I’m currently in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia working on a documentary about coral reefs. The Saudi side of Red Sea has one of the longest stretches of reefs in the world, and they’re comparatively pristine and among the best preserved examples of these vanishing habitats. The corals on these reefs are both diverse and isolated geologically, which makes them fascinating to study. And to film. Given the higher temperatures in the region, they could be a good predictor of what species of corals may survive climate change.
But enough science, this post is about food.
Coral reefs are diverse habitats. And they’re beautiful. They attract lots of fish. We can eat many of those fish. And they are delicious.
Our first excellent meal was at a fish restaurant in the town of Thuwal, where we were able to partake of some reef fish. Once a remote backwater ninety kilometers north of cosmopolitan Jeddah, Thuwal benefitted from the construction of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, just to its north on the shores of the Red Sea. Thuwal has a shiny new mosque and harbor, gifts to keep them from being envious of their well-off new neighbors. They also have gained some good restaurants.
KAUST is an audacious experiment. A full-fledged, western-style research university created by king’s decree that it be constructed in a thousand days. It’s a sprawling campus that’s attracted thousands of scientists from around the world despite the fact that it’s barely five years old. Many of these scientists study the sea.
And here’s a tip…if you want to eat fish, hang out with people who study them.
The dinner was a sendoff for a marine researcher named Camille, heading back her hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, where they also understand a thing or two about fish. This makes her a double threat, so naturally she had the honor of selecting the species for our party of twenty or so scientists (plus a pair of fine arts majors). So the first step in the process was to head to the back of the restaurant where the fish are lined up on stainless steel tables. Camille checked their eyes and gills for health and freshness, fish chunky enough that four of them fed the entire table (with plenty to spare for the cats).
We selected parrot fish (a declining species that is no less tasty for becoming more rare) and grouper. Both were served on beds of two-tone rice. The dark rice was flavored with tamarind, a preferred spice of Saudis. We ate the grilled fish with flatbread and a tamarind sauce, plus fresh hummus and baba ganoush perfect for dragging torn bits of the chewy bread through. Plates of fried shrimp and grilled prawns were also passed along the length of the table. They also served french fries, which remained untouched.
We sat outside on rugs on the ground around the low table in the “family” section of the restaurant; all of the women in our group wore long black gowns over their street clothes, though no headscarves or veils were required. The group included Americans, Germans, a Kenyan and a Saudi student named Mohammed who helped us with translation.
Saudi coffee is another experience in deliciousness. They steep it in un-roasted or partially roasted beans, so it has a hint of green bell pepper bitterness on the palate. It’s great with a touch of milk and sugar. It’s main attraction is its otherness, and it works well to kick off the meal.
In the end, the meal, epic in its scale, range and good conversation, cost us 100 SR apiece, or twenty five bucks.
Our next local dining experience came a few days latter at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the Al Balad historic district of Jeddah. We took the evening KAUST bus (free for university guests!) across ninety kilometers of bleak desert, the Red Sea shimmering elusively on the horizon. We headed straight to the old “souq” or market where you can buy everything from head scarves to abayas and knock-off Beats headphones. We hit town just as the evening prayer was beginning so we sat on the steps of a museum to wait it out while restaurants rolled down their shutters and the crowds thinned as people disappeared into the doors of the mosques that seem to inhabit every block, the haunting and gorgeous prayers echoing through the narrow, twisting, medieval streets.
The district’s coral stone buildings loomed over us. The stones seem to be warping, twisting the ancient wooden balconies and window frames with their latticework shutters.
After the prayer, the shops and restaurants opened again. We found a Yemeni cook who was just firing up a wok at a tiny storefront closet of a restaurant fronted by a pair of plastic tables set on the street. Our guide for the evening, an inquisitive German PhD student named Sebastian, asked for shawarma, which was depicted on the inscrutable sign. But evidently they were out, and fortunately so because what we were given instead was more unique and wonderful.
It was a stir-fried blend of ground meat (lamb, beef or both) with onions and an assortment of hot peppers. There was also black pepper and a touch of the ubiquitous tamarind. It was served with slices of red onion and tomato, and instead of the expected rice, we received a stack of baguettes to tear apart for use in shoveling the mixture into our mouths.
The meal set us back a whopping 100 SR ($5 apiece) total for our party of five. We were bolstered for the market, ready to do some haggling over headscarves while Jeddah’s seediest characters gathered around our table scraps: the numerous underfed cats who slink out alleys and calmly watch you eat, too proud to beg. The cats are tolerated if not adored like pets back home in Corvallis, and locals will even leave their leftovers hanging from scales on palm tree bark for the cats to claw open and feast upon.
So far our pair of more authentic dining experiences have been a smash. Food is the great reward of travel. I’ve lamented the absence of wine on the table a few times, but then there’s also something to be said for coffee, tea and even-keeled conversation under the echoes of prayers.
We left our new Yemeni friend for the piles of spices at the souq’s vendors and the interesting aromas wafting through the market encouraged more culinary exploration. We wandered the dark alleys, careful not to film people with our cameras to avoid the ire of the religious police, hard-eyed vigilantes who enforce the strict codes that frown upon making images of people.
But the other people we met were open and friendly, and we felt oddly safe and even comfortable wading into the hot throngs again on our way back to the last bus out of town.