Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Gastronomical Delights of Saudi Arabia and Its Enemies

"Do you like chicken?"  That was the first thing I was asked once I got past Riyadh's airport security.  My friend Peter, who lived in the country at the time, was happy to see me but was thrilled at my "yes" answer.  "Great, in two days I'll make sure you get some good chicken," he exclaimed.  What seemed at the time like a trip to the local KFC turned into a 500 mile journey involving a glutinous amount of fried food, falsely assumed corporate espionage, terrifying religious police, and a tribal battle for the control of one of the most successful restaurant chains in Saudi Arabia.

Catholicgauze Goes to Al Baik

The logo of Al Baik from its Facebook page. Why an Arab chicken is wearing a top hat, cape, and bow tie is beyond me.

For those two days I relaxed, swam, played tennis under the desert sun, and went driving in the desert.  However, chicken became a frequently brought up subject.  I constantly heard things like "The eight piece fried chicken is the best deal for your money,"  "Oh man, get it spicy,"  and "The thick garlic sauce is to die for!"  Apparently this was no ordinary chicken but Al Baik chicken which is served only in four cities in the western fringe of the country.  When I asked why this seemingly delicious fast food fried chicken was not sold in the capital or anywhere else I found out about the "Great Saudi Chicken War" as Peter called it.

The Great Saudi Chicken War (As told to me by Peter)

Al Baik is a family run business owned by a tribal clan which has lived along the Red Sea coast (the Hijaz) for centuries.  Being like most Hijazis, the family has traditionally been independent-minded (The Saudi-Wahabbi alliance conquered the Hijaz in the 1920s and there is still a feeling that Saudis are outside occupiers).  In the early 1990s a Saudi price "offered" a business deal which would allow Al Baik to go international if the Saudi prince became a main partner in the company.  The family said "No, we wish to keep this in the family," to which the Saudi prince declared Al Baik would never be able to open a restaurant location outside the Hijaz.  To this day Al Baik are still restricted to the Hijaz.  (Note:  Readers from Saudi Arabia tell me the ownership is from other parts of the Middle East and the prince story is a rumor)
Saudi politics limited Al Baik to the west coast of the country but fortunately I was travelling there.  Peter and myself met one of his friends in Jeddah on chicken-day around noon.  The following conversation made me wonder what the power of this chicken place really was.

Catholicgauze:  So there are several Al Baik's in Jeddah, which one do you recommend?
Friend:  The eight piece.
Catholicgauze:  Yes, I've heard about the eight piece.  But which location do you recommend?
Friend:  You got to get the eight piece.
Catholicgauze:  So...
Friend:  The eight piece.  Spicy.

The night finally came and their was excitement in the air.   Al Baik is done fast food-style with third country nationals, mostly Pakistanis, cooking up chicken and french fries like mad.  For about three dollars I ordered the eight piece meal which gave me the ungodly amount of chicken, an aluminum box load of fries, drink, bun, and garlic sauce.

Don't ask me how many calories are shown here.  Photograph by me.
Apparently Al Baik is under constant fear that the Saudi prince who has kept them captives in the Hijaz was and still is trying to steal their secret recipes.  The moment the above photograph was taken three workers came up to us and told us sternly that photography of the food was not allowed (I wondered if they ever thought a spy could order the meal to go and then take photographs of it outside).  This was the only time I was not allowed to take a photograph while in Saudi Arabia.

The food was delicious.  I managed to get three pieces down until my body reminded me I cannot handle greasy food well.

About twenty or so minutes into the meal something happened.  People started hurrying out the door.  Then all the sudden the three restaurant workers who told us about not to take photographs walked back up to us and started packing up our food into to-go containers.  Before we could ask something along the lines of "what are you doing?" we were rushed out of the door.  The door was then locked, lights turned off, and metal gates were lowered to prevent anyone from looking inside.  What made the moment even surrealer was that several men stood around a parked car counting the number people who came out.  As I stood in confusion at what was going on the call to prayer began.

