Until I embarked on expat-wife-life, the term “coffee morning” would have conjured an image like this:
You know, the ladies-who-lunch crowd who have gotten the kids to school, gone to the gym, had their blow-outs, and still have some time to kill before lunch. It’s morning, there’s coffee, and by making enough of a fuss to give it a name you’re elevating it from bathrobe time to something social. Lay out a pastry or two. Maybe a doily. I wouldn’t have pictured this:
Coffee mornings in Riyadh are a bit bigger than a gathering of the New Rochelle housewives in Laura Petrie’s kitchen, commiserating over their goofball husbands. Various compounds host them as commercial enterprises, inviting vendors and customers, then usually selling coffee and the trimmings. There’s often a breakfast buffet, as well.
The pictures here are from the granddaddy, Kingdom coffee morning, hosted by (predictably) the Kingdom compound. It happens on the first Monday of every month (with variable summer or holiday interruptions), and compounds from around Riyadh send excursion buses full of women. Still more women come by taxi.
(Yeah, just women. A friend of mine once brought her teenage son who’d arranged to meet friends there during a school break and she had to sidetrack to the security office and turn in his passport to admit him specially. And grudgingly. I think an adult man would’ve had to do a lot of convincing about why he was there. “Gender discrimination” isn’t a thing here.)
Shopping happens at tables set up by vendors with jewelry, scarves, pottery, food, t-shirts, handicrafts, and gifts. Kingdom Compound makes complete use of this large hall, and vendors are spread outside, as well, with rugs, woodwork, garden supplies, and more food.
At the far back of this picture, where the crowd dissolves in to a mass, is the schwarma guy–that’s the Saudi preference for the sandwich concoction you also see as kebab, pita, or gyros. I’m happy to have it from time to time, but I won’t go out of my way for it–I find the flavors fairly flat (as I do in a lot of Saudi food), and the local preference for rolling french fries into the sandwich only dampens the flavor further. No, I’m more inclined to go toward the other building, where you find the brick oven where they make the cheese boats:
Basically, they’re made from a fluffy bread dough and filled with a salty, ricotta-esque cheese, with a sprinkling of zatar (a thyme-oregano-marjoram mixture, mixed with some toasted sesame seeds and salt). They’re DELICIOUS. They’re everywhere in Riyadh, and I try to resist just picking them up at the grocery store cheese counter as a habit, but the ones at the Kingdom Coffee Morning are my favorites. The picture above didn’t come from coffee morning, but from this wonderful recipe blog. Haven’t tested the recipe myself, but it’s sure to be on the right track. Even if you’re not interested in making some for yourself (though you should be) check it out to get a better idea. And to get tempted.
Paul, the French bakery chain with locations in Riyadh, usually has a table with baguettes and brioches, and there’s a local German bakery with brown bread and pretzels. My favorite find this past time, though, is extra special because I don’t expect to see it again. It came from a stand doing a bake sale to help Syrian refugee children go to school:
Lookit that. Horrible, yes? What could possibly go right when the most visible ingredient is pastel marshmallows? But I’m a sucker for a sample, and they wouldn’t be giving samples of something awful, right? NO, they would not. The sample was crazy good. I asked what it was, and the person at the table said she didn’t know, but it was made by a New Zealand lady. I promptly bought two slices and went straight outside to my New Zealand friend.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Ah,” she smiled. “Lolly Cake. Or at least the best they could do with the ingredients they have here.”
The marshmallows are a substitution for “fruit puffs,” which I understand are a soft candy, and the body of the cake is made from crushed malt biscuits and sweetened condensed milk. I’m guessing digestives were probably used in mine. They’re stirred together and formed into a log, then rolled in dessiccated coconut, which is finer than the sweetened flaked coconut common in the U.S. If you want to give it a try anywhere but New Zealand, your substitution guesses are as good as mine. I found original recipes you can start with here and here.
But meanwhile, on every side, is the shopping. It’s a high school bazaar gone multiculturally mad:
And the place for hooded abayas (very popular with the Western set who only carry head covering in case it’s needed, and find a hood the easiest way to do it) is with the abaya guy on the far side of the stage:
(Warning: He’s pretty stubborn about his prices, and the prices even tend to go up over the course of the morning if you’ve chosen one that happens to be selling well. Shop early, and let it go if the price doesn’t suit you.)
But for me, the best part of coffee morning is the chance to move freely around a pleasant space, dressed in an outfit you actually like, with no restrictions about where you can and can’t go or what you can or can’t do. I’ve come plenty of time with no intention to shop, but just to buy a cheese bread, sit by the pool with my friends, and enjoy a beautiful day.
If you’re a woman living in Saudi Arabia, and it’s not your home country, you start to miss things that you ordinarily wouldn’t think about. Putting on an outfit that makes you feel put together and whole, then walking around in public wearing it. Sitting down anywhere you want with food and friends. Feeling like just another totally ordinary person in the crowd around you. These aren’t things you even know you miss until you have them again, and it’s remarkable how much they can do to nourish the soul.
I don’t even drink the coffee. But I always come away from coffee morning feeling perked up.