yemen or Afganistan. You tear little pieces off and dip it in the foul. It is delicious and very filling!

Another of Adnan's favorite breakfasts consists of feta cheese with olive oil and olives, eaten with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and pita bread. I always eat something else when he has this for breakfast since I am not a big fan of olives. Lunch can be a turkey sandwich or a chicken salad, or leftovers. A favorite Middle Eastern lunch or dinner is “Shawarma,” a rolled up pita sandwich with shaved meat (usually lamb or chicken), lettuce, tomatoe, cucumber, maybe pickle, and tahini sauce. Here in Arabia, they throw a few french fries in the sandwich before rolling it up. If you have ever had a gyro sandwich, you could look at shawarma as its Middle Eastern version.

Another favorite Middle Eastern lunch or dinner item is another sandwich, called “Falafel.” Think of falafel as the vegetarian version of shawarma. Instead of shaved meat, the main ingredient is a fried ball or patty made up of ground fava beans, chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, and spices. The mixture is formed into balls about the size of a hockey puck and deep fried until it forms a golden brown crust. The inside remains green (from the parsley). Adnan likes to halve a pita bread, insert 2-3 smooshed falafels, and adds tomatoe, cucumber, lettuce, and the tahini sauce. The idea is similar to the veggie burger or the Boca burger, but falafel has been around for centuries.

Rice is a staple of the Middle Eastern diet. It is often flavored with a variety of spices or meat drippings, and usually served with chicken, lamb, or fish. Adnan’s mom experiments quite a bit with many local vegetables and other plants that I have never heard of before, as well as parts of animals that I have never eaten before. Most of it I will at least try and many times I am pleasantly surprised that I actually like it. She also likes to fry a lot of food, while over the years, Adnan has gotten away from frying.

One of my very favorite foods here is a fried eggplant dish. The eggplant is cut into slices about ¾" thick and cooked in a frying pan in some oil. The eggplant is served under a spicy ground beef mixture which is then topped with a minty yogurt sauce. The combination of these textures and flavors, to me, is unbelievably delicious.

Here is a list of some more well known Middle Eastern dishes:

Shish Kabab - very popular here, marinated beef, chicken, or lamb being the preferred meats of choice, on the skewer with onion, peppers, tomato, etc. Served in a pita or with rice.

Hummus – a luscious dip made of crushed chick peas (garbanzo beans), lemon juice, garlic, and tahini (crushed sesame seed paste). Served with pita bread, it's tasty, healthy and easy - it can be made in a blender. Another similar dish is called Baba Ghanoush, which is made the same way as hummus, except with eggplant instead of the chick peas.

Stuffed Grape Leaves – Rolled into little cigar shaped cylinders, these can be stuffed with just rice, or a rice and spiced ground beef mixture. Some people don’t like the grape leaves themselves, which often require an acquired taste.

Tabouleh – A deliciously textured and colorful finely chopped salad having as its main ingredients parsley, onion, tomato, lemon, mint, and its most distinctive ingredient: bulgur. It’s great on its own, or stuffed into pita along with falafel or hummus.

Kapsa – A flavored rice and chicken (or lamb) casserole type dish.

Sambusek – Triangular shaped spiced ground beef pie wrapped in eggroll type dough. These are a specialty of my husband's - they are incredible!

The food here is fantastic. It’s very tasty. The fact that my husband does most of the cooking and is such a great cook makes it even better!


  1. Mmmmm....getting hungry reading.
    Some of the food listed remind me a things they eat in India and even Greece.
    I'm not a fan of olives either, but you can always pick them out for breakfast.

  2. Susie, the food sounds good. I sure wish I had a husband that had cooked for me. Rai's cooking consisted of fixing breakfast on the weekend, which I enjoyed greatly, except I always was stuck with the cleaning up, which was usually quite extensive :) Doing without Bacon would be hard, but I guess I could get used to it. I hope you have a good teacher (Adnan) helping you fix all those new dishes :)
    Love reading your blog, see hi to Adam and Adnan and the rest of the family.
    Love, Sabine

  3. HI Susie -

    Great story on the food - sounds absolutely yummy!!!! I am floored to read your 9/11 experience. What a terrible trauma to have to go through!! I am sure you were scared to death. I am so sorry for your pain. It always amazes me when I hear stories of just ordinary, good people who were in the middle of that mess without even a clue of what was happening. I read the story of a little old lady who had become friends with one of the guys who was also in flight school and it broke my heart. She was petrified to even leave her home. Thank God you are fine and have been able to move on.

