Laurie Sieminski is a neighbor and master quilter who is spending four years in Riyadh with her husband Adam while he serves as president of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (referred to as KAPSARC in her writings). She’s been sending dispatches to her friends in Forest Hills and has given us permission to share some of her observations.
by Laurie Sieminski
One Saturday morning, brighter and earlier than it should have been, we arrived at the Camel Market, only to find – no Camel Market. Adam’s colleague Abdullah, who had agreed to be our guide for the day, had gotten there a bit ahead of us, and said that the market had been relocated to a site about eighty kilometers away. A very attractive wall had recently been constructed around the original site, to indicate it was off limits. He gleaned this information from the few die-hard dealers who were parked just off the road.
It appeared they were holding their own black market camel market, which consisted of eight or nine small white Nissan pickup trucks with camels sitting in the back. Abdullah is himself a camel owner, so he is well qualified to explain to us the ins and outs of camel trading. These animals, he told us, were young males, about five months old, that were being sold just for their meat, and would likely be someone’s dinner that night. All had various skin conditions that prevented their being used for racing, and certainly for showing. No beauty pageant winners among this lot. The camels were hobbled in the trucks so that if the traders sighted a police car, they could quickly leave the area. We wandered around and admired the beasts and asked lots of questions.
A camel that age yields about fifty pounds of meat. Had we truly been shopping for dinner, we would have had to fork over somewhere between $500 and $1000, depending on our bargaining skills. But you can see that our dinner would have been fairly expensive no matter which one we chose. None would have won prizes for their looks or their dentistry, or for their lovely voices, as their harsh braying would put a donkey to shame.
The traders seemed amused by our presence, and would tap the camels with a long bamboo control stick, I think just to get them to vocalize, since they clearly weren’t going anywhere. Most of the traders shied away from the camera, but one of the them, who playfully kept saying no, eventually agreed to have his picture taken, but only with me. He told Abdullah, “The woman is nice” – and presented me with his bamboo stick. It got scrubbed down with bleach at home. Camels carry Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and while I am up for many experiences here, that isn’t one of them.
So we will visit the relocated Camel Market another time, and I have the Camel Festival on my calendar for January.
On a recent Friday we booked a date (couldn’t resist writing that) with a colleague of Adam’s to get a tour of the Riyadh Date Souk. Abdullah (yes, the same guy who took us to the black market camel market) met us at the wholesale fruit and veg market. His family hails from the al Qassim region, which is known for its date farms, so he knows his stuff. Inside a large air-conditioned building, about forty vendors showcased their wares – mounds of dates, boxes of dates, freezers full of dates–so many varieties, and so many colors – who knew there are bright red dates? Yellow and brown predominate, with every shade in between.
Some clumps of fresh dates are sold still attached to their stems. This is the first stage of ripening, called khalal, and then bessar, when the dates are hard and have a slightly bitter taste from all of the tannins. For me, this is an acquired taste. The next stage is rotab, when the dates are soft and sweet. The last stage, when dates are truly ripe, is tamar. These are the ones we snack on every day. Fortunately, dates are good sources of antioxidants and fiber, so we don’t feel guilty grabbing a couple as we walk through the kitchen. Dates will keep in the freezer for up to three years.
At one stall, a vendor and I had an animated conversation (with his basic English, and with my less-than-basic Arabic, plus lots of hand gestures) about the life cycle of dates, and at the end, he presented me with a jar of fresh date syrup, which he says is usually spread on bread. We haven’t tried that yet, but it is most excellent poured over vanilla ice cream. We had so much fun with those guys that we bought a huge box of dates. We bargained for 75 SAR, but Abdullah jumped in and got him to agree to 65 SAR – that’s about $16 for at least five pounds of dates.
We learned that the cream of every commercial grower’s crop is set aside for the royal family – they get the largest, sweetest, most perfectly shaped dates. All dates are graded according to size and color within a variety. The vendors’ best-quality dates are kept in freezers, and when you buy a box, the vendor turns the box upside down, then removes it to show you that the fruit in the bottom layer is as beautiful as the fruit shown on the top. We have put our box in the freezer, where it will soon be joined by our share of the KAPSARC date harvest. I can’t imagine how we will eat them all before next year’s crop is upon us. Hence my request for recipes! Thanks, by the way, to those of you who have kindly answered my plea.
The date souk is part of the wholesale fruit and veg market, which is spread out over several acres. In open pavilions, the produce vendors stack their goods in colorful piles of melons, peaches, mangoes, grapes, apricots, tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, oranges, lemons, limes, squashes, and some vegetables from Asia that I have never seen before. If it grows on a tree or in the ground, it’s probably there, and very inexpensive relative to supermarket prices. Of course, you have to buy in bulk, but many items were packaged in small quantities. I bought a tray of figs for $8. They won’t make it to jam.
Previously: “Life Here Comes With a Warning”