To walk through the landscape of Saudi Arabia is to walk through tangible history. These desert plains, rocky outcrops, lush oases, and glittering cities hold the oldest memories of human civilization. They are held in the land, of course, but also in the voices and faces of the people, the towering buildings of glass and metal, and, most importantly, in the smells, tastes, sights, and textures of the food, like hummus and falafel.
When the first people came to these lands, the Ancient world was still blooming; the Babylonian kings held court, and the sun shone on a landscape vastly different from the modern, technological cities of today. Over many years, hundreds of cultures have called this land – the Land of the Two Holy Mosques – home, and all those lives and experiences have been distilled into a tangible taste.
The History and Culture of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has a history that stretches thousands of years and has been in the hands of Afghanistan, Egypt, and Turkey. Before this land took the form that we now know, however, there were nomadic peoples wandering through a green and lush landscape in the middle Paleolithic age some 300,000 to 500,000 years ago.
By the time the Umayyad and Abbasid periods came to pass, the land had changed and would continue to change through Byzantine and Ottoman rule. Each culture and kingdom left a mark upon the land and the cultural memory of the people who came after.
Walk through the streets of a major city such as Jeddah and you will see and smell the traces of each of these cultures as you go. As the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, this region is a place of great significance for Islam; this too is reflected in the face and sensory experience of being in the country.
Because of this history, it has traditionally been a family-oriented culture that places emphasis on integrity, personal duty, and hospitality.
You will find people from every walk of life, every culture, every background in the cities of Saudi Arabia, and this is part of the living history that connects us to that distant past. As the world changes, we walk the line between tradition and modernity, retaining the unique essence of our ancestors while striving to be on the cutting edge of the modern world.
While much of the culture of Saudi Arabia resulted from the tenets of Islam, and this remains to an extent, the modern culture is changing rapidly. Food is an important part of culture; it represents the social and familial experiences that center around communal meals and food preparation.
Walk into any Saudi restaurant or family home and you will see people sharing the unique and joyful experience of food together, nurturing their hearts, bodies, and minds as they do so. This is why the joy of food, the nutritional value, and the overwhelming benefit of shared experiences form such an integral part of ‘Vision 2030’.
Saudi Arabia has recently announced its ‘Vision 2030’ plan, which details a number of ambitious projects (including being carbon net zero by 2030). The three overarching objectives of this plan are “Ambitious Nation,” “Thriving Economy,” and “Vibrant Society.” Each has its own objectives and ethos, but it is undoubtedly the third which will have the most impact on Saudi and Al-Hijazi culture.
The goal of this objective is to strengthen national identity and Islamic views, while offering a fulfilling and healthy life to the citizens of the country. By encouraging involvement in sporting activities, entertainment, and the arts, all while promoting healthy food options, this objective will have the most impact on the hospitality sector and the food culture in Hijaz.
The Food of Saudi Arabia – Hummus and Falafel
The cultural and traditional foods of Hijaz and Saudi Arabia are fragrant, invigorating, and heavily inspired by Turkish, African, Iranian, and Indian cuisine. In this cuisine, you will find ingredients such as chickpeas, dates, chicken, yogurt, and an array of spices and herbs. Meals here are meant to be shared with loved ones and are often designed to be shared and fully experienced. Each ingredient has a life of its own and will transport those ready to welcome that experience to another place and time with ease.
Two particular food staples stand out in Hijazi and Saudi Arabian culture, however, and those are hummus and falafels. These foods have traveled across the world and been modified to suit the tastes of many cultures.
The History of Hummus
Hummus is an underappreciated powerhouse that feeds the body, entices the taste buds, and distills history into simple beauty.
The word ‘hummus’ comes from the Arabic word for chickpea, and while this dish is popular across the Middle East and the Mediterranean, it was first mentioned in the 13th century when it was made in Egypt, specifically in Cairo. Many cultures have tried to claim hummus for their own, from the Turkish to the Syrians, and some class it as a culturally Jewish food.
Whatever the origination of hummus, there is no doubt that it is a staple in Saudi Arabia (and across the nation). One of the best qualities of hummus is its versatility; wherever it is made, you will find slight tweaks to the flavor that reflect the culture and history of that area.
In Saudi Arabia, hummus is mostly velvety and creamy, infused with garlic, onion, lemon, cumin, and tahini. Depending on who makes it, you may also find olives, red peppers, or other ingredients to add new flavors.
Traditionally hummus has been served warm with bread, olive oil, tomatoes or onions, or even cucumber salad. To reach across the table and break bread with a friend or share fresh vegetables with the family – this is a moment of pure and unfettered connection, with the joy that comes with it.
Today you may also find it served with fresh vegetables, potatoes, or some falafel (which is another staple dish in Saudi Arabia).
The History of Falafel
Like hummus, falafel is a dish with debate around its origin. Like hummus, it is also believed to date back as much as 1,000 years ago in Egypt, but there are some contrasting viewpoints. Unlike hummus, falafel is often served hot; this is a tasty, mouthwatering treat that can sate the biggest appetite.
Some claim that it was first invented in the glorious surroundings of Alexandria in the 19th century, while others claim that this delectable dish comes from Iraq, and many others say that it is a historically Jewish dish.
Wherever falafels originate from precisely, these are a staple across many countries and can be found served in many ways. Though traditionally served with hummus or tahini sauce and vegetables, it has now become a staple meat alternative in burgers, wraps, and many other dishes.
Generally, falafel is made with chickpeas, but there are also some versions made with fava beans. Small changes in preparation and ingredients can lead to wholly different textures and flavors, making this staple dish versatile and enchanting at every turn.
Honoring the Past, Innovating in the Now
Like the history of Hijaz and Saudi Arabia, the history of falafel and hummus is rich, complex, and woven with many cultures. As a locally owned concept store and café in Jeddah, HyTable always seeks to honor the complex history and culture of the region while promoting good, healthy food.
We want to bring the rich culture of this region to life with every bite; food is living history, and its development shows the progress of the world. In fact, we believe that food is a source of life and joy, which is why we are launching a Hijazi-inspired line of foods and drinks, such as hummus and falafel. Take a walk with us through the culture and history of Saudi Arabia – experience the colors, tastes, and scents that helped to form this unique culture, and you are certain to fall in love.