Saudi Arabia’s food is a reflection of the country’s history and its people’s customs, religion and way of life. For centuries, Arabs of the Peninsula have traded with—and beyond—India, Africa, and Central Asia. This trade has brought Arabia not only wealth but also cultural, especially culinary influences. In urban centres, the simple Bedouin diet of dates and milk gave way to dishes made with a steadily growing repertory of ingredients, including spices, and soon a flavoursome and varied Saudi cuisine emerged. Perhaps nowhere in the Peninsula is the cuisine more varied, rich and cosmopolitan than in the western province of Hejaz in Saudi Arabia. From the earliest times, caravans laden with spices and other goods propelled the growth of the region. In modern times, with increasing mobility within Saudi Arabia, the influence of the cuisine of Hejaz has reached not only all regions of the kingdom, but all over the world.
Interestingly, India is one country where the influence of Arab cuisine is prominently observed. If you travel the Arab world today, much of the food as well as the larger culture of eating will not seem utterly new to an Indian. The shared heritage between Saudi Arabia and India means that there are familiar elements everywhere –the Saudi kefta may be less spiced than our kofta, their sambusak is made of finer layers of coating as compared to our crunchy ‘samosa’. But, one can quite clearly trace their common origins.
What is also instantly recognisable is the Saudi legacy of hospitality and generosity. The Arabic food culture stands out when it comes to a lavish table and the sharing of food with guests. In India too, the idea of shared eating, and serving guests is a significant part of our culture. The Arab way of eating sees a lot of familiarity with the Indian traditional way of consuming a meal. Even today, in some restaurants in Saudi Arabia, platters are served in two distinct ways: either on dining tables or in traditional Arabian-style where guests sit on a carpeted floor in private nooks lined with pillows. The servers bring each party a large platter to share and eat by hand. Sitting on the floor and eating also happens to be a traditional Indian way of dining.
In contemporary times, the popularity and love for Arabian cuisine is slowly on the rise in India, with famous dishes like shawarma and pita fillers, being served in various street corners and restaurants across cities of India. Indians from all walks of life savour the delights of Arab cuisine.
In the northern districts of Kerala, the menu still carries legacies of the merchant traders from Saudi Arabia who visited the region centuries ago. As lakhs of faithful break their Ramadan fast with iftaar meals across the country, there’s one region where the menu is strikingly unique. The Malabar cuisine of the northern districts of Kerala is resplendent with Arab influence carried across time. Since 7th century, Arab traders visited the southern coast of Malabar to trade their goods but also ended up sharing their culture. Drawing from the heavy Arab influences, Mappila food is the best sort of amalgamation of local and borrowed food traditions.
The Arab influence is most apparent in Mappila food in terms of certain techniques used in the preparation of the meals. For example, ghee features widely in Mappila food, although the rest of the communities in the region rely heavily on coconut oil. The Arab Bedouins are also known to use ghee made from the cattle that they rear.
In the modern era, the cultural similarity between foods of the two countries has been celebrated at food festivals as well. To celebrate the diversity and richness of Indian and Saudi Arabian food, a two-day festival was inaugurated in Jeddah in 2016. The event showcased the variety, taste and flavour of the cuisines. What was witnessed was a variety of fare that had its own style of cooking, range of flavours and unique taste.
The similarities between the ancient cuisines of Saudi Arabia and India is a reflection of the cultural bonhomie shared by both the countries that is only growing stronger by the day.