Saudi Arabia: Learning to Cook in Saudi

I love to cook and have always enjoyed experimenting with new recipes.  Little did I know when I came to Saudi Arabia I’d be learning new recipes while experimenting with a traditional stove!  I say traditional stove because the stove in our villa in Saudi was unlike any I had seen before.  It was big – which I loved!  It was gas – which I loved!  But when it came to baking, what temperatures which could be seen were in Centigrade instead of Fahrenheit; the other temperatures on the control dial had been rubbed out from use and age.  That made baking a challenge for me!

First of all I always had a conversion chart of Centigrade to Fahrenheit in a kitchen drawer which I could refer to when needed.  The other trick is that I would find a number I could recognize on the control dial that had not been rubbed out and after doing a conversion would either move the dial forward or reverse depending on my desired temperature. In the beginning of cooking with that stove I pleaded with it, coaxed it and even threatened it that I had successful dishes.

As worse as not having a dish turn out was to run out of gas while cooking or baking. Yes, this breed of stove also relied on gas canisters for fuel. I never learned the art of determining when the canister was low. Most times there was a back-up canister full of gas so it was only a matter of switching canisters.  One time I had started a meal and ran out of gas without a back-up canister.  We ended up having a meal delivered that night.

Before I left Saudi I had mastered that stove.  Mastering that stove gave me confidence that I could cook or bake a dish on anything without a problem.  My mother-in-law was proud of how I mastered that stove.  She had been cooking on a stove which had no temperatures marked on the dial for more than 30 years!


22 Responses

  1. I know this picture is probably about a great time you had but I sorry, I see these women all shrouded in black. All I can think of is the grim rippers. Nothing happy about it at all. These black cloaks just seem to suck the life out of women.

  2. rippers should be reapers.

  3. On my computer it looks like blood all over their fingers…ew!

    Glad you mastered the stove!

  4. Oh, what a laugh! I had the same problem with running out of gas the first time I tried to cook in SA too. The numbers on our stove are lines without any other sort of temperature adjustment. Since you mastered it, I will press on with more confidence.

    Knowing how wonderful some of the ladies in my acquaintance are, I am sure the “cooking party” shown in the picture was very fun and delicious. Behind the abaya, hijab, and niquab, are some smart, funny, and very talented women. I’d love the opportunity to cook with some of my friends.

  5. Looks can be very deceiving. As Kelly has mentioned many Saudi women are much more than what they may look like. I’ve met many Saudi women who speak English well, some even without an accent, are very opinionated, educated and well aware of the world around them.

    It’s not fair to judge a book by its cover.

  6. That picture is hilarious! I’ve never seen Saudi women cook in Abayas- and I can only imagine they put them on for the purposes of the picture.

  7. Of course they put the abayas on for the photo, like the Dutch documentary about saudi women, the lady showing the filmcrew around her house does so fully covered as well and I bet one takes ones abaya off as soon as you enter the house. It would be very unhygienic to cook in your outdoors clothes and with the niqab hanging in the food.
    The red hands are scary though!
    But the food looks interesting!
    Time for lunch I think 🙂

  8. bigstick–

    It might be beneficial to look at the picture without the sterotypical lens you’re looking at Saudi women by. I’m from America and teach at a university here, and Saudi women are some of the most articulate, intelligent, funny, beautiful, and sweet women I have ever come across. The abayas are a natural part of their culture, if you want to insist it’s not then by all means do, but the overwhelming majority see it as their tradition and religion and it has no affect on their personality or ability as I can attest to every day!

    I too, have a hard time baking with a gas powered stove, it’s just not the same as the electrical stove in America with all the degrees written clearly. 🙂

  9. Teacher in Riyadh, the abaya is not part of Saudi Arabia’s culture, is was considered Persian when it was introduced, as described in the book Arabia deserta, or it was a Jewish custom for elite women. Saudi Arabia used to have many cultures where, except in the dark poor area around Riyadh, women wore colorful embroidered robes and maybe a cap or a hat or a piece of cloth to protect their head. Early photo’s of bedouin and Arab women show them wearing colored clothes, and their hair in large tresses hanging in front.
    The so called ”cultural” abaya, hijab and niqab was forced on the population only a few decades ago. It is not culture, it is not tradition, it is an experiment in social engineering, and women were forced to wear them. This is still in older people’s memory, it happened only a few decades ago. Now of course the women have been indoctrinated from birth that it is their ”culture” and that they cover themselves ”of their own will”, but we should not forget the truth, and real history and that abaya and niqab are not tradition for the largest part of Saudi Arabia..

  10. And abaya’s are anything but natural.

  11. Cooking or doing medical work in abaya is not only unsanitary, it is dangerous. Some Japanese women still wear kimono much of the time. At least a woman’s kimono has holes in the bottom of the sleeves so that these can be hiked up to avoid female kitchen immolation. Many wealthy Saudi women do not cook at all. Cooking is maid’s work.

