Wouldn't you take advantage of free airfare for a two-week vacation in Europe? That's what I did on my way home from Saudi Arabia. I decided to hop through Amsterdam, Paris, Antwerp, and Cologne before flying all the way back. It was in Antwerp where I visited Michelle, the one who helped me get the Saudi job. Michelle was so thoughtful to purchase us a food tour for my visit. I would get to try the local specialties and she would get some background for her to share with future visitors.

Michelle was careful to select the tour after one mentioned a stop at Five Guys! Really? Please! Luckily she found Nina, who runs Bites and Walks. Nina has grown up in Antwerp with a Belgian mother and Spanish father. She grew up around food and worked in the hotel food industry before deciding to take the leap to start the food tour. You can choose from weekday or weekend, food or beer, private or group tours. We were lucky that my visit included the Saturday market day.

Here are some of the highlights. Thanks to Nina for providing proper names, spellings, details.

Belgian breakfast at Café The Pelikan (above) which included "Rodenbach beer + grey shrimps + Brugges Cheese + Tagliate Charcuterie, finely sliced from Beef Belgian Wit Blauw (White Blue Belgian Beef breed) topped with celery in a vinegar sauce" 


Antwerpse Handjes from Philippe Biscuit, a patented "biscuit that won a competition back in 1934 to celebrate the battle between Brabo and Antigoon, the legend that tells the story how Antwerp got it’s name." Basically the story is that a giant, Antigoon, demanded a toll at the river or cut off your hand. Brabo defeated Antigoon and cut off his hand and threw it in the river. "Ant" comes from "hand" and "werp" comes from "throw".


"Eel which we just topped of with some drops of lemon. From Soraya, a Moroccan entrepreneur and leading lady from Rungis Fish at the Provinciestraat in Antwerp." 


Belgian croquettes are unlike the ones we generally know. These are very moist inside with a very crispy outside. Above we see shrimp, asparagus, and truffle croquettes. Nina explains that it's all about the textural difference between the two, which is also reflected in...


Belgian Frites (fries). This particular batch we tried comes from Frites Atelier, a fast casual chain from a Michelin star earning chef, Sergio Herman. He researched to find the perfect potato for the texture they prize - double-fried, crispy outside with tender inside. He has a proprietary samphire salt and his own blends of aiolis.

"The herring, intestines removed, salted and matured for some time. Served with chopped onion, which is an old habit. The name MAATJE is very important, it means VIRGIN, it is only caught at sea during the months May and June when the fish haven't spawned. If it is caught after this period, it is called SALT
HERRING. The fish is flash frozen for 24 hours because eating raw fish can be dangerous and so that the herring worm will be killed. The reason why we eat onion with it goes way back to the time when it was not as easy as today to conserve fish, so they needed to add much more salt. When they ate the herring they needed to rinse the fish with water and milk. The result was that the herring tasted a bit too bland and onion was added."


There are only a few places left that serve it freshly prepared. Here you see the guy gutting and prepping it fresh for us.

There were some other stops along the way for pastries, Belgian chocolate, and sites, but I don't want to give everything away. And you may have noticed that our tour was food only since our small group had agreed we weren't too interested in alcohol that early.  So, if in Antwerp, look Nina up at Bites and Walks and you can schedule the tour with her tailored to your needs!



No. There is no problem with the picture. It's supposed to be black. That's because I couldn't see or take pictures of my food. I had attended a dark dinner.

You may have heard of these restaurants. They have them at most major cities around the world, including San Francisco, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. That's the one I chose to go to -Dans le Noir en Paris. The restaurants feature a dining experience where you cannot see your food and must rely on your other senses instead. We know that if a person loses one sense, such as sight or sound, they compensate with stronger responses of their other senses. Can this translate to a fully-sensed person on a temporary basis?

I arrived for my dinner reservation and was asked for my dining option. The menu is set, your choices are just how many courses you want and if you want wine or beer pairings. I chose three courses and no beverages.

Each restaurant can operate a bit differently, but many of them have blind servers. Such was the case in Paris. I was grouped with a young couple since I was dining solo. Our server was introduced as Yaya and he took the young man by the hand and his girlfriend and I followed by putting our left hands on the person in front's shoulder so that we were a human chain. We were led through a series of blackout curtains until we were in absolute darkness. There was not a pinpoint of light at all. I decided to just keep my eyes closed for the duration because I knew if I left them open, I'd be straining my eyes all night looking for something...ANYTHING... to see. I have enough eye strain in my daily life with computers, I didn't need more. 

When we arrived at the table, Yaya guided us each one at a time to our seat. I then felt the table and found the fork, knife, napkin, and cup. My companions had been given the water bottle and told to pour for ourselves, but to use our fingers in the cup to know when to stop the pour. We also had a basket of bread.

