Saudi cuisine with Eman Gazzaz
and her recipe for saleeg

Man in Saudi market

Shazrul Edwan / Shutterstock.com

Saudi Arabia

Eman Gazzaz has one goal in life: to teach people Saudi culture through food. She has built a huge following online by cooking traditional Saudi dishes (often assisted by her children) with her Instagram account boasting over 300,000 followers and her YouTube videos attracting millions of views. A diplomat’s daughter born in Brazil, she lived all over the world before returning to her motherland. Eman is our guide to this mysterious Middle Eastern country, where a litre of oil is cheaper than a litre of potable water.

You were born and raised outside of Saudi Arabia. Did you grow up with Saudi food?
“My mum cooked Saudi food all the time; my parents are a bit old school in that respect. My mum would make international dishes as well, but my dad only likes traditional food; he grew up eating that so we grew up eating that.”

Why did you eventually settle in Saudi Arabia?
“When my father retired as a diplomat and we returned to Saudi Arabia, I felt like I wanted to be an ambassador for my country, too. I was kind of programmed to do that because it wasn’t just my father who was the ambassador – it was a job for the entire family. For me, it was very important to continue on that path. So, the question was: how can I be an ambassador for Saudi Arabia living here, while still being connected to the rest of the world?”

When Eman’s Moroccan friend and YouTube star Alia Al Kasimi visited her in Saudia Arabia, she suggested they collaborate. They recorded a few videos for Al Kasimi’s channel, and these videos are still amongst the most popular on the channel today. A video about sambusa, a Saudi version of samosa or empanada, attracted over three million views.
“I then thought: so this is how I can make Saudi culture known to the rest of the world! I started my own YouTube channel, but it hasn’t always been easy. When I started showing my face on YouTube I got a lot of attacks from people from all over the world. They said I would get sacrificed, that people would cut my head off. To me it didn’t feel like I did anything wrong but back then it was a big no-no for Saudi women to show their face. Saudi Arabia is the Holy Land of Islam, so while people in other countries can make mistakes, we have to be perfect.”

Do you have the feeling that women are less free in Saudi Arabia than in other countries?
“You know, whatever country you go to, there are good and bad things. Saudi Arabia is a conservative country but we, Saudi women, are very happy and can do what we want. It’s not a matter of suppression; it’s a matter of religious rules that we have to follow. I never wanted to talk about politics. My message has always been: look at us. We are educated. Our kitchen looks like yours. Our kids are like your kids. That’s also the reason I involved my kids in my videos; to show that our household is just as chaotic as yours!”

Islam is anchored deep in the Saudi culture, and exerts its influence on the food as well…
“Yes, we try to follow the Prophetic medicine, which recommends that ‘A human being fills no worse vessel than his stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to eat a few mouthfuls to keep his spine straight, but if he must [fill it], then he should fill it with one third food, one third drink and one third air.’

Eman laughs, “the one-third part food is difficult though, we all gain weight!”

Mecca

Islam's holiest site: the Kaaba in Mecca

Saudi Arabia is the 12th largest country in the world, and consequently has a huge variety in cuisines depending on where you go.
“Saudi Arabia shares a border with Yemen in the south, and there’s a very famous Yemenite dish called mandi, which is meat and rice cooked in a pit underground. This technique can be found in this area of Saudi Arabia as well; a lot of slow cooking takes place in rock pots that get buried, only to be dug up again two or three hours later.

“The climate in the north is much colder, and the food is different too as the northern Saudi Arabians have adapted dishes to their needs. Many dishes are relatively heavy, to warm the people up in the winter. An example is the Jordanian dish mansaf. It consists of lamb cooked in a sauce of yoghurt and served with rice.

“Then there’s Hejaz in the west. Hejaz is where Jeddah is, the second largest city of Saudi Arabia (after the capital, Riyadh). More importantly, it’s where Mecca and Medina are - the holiest sites in Islam. For hundreds of years people have come to Hejaz, and that has led to three distinct cuisines. Next to the traditional Hejazi Saudi Arabian cuisine, there’s Javanese-Indonesian food. It got modified a bit, but it has become very famous in this region. The third one is the Uzbek cuisine, that we call Bukhari. Hejaz is truly a melting pot!