    Anyway - Love your stories - keep them coming and God Bless You!

    Love ya

  4. Dear Susie:

    I haven't acknowledged each of your e-mails and blogs, but am enjoying them immensely. I think I liked your last one on food the best so far. You really write well. I hope you can keep it up and do not run out of steam.

    I am agreeably surprised, delighted, and frankly, relieved that you seem so happy and engaged with your new environment and have shown no disillusionment with your new life and lifestyle. I'm sure you can understand my initial skepticism, but I am so glad for you that I was totally wrong. Just chalk it up to my old fashioned way of thinking.
    Love - Felix

  5. Well after reading this I definitely have to go make lunch!!
    I can almost taste the food you describe--yum yum.

  6. I like your blog very much!
    All these great descriptions of food make me very hungry! A lot of what you mention is very popular in the Netherlands!
    And in London too: our favorite lunch while going to Camden Market was the falafel! I never realised it was arabic.
    I now really have to get some lunch: I'm só hungry!! Unfortunately it won't be as good as the food you mentioned in this post :(

  7. Ok - the food chapter is one of my favorites - I am now hungry. Those are all favorites of mine. I eat a lot of middle eastern food here - mediterranean, turkish, saudi - but haven't heard of sambusek - it sounds good and since it is a specialty of Adnan's, he will have to make me some someday - I do hope you will come to visit some time. You are lucky to have a husband that cooks. & I know he is a good one.
    Favor for me??? - Can you post a picture of Adnan smiling??? I remember him with a beautiful smile that makes his eyes twinkle. - Or attach one to me??? Also, ??? - how hard is it for people to visit you there - such as from here??/
    Enjoying all your blogs - you are such a good writer and a brave woman. Take care. Pam

  8. Hi Susie - Your descriptions in your Blogs are so colorful, I think you should wright a book and name it "Susie's Arabian Adventures". You'll make a mint. Now is the time, apparently you have plenty of that at hand. I say go for it.

  9. This made me hungry! Except for the lamb and beef stuff – yummo! (and count me in on the olives).
    We have a little restaurant near the University called Sinbad’s where I’ve eaten several of these delicacies. I remember one time having the most delicious grape leaves made by Adnan too. He is a wonderful chef, and given that, being a sous chef is not a bad plan. I was looking forward to this episode of Arabian living – thanks for sharing. And, pass the pita and hummus.

  10. Susie,

    Your blog is outstanding! I just read all your posts from start to finish. You have truly captured the essence of your feelings, emotions and experiences with your words and shared these so well with everyone. It is a great pleasure to pop in and see what you have written next!

    I also want to applaud your candidness and willingness to share your personal photos as well.

    All the best,
    Carol (American Bedu)

  11. Ok, you're making me hungry & I just ate!

    I love tabouli & grape leaves... a couple of my favs (although kibbe naye is above those, but I don't know if yall would have that there.) Have you ever had cabbage leaves though? They're made very similar to the grape leaves and very very good!

  12. Love all the photos you have added to your posts... I'm sure there weren't as many photos before and they have been recently added... The photos on this post in particular are really making me drool! I love felafel sandwiches here in Saudi, so cheap and SO nutritious!

  13. Thanks for everyone's comments and all the positive "feed"back! You know the old saying, the way to someone's heart is through their stomach...

    Pam - You got your wish granted. There is now a Smiling Adnan photo on the blog - other people had asked for that too!

    Kalila - My hubby stuffs many vegetables, including cabbage. He is an amazing cook!

    Umm Ibrahim - Thanks for noticing the photos - I finally took the time to see how to do it and it was so easy and fast! They do jazz it up a bit, don't they?

    Carol - Thanks for your nice comments - I am in awe of your blog, so I am humbled.

    Toula & Carol

  14. Reading your archives while you vacation in the US. You are making me darn hungry!!

  15. One of my closest friends is Saudi, and he has taken me to a Lebanese restaurant and I have tried these dishes before. The names just never stick and I can never find the word to describe it all as well as you do :P