During the winter months this year Riyadh, Saudia Arabia’s capital, has hosted more than 300 events. The reason for this deluge of activity is the Riyadh Season, a government backed initiative to bring vibrancy to Saudi’s major cities.
One of the events was Taste of the World, Riyadh.
But going back a step, on 27th September the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia (KSA) announced that citizens of 49 countries would be able to apply for e-visas. Cities like Riyadh, Jeddah and Khobbah are now open for tourism. And archeological sites such as Al’Ula are preparing themselves for visitors.
At the same time as the visa announcement we were advised that non-Saudi women are no longer required to wear abayas, which is the gown worn as an outer garment, covering women from neck to toe. Famously a year ago, the ban on women driving was lifted.
These are all game changers. Taste of the World, Riyadh is what brings me to Saudi. My company policy was that women should still wear abayas, despite the new laws – mainly out of respect for our clients, but also an element of ‘lets not be the test case that makes the news’.
But as always, there’s a few grey areas. The questions I asked myself and anyone I knew that had already visited the Kingdom was when exactly should you put the ayaba on. Do you go on the aircraft as one person, and come off as another? Bit weird. As is normal with me, I spilt food on my shirt at the airport so the decision was easy – put the abaya on in Dubai airport to cover the mess.
Babar picked me up at the airport. He is one of the core organising team but I hadn’t met him before. He called me and told me he was waiting in the white pick-up. Similar to when he met Kelly when she arrived and she said ‘I’m the one in the black abaya’. Not helpful.
As an aside here, not all abayas are black. We went shopping at the Royal Mall, which seems to be almost entirely abaya shops and there all colours and designs. Being perverse and socially awkward, I bought another black one, because it had pockets which are handy for event work.
I go straight to site to see what’s happening and no one laughs at my abaya or is shocked because somehow I’ve done something wrong. I’m wearing runners, with leggings and a tshirt underneath. I look closely at the other womens’ footwear and runners are a popular choice. So all good.
There is a five hour time difference between Riyadh and Perth, my home town. And, what do you call them – the circadian rhythms – of both cities are a bit off kilter. It is common in Perth for people to start work at 7am. The restaurants are busiest for breakfast and often deserted after 9pm. In Riyadh, it is pointless to try and contact anyone before noon, and the traffic jams continue right through until about 3am. People begin their nights at 10pm – or so we were told.
Ok then. Lets get this event organising happening.
Taste of the World, Riyadh
Taste of the World, Riyadh is a gastronomic event bringing together some of the world’s top international chefs. They were each given a pop up kitchen and asked to provide two of their signature dishes, and develop a third dish that has local Saudi ingredients. Among the chefs that have come are Denny Imbroisi from IDA in Paris, Pascal Assignac from Club Gascon in London, Shane Osborne from Arcane in Hong Kong, and Paul Baxtrom from Maison Yaki in New York.
Local celebrity chef Maroun Chedid is also on the card and has a Ritage restaurant pop op.
Taste is an international brand, with ‘Taste’ events being run in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Hongkong, Sydney, and Margaret River (Gourmet Escape) to name a few. The difference between those events and Taste of the World is that the international chefs were bought to Riyadh to showcase their food. Other Taste events showcase the best of local food and restaurants.
On the menu, should you wish to partake were dishes like Ras Al Hanout BBQ Beef Brisket from Paul Ainsworth, Cappuc’IDA Dessert, tiramisu style with Gianduja chocolate and Arabic coffee from Denny Imbroisi at IDA, cashew nut hummus with roasted vegetables, nut milk and lime from Philip Howard at Elyston Street, or the quintessentially French foie gras flan, with lemon and chocolate from Pascal Assignac and Club Gascon.
For a full line up of the chefs and menus visit the event website – https://tasteoftheworldriyadh.com/
Like other Taste events there was a Fire Pit where guest chefs grilled and roasted to very interested audience. Each night two lambs were cooked on the spit and the audience invited to taste. Delicious, but once again half of it ended up on my clothes. Eating disorder of the embarrassing kind.
Another feature is the Taste Residency. One of the chefs prepares a special menu of four courses for a group of 24 people and explains his (or her) methods. I had the good fortune to attend a sitting with Pascal Aussignac.
Who knew that foie gras is not actually a terrine in its original form. He served a ‘supergreen’ risotto with plankton and caviar. But there was much more to it. There is a kind of taro root that was ground to powder, re-hydrated and made into dough and then fried to become a sort of crisp, with a delicate flavour to match the plankton and spirulina. This was matched with an ‘oyster leaf’. A leaf that tastes like oysters!
When the lobster came we’d missed the description, so engrossed was I in conversation with lady sitting next to me. We knew Pascal well enough to ask what we should do with the shot glass of brown liquid – is it a sauce?’ ‘mai non! It is a lobster bisque!’. To be taken like a shot before you eat the lobster. And the lobster is served with a green leaf that pops in your mouth.
Mmmm. I could go on.
Unlike other food events, and according to Saudi law there was no alcohol. Mocktails were served from the Lounges. At the Residency sitting Pascal Assignac paired tea with his dishes, instead of wine. There is a world-wide decrease in alcohol consumption and more can (and will) be done with the Lounges in subsequent years. A ‘mocktail mixologist’ is on the wish list.
Taste of the World was received enthusiastically. Each day the crowds got bigger and we sold out earlier. By the last day, tickets had sold out before we opened the doors.
Parisian restaurant IDA was the most popular, with 2000 dishes served on the Friday. The queue for IDA snaked back through the middle of the event venue. We asked them what they thought was the secret of their success – was there a secret message on social media that we hadn’t seen ??!. But no, they had no answer. Possibly because they were serving pasta and the ingredients were more familiar to most.
‘Before this, the only thing we could do is go to malls or watch football’ one man said to me, referring to the whole of the Riyadh Season.
Yassss! Happy customers.
‘Why are you wearing an abaya’ asked a Saudi female colleague. ‘you know you don’t have to’.
‘Yes, I know’, I replied. ‘But I would like to wear it to show respect for your culture’. She smiled. I felt good.
There is still some friction between the old and the new ways. A couple of times, when I was away from the event site and on my own there were untoward comments, and I made a fast retreat back to the safety of crowds.
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