“I know very little about the eastern side of Saudi Arabia. Their culture is a bit different from ours; they are mostly Shias, while the majority of Saudis are Sunnis. I do know they produce the most expensive rice in the world: hesawi red rice. This very nutritious rice needs extremely high temperatures to grow and is exceptionally nutritious. Water in this region is sparse, however, so the rice is scarce and expensive.”

Man selling dessert truffles

Stewart Innes / Shutterstock.com

"People go crazy over the desert truffles!"

Eman Gazzaz
Could you highlight some other ingredients or products Saudi Arabia has to offer?
“It goes from potatoes and olives in the cold north to papayas and mangos in the warmer and greener south. The desert regions of the country provide desert truffles, called al-kamah. The flavour isn’t as strong as the black truffles you get in Europe, but people go crazy over them here in Saudi Arabia. They are harvested after the annual rain, around October.”

Many people would associate ghee (a type of clarified butter used in cooking) with Indian cuisine, but it’s hugely popular in Saudi Arabia as well.
“We use two different types. There’s regular ghee made from cow milk, which is light in flavour and mainly used for cooking, but we also use ghee from goat milk. Goat milk has less fat than cow milk, which means you need more of it to make ghee. That makes it more expensive but it’s also used differently. We have a stew of cooked fava beans called ful medames, on which we melt some goat ghee before serving. It’s delicious.”

Saleeg

© Instagram.com/food_by_nour

The Dish

Why did you pick saleeg?
“I chose saleeg because it’s similar to a dish everyone knows and loves: risotto. It’s simple to make, there’s lots of umami from the meat stock that we use to cook the rice in and kids absolutely adore it.

“Traditionally, you would make the stock from the meat of a goat that has just been sacrificed. Even the way we cut the meat for the stock is very specific. We don’t break the bones, but we disconnect the joints. We leave big pieces of meat on the bones and cook the stock with it. The stock is then used to cook the rice. You can also use chicken stock, but goat stock is more traditional.”

Do you eat saleeg on special occasions?
“My mother made saleeg every week but it’s also definitely a dish that we eat at special occasions. With these events, it’s almost exclusively made with goat meat, rather than chicken. You serve it on a big platter so everyone can enjoy it!”

Anything to watch out for?
“The process is similar to that of risotto. Remove from the heat too early and the rice is too hard; remove it too late and it’s too mushy. You add the liquid in batches, so that the rice is cooked while the liquid has mostly evaporated. It shouldn’t become rice soup!

“It’s famously served with pickled lemons. Another classic addition is daqoos, which is like a chutney, but has tomatoes, garlic, coriander, lemon, salt and pepper. We serve daqoos with everything, so it should not be missing when having saleeg! Lastly, a simple tomato-cucumber-onion salad always pairs well. Just make sure to dice the vegetables very finely.”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“Not really, or not traditionally, at least. Rice and meat are very important in Saudi cuisine. You could always substitute the meat with roasted vegetables like pumpkin, aubergine, courgette or potatoes.”

The Ingredients

1 kg
whole chicken, joined
2 tbsp
ghee
3
cardamom pods
200 g
basmati rice
200 g
Egyptian rice
75 g
powdered milk mixed with 300ml/1.25 cups water
2 lb
whole chicken, joined
2 tbsp
ghee
3
cardamom pods
7 oz
basmati rice
7 oz
Egyptian rice
1 mounded cup
powdered milk mixed with 300ml/1.25 cups water

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1.5 hours | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

  1. Add the chicken pieces to a large saucepan.
  2. Add the cardamom pods, whole onion, salt and 2 litres/70floz of boiling water.
  3. Bring to the boil then cook for 30 minutes on medium high heat.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180C/360F.
  5. Transfer the chicken to a frying pan, spread the ghee on top and season with salt and pepper.
  6. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes.
  7. Strain the chicken stock and return to a large saucepan with the rice and 2 litres/70floz of boiling water.
  8. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to prevent rice from sticking to the bottom.
  9. After 30 minutes add the powdered milk or milk and 1 tbsp ghee. Cook for another 10 minutes.
  10. Serve the rice on a flat metal tray with the roasted chicken on top and some more ghee over the chicken.
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