The men were religious police, mutaween.  The mutaween are volunteers, more like free lance mercenaries, who receive money from the religious establishment to enforce sharia law.  They are separate from the government which reports to the Saudi family.  The have the authority to enforce laws like the closing of businesses for the call to prayer.  If we were to eat in the restaurant or been served while the call to prayer was going on the mutaween could have arrested the workers and closed the business down.  Only "family" restaurants (one's where women can get with their family) are allowed to remain open during the prayer call.

The mutaween ensured the panic shutdown of other restaurants I ate at as well.  A a Turkish-run sit down restaurant manager came up to us apologizing by saying "Please go, I cannot allow you to stay.  I am so sorry.  We Turks do not like to do this."  In a discussion with the Turkish-manager and Peter I found at that most Saudis will delay going out until the last call to prayer in order to avoid the mandatory half an hour shut down of businesses during the call to prayer.

There was one place where the mutaween could not prevent my consumption of delicious food during prayer call.  In a strip-mall in the middle of Riyadh there is the best Thai restaurant which caters to the Thais who live and work doing the odd-jobs Saudis do not do.  The pad thai was the best I ever had.  The fact that it cost less than two dollars for food and drink made it better.  And being able to enjoy it because we were in the "family" section prevented any panic rushing out the door.

Coming next week:  Saudi Arabia: The Bad and Overlooked Good of Saudi Arabians


Anonymous said...

Hello, very interesting posting; however, the information you posted about that restaurant being owned by a Hijazi tribe is incorrect. Also, I heard that the Prince banning them was just a rumor. I could be wrong though.
Can you please give us the name of the name of the Thai restaurant in Riyadh? It sounds wonderful.

Catholicgauze said...

Hello Anonymous,
The family is Hijazi and organized still in a tribal system. They are city dwellers and not nomads but I've been told they still function along tribal lines.
Peter drove me to the Thai restaurant. All I know is that its about 3-5 kilometers from the Marriott across the street from a Mama Noura.

Anonymous said...

Wow a real life urban myth right in the heart of Hijazi land! I love it. Have always loved fairy tales. The person who thought that story up and the person who wrote it have vivid imaginations. A+ for creative writing, bravo. Well time, when you write fiction, let people know first so they are not misled. Truly creative however and extremely entertaining.

Catholicgauze said...

2nd Anonymous,
C for effort and F for failing to to tell the difference between fiction and fact. Do you have any insights you can share or just a rant which cannot change fact into fiction?

Jeddahwiya said...

On behalf of the 2nd Anonymous person, the facts you claim to be true are actually inaccurate.

The family that owns Al Baik is definitely not a Saudi tribal family. The family's history can be traced back to all parts of the Middle East… originating in Palestine. Had you looked into the background of the families living in Saudi Arabia, you'd find that most families were given the nationality once they immigrated from around the Middle East to Saudi Arabia. There is a very tiny percentage of the Saudi population who come from the original tribes. Banu Yam, Bani Hajar, Bani Rasheed Rashaida, Al-Murrah... these are all tribes that are known as Saudi Bedouin families. You can look the rest up on line or contact the International Nomads Creative Collective (using their website since I’m guessing you’re no longer in Riyadh).

When you were told the family is Hijazi, either the person doesn’t know the family’s lineage or they were referring to their current location as being on the West Coast. Being Hijazi in the case of this family just means that they live in Jeddah (or any part of the Western region) and not that they are a Bedouin family from the West coast. There's a huge difference between a family’s physical location and their ancestry.

Lastly, the story you heard about the prince forbidding the expansion of the company is a rumor started over a decade ago, origins unknown. Hearsay is not fact although it would have been very funny had the story about the prince actually happened. Now, the only way to actually disprove this rumor to you other than stating that it is not true would be to get the owner on the phone. Call the company up, who knows, maybe the HR department can tell you where the rumor started and you’ll have a new story to write.

You're a good writer, but even bloggers need to check their sources.

Catholicgauze said...

Thank you. I've edited the post to reflect your input.