Let’s Ban Everything

If I sound irritable lately, it is because I’m going through withdrawal symptoms. It’s been ten full days since I had shawerma for the last time. “Then go get yourself some shawerma,” you might say. Well, I guess you haven’t heard: shawerma is banned in al-Ahsa!

In a boneheaded move, Al-Ahsa municipality decided to ban shawerma during the summer. The whole thing started last year, when some people suffered food poisoning after they had shawerma at different restaurants in town. Following the incidents, the municipality issued an order to all restaurants telling them they are not allowed to serve the delicacy for the four months of summer (yes, summer here can last four, five, and even six months).

ShawermaI’m actually pissed off, not just because I can no longer have one of my favourite meals, but also because of the way the municipality is dealing with the whole matter. Instead of monitoring the restaurants to make sure they are following safety and health regulation, and then punish those who violate them, they go and ban everyone. They are punishing everyone. There are places that sell nothing but shawerma, and this decision would simply kill their business.

This type of collective punishment is easy for the municipality to inflect because the affected parties don’t have the means to protest. What could they do? Go to the municipal council? Please! Plus, even if they wanted, they can’t because they are not Saudis. You see, although these restaurants are owned by Saudi citizens, they are run by foreign workers. They pay an annual fee to the Saudi owner who does not care what the hell happens to the restaurant as long as he gets his money at the end of the year.

I’m really disappointed in al-Ahsa municipality. They have done some good work in building new infrastructure and improving streets and services. But this decision banning shawerma is just ridiculous. In addition to being irresponsible, it shows laziness on their part. They don’t want to do their job of making sure that the regulations are followed, so they go and issue a general ban.

If we are to use the (il)logic of our municipality, then we should close down restaurants altogether since you could get food poisoning from eating anything. While we are at it, we should also ban cars because they kill so many people. We might as well ask men and women not to marry or have children because, you know, they will die at some point. Let’s ban everything. That would make life much easier for many of us, wouldn’t it?

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Qaym Redesigns

It has been a year since I wrote about Qaym, the user-generated restaurant reviews website founded by my friend Jihad al-Ammar. I was invited to a press conference last night where Qaym announced launching a new design and new interesting features.

Jihad said the website has enjoyed a steady growth over the past year and attracted an active community around it. He then introduced the new design which included a new logo and color theme. No major changes on the interface, but the little tweaks here and there should improve the usability and make it easier for users to find their way around the site.

Qaym logo

The most important new feature for me is the addition of Google maps to the restaurant pages. Jihad says that it took them a long time and much effort to make it happen, but they are pleased with the how they finally implemented this. Since they only rolled out this feature yesterday not all restaurant pages have them yet, but you can check out this one to see how it is working.

Jihad announced during the press conference that Qaym is expanding by adding two new developers to the team: Mashhour al-Debayyan and Omar al-Amoudi, and that they plan to expand Qaym to include reviews for other services and products. A mobile version (and maybe an iPhone app) of the website is scheduled for later this year, he added.

I have to say that I’m not just impressed by how far Qaym has evolved, but I’m also extremely proud of Jihad and rest of the Saudi team behind the website. Their hard work and commitment to provide a great service coupled with high quality is to be admired and respected. It is a real shame that they don’t get the recognition they deserve, but I hope that this will change soon.

Saudi Dates

No, I’m not talking about that kind of dates, because as I’ve previously said on this blog, dating in Saudi Arabia is a risky business which I prefer not to get myself involved in. What I’m talking about here is those nice little things you find at the top of palm trees; dates that you can actually eat.

On the recently revived Jeddah Food blog I found this link to an article from the July/August 2004 issue of Saudi Aramco World magazine by author and photojournalist Eric Hansen. In the article, we follow Hansen in his journey to chronicle the history of dates production in the US, and later on his trip all the way to Saudi Arabia in order to compare the quality of dates between the two countries.

Al-Hasa, my hometown, is well-known for producing some of the best dates in the world. One type in particular, khlas, has a legendary reputation for its sweet taste. Reading through the two parts of the article made me feel proud, but it also made me feel a bit sad because growing dates has become a dying profession. The process consumes huge amounts of water, and as most of the natural water springs in the region have dried up, the costs have been rising to a degree where production for commercial purposes is becoming less and less profitable.

One point the writer gets right though, and I’m certainly glad that he does, is that most Hassawis don’t buy their dates from the market but rather from farmers they know directly. Not to mention of course that most families receive amounts of dates as gifts from friends and relatives. Actually, in many years we get more than what we need of dates that we end up giving away some of it and freeze some of it to enjoy later in the year.

For the Love of Pasta

italyflagThis should go well with the King’s visit to Italy today, but I swear it’s just a coincidence :-) but first I need to ask: is there that many Italian restaurants in Riyadh? I don’t know but I don’t think that I have seen many of them. But if you were craving pasta there are certainly a few places to be recommended.

There is Pizza Roma in Sulaymania. Now I have never been there because they don’t allow single men in the evening (don’t you just love how crazy the segregation in this city can get?) but whenever I ask about a good Italian place it is the first answer I usually get. So, Pizza Roma has a big reputation but since I’ve never tried it I don’t know how good it is. I trust the high taste of some of those who recommend it but I advice you to try it yourself, or if you have already eaten there you are welcome to share your views in the comments.

Another nice Italian place is the Roma Restaurant. It is one of Riyadh’s hidden treasures, located on a small dark back street near the intersection of Olaya and Mousa bin Nussair. A friend of mine who’s been to both Pizza Roma and Roma Restaurant says they have very similar menus. I recently visited the place and tried their mushroom cream soup as a starter and later the cannelloni with four kinds of cheese and béchamel. Both were delicious and the prices are not very expensive.

The place is small and if you have the misfortune to find a noisy crowd when go there then you might have a problem listening to your friend on the other side of the table. Even worse, some people don’t seem to have a problem smoking heavily in such a small closed area. Unfortunately, instead of banning this disgusting habit, the restaurant seem to encourage it by providing ashtrays on every table. A reservation is needed, especially on weekends, but during midweek you should be able to get a table without one if you were willing to wait for a few minutes.

On Tahlia St. you can find Pizza Amore, which offers a very good selection of speciality pizza that you can’t find anywhere else in town. I have been there a couple of times with foreign guests and my experience has always been more than nice. The families’ section is not very spacious so you may need to check before going there with a big mixed group. I recommend the anchovies pizza, if you were into that kind of thing, of course, as it seems that many people are afraid to try anchovies. I used to be like that, btw, but after trying this pizza I found that my fear was unfounded. They also make some seriously delicious raviolis.

Although I enjoy the experience of going to restaurants and slowly eating my meal under the dim lighting, sometimes I wish if there was a place where I can find a good instant pasta on-the-go that I can grab on my way home. I really wish that Mrs. Vanellis, which I like to go to in Khobar and Bahrain, would open here. If you happen to know something like that in town please let me know. Other than the restaurants I mentioned here I expect there might be a few more good Italian places in the city, so don’t hesitate to share your finds in the comments. What’s your favourite Italian restaurant in Riyadh?