Yaya returned and asked or our hand out. He placed a small shot glass in my hand with the amouse bouche. It was a cold soup. I was thinking perhaps a cold pea soup. At the end of the meal they actually do tell you what you ate, so we later found out it was a cucumber gazpacho. 

Next was the starter. It was cold and on the first bite I knew it was salmon lox, but with what else? There were definitely melon balls as well, but we did not figure out the shaved asparagus ribbons.

The entree came out next and we gently poked around. There was, we thought, mashed potatoes, some beef with sauce, and then a cold portion of the plate that definitely had cherry tomatoes. Could we figure these ingredients out.

We guessed easily enough that it was beef and surmised it was in a red wine sauce and that the mashed potatoes had fresh peas in it. What threw me a bit was when I got a warm strawberry! There's no mistaking strawberry flavor and then the texture with the tiny seeds on the outside. Why was the strawberry there and warm? 

I am no fan of tomatoes and after taking a few tentative bites of other things, I pretty much left my cold section alone. The gal at my side guessed eggplant, another thing I'm not a fan of.

In the end we were to discover that the beef was actually in a balsamic based sauce with the strawberries as a component. The mashed potatoes were actually pureed peas with some whole ones left in. The cold portion was a camponata with the tomatoes, eggplant, and olives. None of which I care for!

At this point I posed the question to my companions - do you think not seeing is enhancing your other senses to the food? We generally agreed that it didn't do so much. Although we obviously paid a lot more attention to the seedy strawberry, we didn't really feel our sense heightened. Instead, we felt we had a better of understanding of how it is for blind people to navigate dining.

The final course arrived in warm, closed mason jars. It was immediately recognizable as rice pudding with a lime zest curd. It had just a bit of bitterness you get when you get a bit of the white pith in with the zest. What we did not detect was the coconut fumee on top.

Once complete, Yaya led us out the same way we came in. Breaking through the final blackout curtains was a shock. It took some time for our eyes to adjust to the lights. We were then given the iPad to see what we had just consumed. We had generally done a pretty good job with only a few surprises.

It's a fun activity to do, especially with a group of friends. The next table over was a party of 11! They were having quite a good time. I just had no one ever interested, so I figured might as well go in Paris as anyplace else. Made it more memorable for me. Convince your friends, set a date, and try it!




When I was growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 80s, we did not wear abayas. We went shopping in Khobar with the understanding that our legs and shoulders must be covered. We would even go in jeans. It wasn't until the 80s, after the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran and the 1979 uprisings in Qatif and Mecca, that the Kingdom started to go back to more conservative ways. By the time my parents retired in 1987, we were going to Khobar in thobes, although not abayas.

In the spring of 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that it was no longer a requirement for women to wear abayas or cover their heads. 


“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” the Prince said. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”


With the Kingdom looking forward to tourism, that's another big reason not to wear abayas. Female tourists will not be enthusiastic about wearing that extra layer. In my opinion, it's in the best interest of the country to get locals used to foreigners not wearing them.

before I stopped wearing one
So why are so many women, particularly expats, still wearing the abaya when they don't have to?


There is definitely no problem with an expat choosing to wear an abaya out of respect to the Saudis and Islam. More power to them. And abayas are convenient in some ways. They cover you up if you have a problem with body image or lack fashion. Sometimes it is a matter of laziness. You can throw on an abaya and just be in underwear underneath. In many ways, it can be similar to lounging about in your pajamas all day.

When I came to Jeddah for my three month contract, I bought a modern, cream, zip-up abaya with pockets. I also bought a thobe. When I arrived, I sort of felt guilt-tripped into buying a more traditional, loose, black/blue one. Once I realized they were no longer required, I stopped wearing them.

I do wear my thobes into town because they fit the conservative, loose, covering criteria to still be respectfully dressed, but I don't wear an abaya over them. I also have loose Cambodian harem pants with a long sleeve top that I wear. I've even gone to Thuwal in jeans. Again, no abaya.

by Skna Hassan
By the way, when did the black abaya even come into being? I tried to research it and can't find any indication of when it started being the black tent version. Black has been around for a while, but keep in mind, that for centuries the women wore traditional, tribal attire that was long and covering, but still colorful and decorative. You can see many examples at the Al Tayabet Museum in Jeddah (picture at top). Also in the artwork of Skna Hassan, who traveled the Kingdom to research the attire.

Yet my abaya revolt doesn't stop the urge to want to buy another abaya. They have changed so much over the years that they can be quite the fashion statement. Colors, fabrics, trims all make for more interesting abayas. It's been hard to resist buying another, but I'm back to the U.S. and they would just end up tucked at the back of my closet. Pointless.

