Najdi cuisine: A taste of the Saudi highlands

Miles Lawrence

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Najd, meaning ‘highland’ or ‘plateau', is Saudi Arabia’s central province, a vast desert heartland located between the western mountains of the Hijaz and the flat coastal plain of the Arabian Gulf.

Historically, Najdis were either desert-roaming Bedouin, or lived in small towns in the oases, their isolation reflected in a simple diet of wheat, rice, milk, dates, and a few vegetables.

Nowadays, influenced by trade within the Arabian peninsula, with the Levant, and beyond, and home to the Saudi capital Riyadh, Najd offers an exciting array of tastes often overlooked by international gastronomers.

In Najd you’ll encounter soups, stews, salads and sauces, melt-in-the-mouth meat dishes, and winter warmers like savoury hotpots and sweet sticky-date puddings.

Home cooking is the best way to experience Najdi food. Women usually do the cooking in a Saudi household. But men learn as well and will often cook if they are away with their friends, for example on a camping trip to the desert.

If you cannot get it homemade, your next best option is to try a traditional restaurant. For the full experience you want somewhere with traditional decor - mud-brick buildings topped with ornamental battlements, colourfully-patterned doors and shutters, and miniature carpeted ‘majlis’ seating areas.

In Riyadh, Najd Village is just as popular with locals, as with tourists, which is always a good sign. There are branches on Abu Bakr Rd, Takhassusi St., and a new one in the Bujairi District of Historical Diriyah.

If you want more variety on the menu, go to Al Majlis Al Khaleeji, 'The living room of the Gulf’. Riyadh resident Abu Talal told Al Arabiya News, “they serve food not just from Najd but from all over Saudi, including Hayyil and Asir.”

So you’ve worked up an appetite, and you’re ready to dig in. But not so fast. First, take off your shoes, sit down, cross your legs and drink a few cups of tea or Arabic qahwa (coffee).

Not to be confused with thick black Turkish coffee, this is light in color and consistency, made from short-roasted beans, spiced with cardamom, and poured into round espresso-sized cups from the curved snout of a ‘dalla’, pictured above.

Najdis love to smell fresh - they will often spruce up with a splash of perfume or some smoking bakhoor both before and after a meal.

When it is time to eat, the dishes are spread out on the floor. Your mouth may be watering, but if you are going to do this the proper way, you will need to wash your hands first – you will be eating with your right hand only, a habit the Saudis adhere to for religious reasons.

Although some dishes are considered appetisers and others main courses, everything is usually served at the same time, so you can pick and choose how to eat it.

Mataziz, marquq and gorsan are three classic stews. Meat and vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini (courgettes), carrots, and eggplant (aubergine) are cooked up with round Arabic flatbread, which ends up like a Najdi dumpling.

Good things come to those who wait, and this is especially true here. Traditional Najdi cooking is renowned for requiring long preparation.

Jareesh is a gooey savoury dish similar in consistency to rice pudding. Soaked barley grains, laban (buttermilk), and onions are seasoned with salt and light-coloured spices, then simmered on a low heat for up to three hours, mashed, and eaten with a spoon.

The origin of kabsa, commonly regarded as the Saudi national dish, is disputed, but one woman told me that Najdis know it originated in their homeland.

This is a simple meat-and-rice dish with a full flavor. Chopped onions and tomatoes are gently fried, seasoned with salt and pepper and spiced with a mixture of cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay leaves and nutmeg.

You will add meat or fish - chicken, lamb, beef, camel, or prawns - fry it, add water and let it boil until the meat is soft. Finally the rice is cooked in the same pan so it soaks up all the juices.

This dish can be served on a platter with a variety of other goodies such as boiled eggs, lemons, and dried black loomis (limes) to be squeezed into the rice.

Wash all of this down with a bowl of chilled laban (buttermilk). Take a quick breather, and prepare to pack in the pudding.

Most desserts are flour-based. Najdi pancakes, marasiya, are more like mini crepes than the fluffy American variety, and are usually served doused in honey.

Other sweets combine flour and dates in novel ways: haneeni is like a sticky-toffee pudding. Dates and bread are ground up and mixed with butter, then heated up into a crumbly gooey mess. It’s usually served in winter because it’s warming and gives you energy, but you can eat it all the year round.

By now you should be well and truly stuffed. One local guy told Al Arabiya News that he will usually skip dinner after a big lunch like this.

These dishes are often heavy on the meat and carbs - you tend to stay full for a while. But when your stomach starts rumbling again, you will no doubt be back for another helping of delicious Najdi cuisine.