Saadeddin: Saudi Pastries

You can travel halfway round the world to a country that doesn’t even issue tourist visas to Americans, but it’s hard to hide from American cultural institutions. McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King are not hard to find. And for the sweeter side of things, Baskin Robbins seems to be the dessert import chain of choice.

That’s why Saadeddin was a refreshing change. It’s a Saudi chain that’s found throughout the Gulf states, and while it’s as antiseptic and polished as any franchise, it certainly has a sense of otherness about it. We had one only a few blocks away from our student apartment at KAUST, where we stayed for a couple of weeks while shooting for a documentary about coral reefs. And it quickly became a late night sugar fix destination, being open until 11 p.m.

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Saadeddin’s kneffa, which is a cheese/cream filled dessert we sampled all throughout the trip, featured a sweeter, less savory filling that was closer to a thick whipped cream than the other variations of this dish that we had elsewhere. It was topped with jam and the crust reminded me of an entire layer of Mini-Wheats. Other favorite pastries at the shop included the sugary pistachio trays and also pine fingers and baclawa, which had flaky crusts wrapping a nut/sugar filling.

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They also offered desserts you’d more commonly find in the west, including stacks of neatly wrapped chocolates, pudding and pies. But the most interesting items were those that are most unlike what I can find at home. Little nests of wheat threads curled around cashews and peanuts in a sticky sugar paste were also suitably decadent. I asked for a mixed plate of pastries, and it looked like dessert sushi with its precision and visual appeal, and I expect that the next time I’m in need of a late night sugar fix, I’ll regret the fact that this shop is half a world away.

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When you think of Saudi Arabia, political intrigue, oil, geopolitics and conservative religious laws probably come to mind first. Pastries probably don’t even make the list. But wouldn’t the world be a sweeter place if they did?

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