So don't wear them if you don't want to! Especially when it's hot! Who needs another layer?!
I'm calling this a diary but it's actually more like a food log. Instead of daily entries in a diary, I'm giving you an overall log of all the wonderful Arab foods I tried on my trip to Saudi Arabia.


As I child I wasn't exposed to all these wonderful treats except for maybe some baklava and Turkish delight. It also turns out that the Eastern province seems to have less diverse and interesting food (to me, anyway) than the Hijaz (western) region where I was on this trip.

FYI, often used below is...
Kashta - clotted cream flavored with rose water




Sweets


Mammoul - cookies with date filling


Logaymat - donut hole-like pastries served sweet or savory depending on the toppings chosen

Mann al-Sama (manna from heaven) - candy nougat of nuts

Barazek - eggless sesame seed cookie

Basbousa - semolina cake soaked in sugar syrup

Esh al Saray - AKA Rich Man's Bread- toasted bread in rose water sugar syrup with kashta

Halawat al-Jubn - semolina-cheese dough rolled and filled w/ kashta

Madlouka - orange blossom syrup soaked semolina cake topped with kashta and nuts

Mafroukeh-syrup soaked semolina-pistachio cake with kashta and pistachios

Nammora - phyllo dough with kashta

Booza - ice cream, sometimes referring to...

Turkish ice cream - stretchy ice cream 

 Om Ali - (mother of Ali) a pudding using leftover bread shreds

Kunefe - made with either cheese or clotted cream in the center of shredded pastry, grilled, then pour over sugar syrup


 Kunefe being grilled in special plates

 Arika - torn up bread and dates soaked in honey, topped with cream, cereal, and cheese

Sahlep - warm, creamy milk drink that is thickened w/ sahlep (orchid root), with mastic, rose water, pistachios

Qatayaf - dumpling filled with cheese

Qara’ ‘Asali - middle eastern pumpkin pie w/o a crust

Savory

 Maklobat eggplant - Rice with eggplants and meat, served with yogurt

 Shoshkash kebab - Grilled seasoned fine minced lamb served with pepper paste, peppered parsley, tomato & pomegranate molasses

Fatet makdous - crispy roasted flat bread pieces topped with layers of eggplant and saucy minced meat with a yogurt, garlic sauce

Shish barak - Syrian style raviolis in a yogurt sauce

 Buraik - filled with ground meat and chopped hard boiled egg

Lamb madini -lamb and rice

 Chicken Saleeg - rice is risotto-like

 Meat mulgalgal - a meat stew of meat, fresh tomatoes, onions and green pepper fried with spices

Chicken bukhari - chicken and rice

Fatteh - Pita chip pieces, chick peas, tahini, sumac, parsley, Olive oil, walnuts. 

Currently the tallest building in the world resides in Dubai. The Burj Khalifa soars to 2,722 feet and has 163 floors that people can occupy before being topped by the metal spire. No visit to Dubai is complete without a visit to it and, preferably, to the top of it.

Started in 2004 and completed in 2009, the tower was officially opened in 2010. It is a mix-use building, including retail, residential, and commercial offices. At the 122nd floor is Atmosphere, the highest restaurant in the world.

What I found fascinating about the tower is how your perception of its height differs depending on your vantage point. Proximity of other buildings and distance can really distort your perception of its height. When we first arrived and drove by it, the other buildings were close to us and so the building didn't seem that tall. But when you were several miles away looking toward downtown, you could clearly see how much higher it soared over every other building in the vicinity. 

There are two ways to go up the Burj Khalifa and I will tell you the difference between the two. 

The first is what a majority of people do because it is an impulse visit versus being planned well in advance. Most people buy tickets at the entrance or within a few days on the website. This allows you only to go up to the 125th floor with the masses. While the view is still spectacular, wouldn't you prefer to go as high as you can possibly go? To do so requires advance planning.



If you know when you are going to be in Dubai, then it pays to buy the Sky (VIP) ticket to be able to go to the 148th floor. This is the highest point allowed for visitors as the final 12 floors are reserved for corporations. 

Book your visit to Burj Khalifa.

The Sky tickets are sold online well in advance for a limited number of tickets. These tickets include a waiting lounge with coffee, personal tour guide and fast tracking through the lines, unlimited time at the 148th floor with refreshments, access to the (crowded) 124th/125th floor observation decks, and VIP (fast track) exit from the tower.



I can't emphasize enough how much more enjoyable this was just by observing everybody else going only to 125. The Sky experience was much more relaxing without having to deal with pushy people and long line waits. 

