Saudi family brings traditions, food to Lenox


When Mohammed Al-Henaidi came to work at the testing lab at Sabic Innovative Plastics in Pittsfield in 2011, he brought his family and their traditions, especially their food traditions.

His wife, Norah Al-Khazaim -- Saudi women do not change their names when they marry -- cooks traditional Saudi meals for her family of seven every day.

Al-Henaidi arrives at his job about 7 weekday mornings and the couple's five children go to area schools. A breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast or kabsah, the Saudi national dish of spiced rice with meat and aromatic vegetables or pasta and salad -- or cold cereal for those family members who prefer it -- is on the table by 5:30 a.m.

Despite the early breakfast hour, lunch normally is served any time from 1 to 4 p.m. Al-Henaidi comes home for lunch in Lenox, where the family lives, about 12:30 p.m.

Al-Khazaim packs a day's worth of vegetables, fruits and other snacks, perhaps leftovers from last night's supper, for each child. But, the children eat their real lunch, most often pasta or rice and vegetables seasoned Saudi-style, when they get home after school. Only Abdullrachman, Abdull for short, a graduating senior at Lenox Memorial High School, eats his real lunch in the school cafeteria. He also eats a second Saudi lunch when he gets home after soccer practice and visiting with friends.

Rahaf, 9, and her sister, Reem, 12, are students at Berkshire Country Day School in Lenox. Sister Ahad, 16, is a tennis player at Lenox Memorial High. Sister Abeer, 20, was attending Berkshire Community College.

Dinner brings the whole family together at the table. It starts about 6 or 7 p.m. with traditional Saudi coffee, dates and dessert, mainly for the adults, an hour before the meal. The Al-Henaidi children comfortably help themselves to whatever sweets are being served.

When there are no guests, Abeer and her mother often "sit around and drink coffee and talk. We always have coffee," she said. "Abdull has coffee in the little cups when he wakes up in the morning."

Saudi coffee cups are handleless and barely larger than a Tootsie pop.

Al-Khazaim is not formal, but on special occasions, she or her husband serve the coffee in a traditional handmade brass coffee pot polished to gleaming.

The coffee is accompanied by Saudi dates and a sweet homemade dessert. Sometimes it is a simple dessert, but one morning last week, Al-Khazaim baked two cakes, sweet muffins, tiny pizzas and bread-like cookies sprinkled with zaatar, an herby spice mix.

During the coffee hour, Al-Khazaim joins in the living room or at the dining table as she goes in and out of the kitchen, completing dinner preparations.

At dinner, Al-Khazaim serves at least four dishes, often five or six, plus a smooth, homemade oatmeal-based soup. Everyone gathers around the table and eats from the serving dish, using a soup spoon to take, mix and eat the foods. Al-Khazaim offers glasses of hot green or black tea when dinner is over.

There are endless versions of kabsah, Saudi comfort food. It is often the main course and no one in the Al-Henaidi family gets tired of it or complains. It combines rice and seasonings with large chunks of chicken or meat, usually lamb or goat but sometimes camel back in Riyadh. It could have other meat, but seldom fish.

Al-Khazaim flavors her kabsah with tomatoes, onions, garlic, sweet and hot peppers and a bunch of spices. It is subtle, not spicy. An accompanying vegetable and meat dish may be hot with fresh, green cayenne chilis, another a smooth, rich potato sauce or a chopped fresh salad of cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Another favorite Saudi dish is jareesh, a savory, smooth rice pudding eaten with the spicy vegetables and the kabsah.

While the family is not formal, they are observant Muslims, daughter Abeer said.

"We try to pray five times a day. We never eat pork or drink alcohol. It is forbidden by our religion. In Saudi Arabia, everyone, all women over 18, wears the hijab, the traditional head scarf. My mother and I wear the abaya, a covering cloak from head to foot. We cover our faces with just a slit where our eyes are showing."

Here, while they are not required to wear the hijab, both Abeer and her mother wear it when they are in public. It is also a fashion statement and comes in many styles.

"We are more comfortable," Abeer said.

Al-Khazaim said it is forbidden that any man other than her husband see her without a covering on her head and shoulders.

At home, the women are as casual as Americans in their dress, favoring comfort and bright colors.

Middle sister Ahad said she does not choose to wear a hijab here in the Berkshires. But she did wear one in Saudi Arabia even though she was only 14 when she left.

The Al-Henaidi/Al-Khazaim family is generous with their food and with sharing their culture. They are also willing to try other food and enjoy eating at a few Berkshire spots outside their home. They like Chinese food, pizza, pasta, Coke, an Indian restaurant in Lee and a hamburger shop in Pittsfield. Al-Khazaim, however, prefers to eat her own food and to eat at home.

Al-Henaidi and his daughter, Abeer, say during a meal, "Bel afia," meaning, "I wish this meal benefits your body."

A guest then replies, "Allah yuh afia," "I wish Allah to give you the health you wish for me, too."

Saudi coffee

Norah Al-Khazaim roasts fresh, green coffee beans to light brown, not black, herself for her coffee. She separately grinds and stores the roasted beans and whole, green cardamom pods that make up Saudi coffee. Sometimes she adds saffron threads for extra-rich flavor.

She serves about 1/4-inch of the fragrant, light brew into traditional Saudi doll-size, handleless china coffee cups as is, no milk, no sweetener. She says many Saudis prepare their coffee stronger than her family does.

Al-Hemaidi explained each traditional step one afternoon, demonstrating every detail with the brass coffee pot. On formal occasions, the host stands to serve coffee, pouring with his left hand, offering with his right into his guest's right hand. The family is not strict here in the Berkshires but back home, in Riyadh, all details are observed.

1 liter, about 1 quart, water

3 flat soup spoons roasted, ground Saudi coffee

2 rounded demitasse spoons ground, whole green
cardamom pods

Pinch of saffron, optional

In a percolator-type coffee pot, bring the water to a boil. Add ground coffee. Bring back to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, gently for 20 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. Add the ground cardamom. Crush in the saffron threads, if using. Return the pot to the heat. Bring back to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, 2 more minutes. Remove from heat.

Through a strainer, pour into a serving pot.

For a traditional Saudi experience, serve very small portions in tiny, handleless cups with dates and a sweet. Serves 4.

Norah Al-Khazaim's Toasted Milk Dessert Bars

Norah Al-Khazaim created this dessert as accompaniment to afternoon, pre-dinner coffee for her family.

She uses what she calls tea biscuits also called petite beurre such as Social Tea cookies. She says any plain, not-too-sweet, unflavored cookie will work for this easy, subtle, homey dessert.

About 1/2 cup powdered milk

Small 5 or 6 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

2 ounces (1/2 stick butter), melted

1/4 cup finely grated cheddar or any other cheese of your liking

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon instant coffee

About 12 tea biscuits such as Social Tea or plain, unflavored cookies or graham cracker squares

In a large skillet, slowly toast the powdered milk over low heat until it turns a golden, warm brown.

While the milk is toasting, in a blender, combine the condensed milk, melted butter, grated cheese, sugar and instant coffee. Blend.

Arrange biscuits/cookies in a single layer to completely cover the bottom of a small, dry pan, about 7 inches x 10 inches.

When powdered milk is toasted golden, scrape it into a small bowl. Pour blended mixture over. Stir and beat with a spoon for a moment until smooth. Spread over cookies in pan.

Refrigerate for 3 hours or freeze for 15 minutes. Cut into bars to serve. makes 8 to 10 servings


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