As we ascended into the sky the Saudi Arabian Airlines hostess handed us tiny cups of Arabic coffee and
a date to welcome us on board. I mistook the coffee for tea because of its light color and almost root like flavor, a complex taste I would later learn involved cardamom and saffron. I had been expecting Saudi Arabian coffee to be more like Turkish coffee which I love, dark and murky with grinds, and tasting like a super strong espresso. The Saudi Arabian form of Arabic coffee surprised me with its unique pleasant taste and lightness. This new and unfamiliar taste of coffee signaled to me the very beginning of our trip to the Arabian Peninsula. This ritual of coffee service would be played out repeatedly over the next week of our visit. The scenario also demonstrated perfectly why I always enjoy taking the national airline of my destination. The entrance into another culture begins upon take-off and is drawn out until disembarkment back at home. After checking in for our flight I had noticed I was the only woman in the waiting area not wearing an abaya, so I slipped mine on over my clothes before boarding the plane.
When a Muslim prayer was recited over the loud speaker just after take off, we knew we were not in Kansas anymore. Once we were in Riyadh we noticed many American style coffee shops, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. Clearly the Saudis liked coffee, but the etiquette of Arabic coffee being served as a welcome gesture became clear as it was offered at each new venue as we arrived. The tiny cups of light coffee, which were generously refilled, were always offered accompanied by dates.
The KSA is the second largest producer of dates in the world , and in areas of Riyadh the streets are lined with date palms, so it is no mystery why the fruit is so ubiquitous in their food culture. One of the treasures I found in the Souk for us to bring back as a memory from SA is a beautiful traditional Saudi Arabian coffee pot complete with the crossed sword and palm of the Saudi emblem on it.
I am a coffee girl, so when we weren’t being served the Arabic coffee, my husband and I went to the Starbucks near our hotel. Men may enter in the front entrance, but as a woman, and a couple we entered in the side “family entrance”. This led us to an entirely separate mini Starbucks for women and their families. A man is only allowed in the family section if he is with a woman, he is not allowed to go in alone. Despite our hotels proximity to Starbucks, and my coffee habit, during our trip I much preferred the ceremony of the Arabic coffee. I was aware that it was a taste I would only be able to experience easily while we were there, and deeply appreciated the craft and the sentiment with which it was always prepared and served.