From the outside...

You don't have to go to the top to enjoy the Burj Khalifa. They offer two worthwhile viewing events that are completely free to watch from the ground level.



The fountain show runs from 6-11 pm at the top and bottom of every half hour. The fountains are by the same company that did the Las Vegas Bellagio, but this set is even larger. Every show is set to a different song, so you can watch something different each time. Above you can see the one done to the Mission Impossible theme and then again from the viewpoint of the 148th floor above. The Mission Impossible was my favorite because I love that music and it's appropriate because MI:Ghost Protocol was actually filmed here. There's an action scene at the Burj Khalifa.

Don't leave after the fountain show because on the 15 and 45 minute marks there are light shows on the tower itself. Below are snippets from two.  Note that for copyright purposes, I've silenced the sound. 


The Burj Khalifa is attached to the Mall of Dubai, a massive shopping structure filled with almost every retailer you can think of from the U.S., U.K., and more. There are also dozens of restaurants from fast food to fine dining.

The Burj Khalifa is a must item on the Dubai to-do list. Be sure to schedule an evening for it on your itinerary.
Book your visit to Burj Khalifa.




Through our lives we have seen plenty of movies set in Middle Eastern cities – Indiana Jones, Sinbad, Prince of Persia, and more. There’s usually a foot chase that takes place through a series of narrow but twisted, maze-like streets. Turns out, there is a method to the madness of those crazy streets.

I went to a KAUST cultural lecture yesterday on Architecture of the Red Sea region. It was presented by Dr. Hisham Mortada, professor of architecture at King Abdulaziz University. His specialty is traditional architecture and he presented an informative talk on why cities and buildings here are constructed the way they are.

Saudi architecture is governed by the social needs, such as Islamic practices and keeping public and private lives separated, and by constructional needs based on environment.

Above we have typical homes in the Al Balad (old city) of Jeddah. They have a basic cube structure that has many wooden decorative pieces on the windows and façade called rowshan or mashrabiyas. The preferred directional setting of the house was to the north or northwest, the best angles to catch the wind to cool the homes.


There are not many construction resources in Saudi. After all, it is mostly desert. Some regions use mud, other areas have access to limestone. On the coastal areas it turns out that they resorted to coral stone. They would go and take large coral blocks from the sea, dry them out, and use those as the main building blocks.

The problem is that coral is actually pretty fragile and easily breaks down over time, crumbling into powder. To combat this, some wood beams were used to reinforce the walls and then the walls were covered in gypsum. Windows, doors, and ceilings were wood.


The ceiling were usually a combination of wood, mostly from mangroves, and palm leaves and mangrove roots.


The front door is the entry from the public setting of the street to the private setting of the home and is therefore the most decorated. The door itself is usually wood and can be decorated by carvings and/or metal embellishments such as nails. There is often a decorative cornice above.


More decorative elements could be added via the gypsum plastering of the walls.


The most distinctive feature of these homes are the wooden rawashin (plural of rowshan) and mashrabiyas on the windows. They served several purposes, the most important being for cooling and for privacy.

Islam is known for strict privacy - the most well known being the privacy of women. By covering the windows with these creative screens, it allows for privacy as well as for allowing air to flow through for cooling.

The cooling is handled in several ways. First is the screening itself, but also by the construction of the interior of the homes. The method of room and stairwell arrangement was done in such a way as to create air flow through the home.
kharjah

Another way was from the use of water. Pots of water would be set into the mashrabiyas so that the air would flow across the water and cool – a primitive method of air conditioning. This use of water for cooling explains why some homes would have fountains.


The uppermost floor, or roof, was the kharjah and used as a private courtyard, completely covered by roofing and rawashin, and often used for sleeping on the hottest nights as well as a family gathering area and for airing out laundry. They did not have courtyards or patios, so the roof was their main 'outdoor' space. 






The rawashin not only provided cooling to the interior of them home, but also for the exterior. The way they stick out from the building provides extra shading to the streets and pedestrians below.

Which brings us back to the twisting, narrow streets. This was another method of cooling because it created a way to funnel the wind through the streets.



one of the towers from inside the pedestrian tunnels
A few of these old construction techniques are used in the modern buildings of the campus here at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). The main buildings are set in the best direction to catch the ocean breezes and funnel them through the ‘tunnel’s that go through the buildings. Within these tunnel walkways are many water features that cool the air as it sweeps through. Finally, there are two tall towers that suck the air through and up creating the breezy air flow through the entire complex.

exterior shot of a ventilation tower


I’m glad I was able to catch this lecture because it really helped to explain many aspects of the old homes I had been seeing on my visits to Jeddah.