DUBAI: The national cuisines of a few countries can boast the variety of influences found in Saudi dishes, thanks to the remarkable assortment of flavors and ingredients introduced to the Kingdom over the centuries by pilgrims, merchants and travellers.
The variety of traditional dishes that can be found across the country reflects these diverse cultural influences – from India, North and East Africa, South and Central Asia and the Levant – who have enriched and seasoned the traditions of the Kingdom.
Today, Saudi chefs and the hospitality industry are once again using food to help build bridges between nations and cultures. One organization embracing this art of ‘culinary diplomacy’ is The Red Sea Development Company, which runs the new tourism megaproject taking shape along the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast.
In line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030, the national strategy for economic diversification, TRSDC works to stimulate new industries, create jobs, encourage entrepreneurship and stimulate growth in the tourism, leisure and of the hotel industry.
“At the moment, our focus is to bring young Saudis into the hospitality industry,” Lars Eltvik, the company’s senior education advisor, told Arab News.
“This is a new industry for the Kingdom and there was previously a very limited supply of hospitality and culinary education in the country. This is no different from what was happening in Dubai 20 years ago.
The Red Sea Project is a plan for a sustainable tourist resort covering approximately 28,000 square kilometers along the western coast of Saudi Arabia, including more than 90 unspoiled islands. The 50 hotels and 1,300 residential properties to be built there will be served by some of the best restaurants in the Kingdom, according to Eltvik.
“We want to be able to attract, document and develop food from all regions of Saudi Arabia so that it can then be showcased in luxury hotels across the Red Sea Project,” said- he declared.
Eltvik has been in the hospitality and hospitality education industry for three decades. Between 2001 and 2009 he was based in Dubai, where he worked at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management.
He hopes that the success the sector has enjoyed in the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates can be replicated in Saudi Arabia on a shorter time scale and in a way that is more faithful to the country’s cultural sensibilities.
“In Saudi Arabia, everything is in the fast lane now,” Eltvik said. “We are working to achieve the same (as we did in Dubai), and more, but in a very short time. At TRSDC, we seek to onboard tens of thousands of employees, with a strong focus on hospitality and, in the hospitality industry, a focus on the culinary arts.
The company is working to promote the hospitality industry as a desirable career option for young Saudis, he said, in line with the government’s Saudiization campaign. To this end, education authorities in the Kingdom have implemented a number of programs in which TRSDC will sponsor interns who will eventually fulfill critical roles in the sector, he added.
“We are focused on the authenticity of enhancing tourism and hospitality through food in the Kingdom, and by projecting and educating young Saudis to proudly present their history and past through experience culinary,” Eltvik said.
There is consensus that simply replicating the type of restaurants and cuisines found in cities around the world will not help transform Saudi Arabia into the distinctive culinary destination envisioned. Emphasizing the promotion of the culinary arts and typical Saudi flavors is therefore clearly a priority.
While many traditional local dishes are common across the country – such as kabsa, which is made with rice, meat, vegetables and spices, and hares, an Arab favorite made from ground wheat, meat and spices – flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques can vary greatly from region to region.
The Red Sea port city of Jeddah has long drawn travelers from both the region and the world, resulting in dishes filled with Persian, Levantine, Turkish, Maghrebi, and Central and South Asian influences.
In Hijaz, for example, the influences of popular dishes such as rice bukhari, manto (dumplings stuffed with beef and onion), shish barak (dumplings of meat cooked in a yogurt-based stew) and rice kabli can be traced back to central and eastern Asia, while the origins of vegetable-based stews that are popular in the region can be found in North Africa and the Levant.
Meanwhile, on the central Najd plateau, the local cuisine includes heavier dishes such as soups, stews and sauces that are better suited to the region’s cooler climate.
In March, the TRSDC appointed Lawrence Assadourian its Culinary Director with a mandate to work with Saudi chefs to create unique food options for regional and international visitors, while promoting local favorites.
“One of our missions is community development,” he told Arab News. “How are we, as a group, going to make the Red Sea feel like they belong? (That) it’s not just a replica of an experience of another destination in the world?
“And one of the ways we are looking to do that is to create the necessary programs that will incubate and accelerate Saudi-based chefs. by local populations, in addition to foreign talent.
Sustainability is at the heart of what TRSDC hopes to achieve as the Kingdom’s nascent tourism, leisure and hospitality industries strive to create offerings that are sensitive to local customs and environmentally compliant.
“We are a regenerative tourist destination,” Assadourian said. “We care deeply about the environment and the integration of the communities in which we build our projects.
“We need to make sure we strike a solid balance between the international cuisine experienced in our destination and how we infuse Saudi Arabia’s culinary and cultural heritage into the entire guest experience journey.”
To achieve this, TRSDC partners with institutions across the Kingdom that were founded to preserve and promote Saudi cuisine.
Among those who welcome TRSDC’s mission to serve the culinary traditions of the Kingdom to the world is Moe Inani, executive chef and co-owner of Chifty, an elegant restaurant and cosmopolitan lounge in Riyadh.
Although he is an engineer by training, Inani said his first love was cooking, a skill he learned early on helping his mother prepare meals at the family home in Jeddah, his hometown.
After completing his studies in the United States, Inani became a sous chef at Saison, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco where he learned how to prepare sushi, then at the high-end restaurants Nobu and Morimoto.
With his background in Japanese cuisine, Inani has created new twists on more conventional local catches of Red Sea fish, and Arab News has learned that talks are underway for him to collaborate with TRSDC.
“Food has always united us,” Rania Moualla, a Saudi philanthropist and founder and president of ZADK, a nonprofit culinary academy in Al-Khobar in the Eastern Province, told Arab News.
The academy was founded in 2018, three years after Moualla published her cookbook, ‘A Spoonful of Home’. Its mission to nurture Saudi Arabia’s rich culinary heritage by empowering local chefs is similar to that of TRSDC, with which it has formed a partnership.
“I created ZADK because I saw that in Saudi Arabia we lacked an academy to experience our cultural cuisine,” Moualla said. “Most of our restaurants are in the hands of expatriates. I started ZADK because I wanted to do something sustainable and with a bigger impact for the community. »
She said the academy is looking for ways to grow its partnership with TRSDC in helping train the next generation of Saudi leaders.
“I can’t wait for their students to study at our academy,” Moualla said.
In doing so, ZADK, which also has a separate partnership agreement with Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland, aims to promote the Saudi food scene and ensure it meets international standards.
“Our mission is to develop the best culinary school in Saudi Arabia, make it a platform for social change and teach our cuisine in a way that enables students to learn about international cuisines as well as Saudi cuisines” , Moualla said.
“Our goal is to allow our students to travel the world with Saudi cuisine and heritage.”
It is precisely this type of culinary diplomacy that TRSDC aims to offer visitors to Saudi Arabia to savor and enjoy by 2030, when the Red Sea Project is due to be completed.