Iftar literally means breaking the fast and this is what Muslims do after the sunsets here. Part of the religious observance is to share this meal with others and with this in mind, Wallace and I attended a lavish Iftar put on by one of his associates.
We had eaten here before and knew what to expect, a hearty meal with good company. This time we were in a company of 15 and mostly business associates. As it wasn’t a Saudi household we all sat and ate together.
The fast is traditionally broken by eating a date but there were no dates here just bowls brimming with fresh sweet almonds. Actually we arrived promptly at 8.30pm and soon realised we were the only ones hungry. All the locals had already had a bite to eat around 6.30 pm and Wallace and I had last eaten around 2pm. The almonds staved off hunger till 10pm when dinner was served.
Caterers had already set up low-lying couches out on the patio, candles flickered on the long table set in front of them and a cooling mist spray ensured our comfort in the 37C evening heat.
Upon arrival, I handed over my abaya (nicknamed Saudi fur coats!) and we were offered a glass of jeleb: date palm syrup mixed with water and a few pine nuts thrown in for a chew. This was delicious and unlike any other taste I have come across, so much so, I made it my preferred drink for the evening.
Of course there was no alcohol being served and the jeleb was far superior to any can of soda being offered.
Across from the dining area there were three work stations set up and there seemed to be as many staff as there were guests. Two chefs wearing their tall hats used a pasta machine to roll out pieces of dough that were then placed on top of a hot griddle. One chef rolled while the other stuffed the cooked pastry with either cheese, spinach or zaatar herb. Served as hot entrees they quickly filled the gap, the cheese being my favourite. They use a traditional cheese which is stringy like mozzarella but has the flavour of halloumi (the name escapes me). I could have sat there all night content with a half dozen of these and my jeleb.
The second station was in the dark but you could make out a young man turning over a spit that held a whole young lamb. This was disappointing to eat as it was overcooked and there were no herbs or spices to thrill the palate. In my hands it I would have been marinated without mercy using ‘latholemono’ – my father’s killer marinade made with olive oil, lemon juice and oregano.
A waiter stood behind the drink station and was dutiful in replenishing the guests drinks while other staff set up the rest of the banquet in the dining room. When all was ready we lined up and had our fill of hommous, baba ganoush (that’s the Turkish name of the eggplant dip as I can’t remember what the Arabs call it), Greek salad, artichoke salad, fatoush (green salad embellished with fried pitta pieces), the lamb set on a giant tray of rice, chicken casserole (not called casserole but you get my drift!) and fried hammour (the local fish).
I disappointed myself because I barely could eat a plate full of dinner but I made up for it with dessert. There were tiny pots of rose-water flavoured custard, pieces of ‘baklava’ style treats, crème brûlée (that’s what they call it as well),and fluted pastry horns filled with custard (cream here is a real treat and hard to find). The chefs in the big hats also provided us with hot pastries filled with Nutella and halwa to make sure none of us remained hungry.
The best though was saved till last and rightly so. Our host brought around a box of macaroons flown in from a French pastry shop in the Champs-Elysees. These are morsels too divine to describe but I can tell you they came in pistachio, chocolate and strawberry. Happily these little gems can also be found here in Riyadh at my favourite café, Le Notre but that isn’t as exotic as having them flown in from Paris.
It reminds me of a cake shop in Qatar that has all its cakes flown in fresh fromVienna! I never tried them, I was still getting over paying $10 for a bunch of celery flown in from Holland.
Another special treat was our own individual sheesha-the Arabic hookah which came with either strawberry, grape or apple flavoured tobacco. I lounged back in my low-lying couch, jeleb in one hand, sheesha in the other, surrounding myself in plumes of smoke, Mata Hari style.
Our hostess wore a lovely salwa kameez and other women wore flowing Arabic national dress, leaving me to feel under dressed in my western style blouse and skirt. Come to think of it, the Mata Hari look was a far stretch considering my outfit.
Still, we all learned a lot about each other that night, and shared Iftar together- just the way it is meant to be.