“No Reservations” season 4, episode 13: Saudi Arabia

Location: This week’s episode takes us to Saudi Arabia, where Tony is guided by the winner of the No Reservations FAN-atic contest, Danya Alhamrani. The master of strange destinations heads to the land of camels, deserts and oil to take a “peek behind the veil” of one of the world’s more mysterious destinations.

Episode Rating
: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five.

Summary: Last year, No Reservations put together a contest to find Anthony a co-host for one episode. After sorting through more than 1300 entries, ranging from creepy, to boring, to downright strange, Mr. Bourdain settles on his winner, Danya, who plans to take Tony on a grand tour of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia was certainly an interesting episode – it is well off the beaten tourist path, allowing for interesting insight into a country not particuarly well-known by many Americans as anything but a source of oil and terrorism. Tony and Danya set out dispel such notions with a journey into finer points of Saudi cuisine and daily life.
Things get started in Jeddah, a surprisingly cosmopolitan metropolis bordering the Red Sea. Little more than a minute into the episode and Tony launches into the “dont’s” of Saudi Arabia – bemoaning the country’s lack of alcohol, gambling and women covered head to toe. But Bourdain’s host Danya is having none of it – the two set off on a tour of her hometown. Danya’s Saudi home is surprisingly western – a plasma TV, nicely appointed with tasteful furnishings and all the modern conveniences. Amazing – they don’t live in tents! For those that didn’t catch the sarcasm there, this seemed a bit unnecessary, but one can hardly fault Tony, as his co-host Danya is calling the shots.

Down in the historic center of Jeddah, Danya and Tony stop for some breakfast, a mix of offal involving liver, kidneys and other sundry animal parts. The meat is cooked in ghee with tomatoes, red onions, parsley and some chili sauce. Bourdain digs into the meal with characteristic gusto, though his host looks less than enthusiastic. Having second thoughts Danya?

To complete his Saudi transformation, Bourdain is fitted for a Thawb, the traditional ankle-length robe worn by men. Let me tell you, even with the local garb, it’s hard for a 6-foot tall American to “blend in” – but it’s a humorous moment nonetheless. Tony ends his visit to Jeddah on the roof of a house, where the group feasts on a whole lamb roasted in a traditional coal oven. A stunning view and a stunningly delicious feast – how’s that for unexpected?

The next day, Tony and Danya head to the Camel Bazaar. Will they be riding them off into the sunset a la Lawrence of Arabia? Not a chance, dear viewer – our carnivore-in-chief has the pleasure of picking a camel that he will be eating later in the show.

While we await the senseless slaughter of the dinner camel, Bourdain and Danya take an intermission for a few other activities. They visit a Saudi mall, a favorite destination for locals to hang out and participate in some conspicuous consumption. I found it amusing that they sell a huge variety of westernized women’s clothing at the mall – women are required to be covered head to toe to maintain “modesty,” yet sexy lingerie and high heels are easily available. Seems like a bit of a contradiction, no?

Shopping would make anyone hungry, so our two hosts stop at Al Baik, Saudi Arabia’s favorite fried chicken joint. The seating at the restaurant is separated into “singles” and “family,” allowing Tony a chance to discuss the interesting differences in status between genders inherent in Saudi society.

In the afternoon, Bourdain and Danya go lizard hunting. Considered a Bedouin delicacy, they watch as the hunters try to trap lizards coming out of their underground burrows. The meat is then charred over an open flame while stewed in tomato and onions. The verdict? Not nearly as bad as expected.

But this odd meal is only the appetizer for what is yet to come. Our sojourn in Saudi Arabia, ends fittingly with the consumption of the much-anticipated camel. Tony, not surprisingly, finds the meat to be delicious, and he and his 20 new Saudi friends spend their meal laughing and joking in between bites of meaty camel hump. Finger-licking good!

So ends Tony’s voyage to Saudia Arabia. The addition of a co-host provided an interesting twist which proved a welcome change. Tony was out of his element at times without his obligatory alcohol binges, but came away with interesting insight into a country with a lot of misconceptions among foreigners. By no means the best episode ever. The episode’s food choices rank high on the “weirdness” index, but perhaps a bit lower on the “I love this and want to eat it again” ranking. Nevertheless, it was an interesting chance to challenge to the assumptions of many viewers and their relative lack of knowledge about this Muslim country.