    Aafke-Art is correct, abaya is not part of ancient Arabian culture, but more colourful robes are. These robes left the face, neck, upper chest area and hands free. The robes for both men and women were as much protection from the sun as they were for modesty. Old photographs and paintings show colourful costumes for both men and women.

    Ancient Bedouin costumes:

    In fact the full abaya was a sign of privilege because common women, slaves and prostitutes had to work and could not do so enveloped head to toe in robes. The principle is rather like a tan. Years ago only peasants, slaves and those who had to do hard, physical labor had suntans. These days, it is a sign that one can loll about on the beach.

    In theory the abaya is not supposed to draw attention to the wearer. Yet, many women make it a point to don designer abayas, some are even colored, heavily embroidered and quite are few are studded with diamonds or at least sparkling stones. Stiletto heels, clouds of perfume and bells on the ankles finish the non-attention getting ensemble. Modern designers are offering pastel colored, tighter fitting abayas that most certainly draw attention to the female form. The burkini also shows the female form, so what the modesty logic of that is remains a mystery. Burkini images:

    All the Saudi women I have known are smart, articulate and many are well educated, although rather narrowly. Many speak excellent English. Every one of them is feisty, extremely opinionated and quite a few have personalities like a Mack Truck. Anger frequently permeates the air. However, when it comes to abaya and other restrictions of their lives they go along to get along. Just like Saudi Woman, Eman they all seem to lack the courage of their convictions. Saudi (and other Arab) women are not what one would call independent thinkers. That goes for the men as well. Arabs are a tribal/group culture.

    I find it rather sad that the whole of the Islamic world in the last half century has given up their rich, individual ethnic clothing heritage in favor of the penguin costume. Conformity is in!

  12. now whos who ins the pic ? They look pretty fat int he pic … they even wear abayas in kitchen ? was it just for the pic..

  13. TeacherinRiyadh:

    Who said the women weren’t articulate, fun, intelligent. However, to say that they would want to wear this when police harass them, fine them, beat them, lash them or many times kill them if they deviate from the normal isn’t culture it is oppression. Why was it that this dress style was more important than these articulate, fun, intelligent women back in 2002 who died trying to leave a school engulfed in fire but their lack of clothe was more important than them. Tell me maybe you forgot how much blood and life women have lost over this piece of clothe. Maybe you need to look at it in a different way. How many women have lost their lives over this clothe. To me this is a clothe soaked in the blood and death of women, it is a symbol that says wear it or die. The clothe represent a vileness towards women that says cover yourself you are seen as sex object whose worth is less than the piece of clothe that they wear. What is so wrong with women being who they are, not defined by clothe, being intelligent, thriving, living, breathing, exciting, viable, fun, loving, beautiful, colorful, happy and free beings? What is wrong with women expressing themselves in art, clothing, thought, action, and deeds? Tell me are the women you teach free to wear what they like? Are they free to say that don’t want this? Tell me do you think being forced to wear a black death reaper uniform everyday doesn’t psychology impact the women at all and knowing that less than a decade ago women were allowed to die for not wearing it?

  14. R’amen to Prosciutto’s and bigsticks comment.

  15. PS Prosciutto, in the earlier Muslim times lower class women and slaves were actually prohibited from veiling. It was definitely upper class only.

  16. The picture is an image acquired from google images. The women covered because they were being photographed. I do not know of any woman in Saudi who would cook wearing an abaya! None of my Saudi family did and neither did I.

    In my Saudi family it was typical for the woman to do the cooking and the housemaid would assist if needed.

  17. ” The women covered because they were being photographed. I do not know of any woman in Saudi who would cook wearing an abaya.”

    I can’t imagine that anyway. But then again, if they were outdoors, they would be covered up.

    Maybe the a topic you could write about is; about single, childless Saudi women. Can they live by themselves and do everything themselves like a similar woman in other continents, without being ostracized?

    Hope you visit other blogs…I rarely talk about being Asian-Canadian nor answer questions/write in this area. It would narrow me into a pigeon-hole. No one would know my TRUE interests/skills and obsessions. 🙂

    My identity is important and am conscious but it doesn’t consume my life nor what I think about often at all.

  18. That is a good topic Jean. Stay tuned!

  19. I know it sounds ghetto, but for those unable to read the temperature, you could always “paint” the numbers (C temp) on. I once lived somewhere in the US where when I complained about not being able to read the temperature, they simply painted the numbers on the dial. o_O??

    The only thing that really confused me was in the UK where some of the ovens don’t have temperature settings- simply 1, 2, 3, etc.

  20. good thought, Strangeone!

  21. I also had to adapt here in France as far as the oven. We have a gas stove (which I prefer) and two bottles. Normally there is always a full one, but sometimes… usually half way through bread-baking. :-)) The dial has numbers and by trial and error I could tell that this stove was not calibrated the same as the ones in recipes. I brought an oven thermometer from the States.

  22. It puts a whole new aspect on the ‘Joy of Cooking!’

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