© Mark Lowey 2023. All rights reserved.
In this piece, Mark Lowey describes an afternoon spent preparing for a khabsa  dinner party.
Originating in Saudi Arabia, khabsa is a mixed rice and meat dish, served on a communal platter.
Midafternoon on a bright and warm November day, Bdah and I drove to the outskirts of New Ain Dar near Jebel Al Riyahiyah. Bdah’s cousin runs a roadside business there where camels, goats, and sheep are kept in open-air stables and offered for sale.
As we approached, Yusef, an employee, arrived on a quad bike to meet us. Bdah opened his car window and asked if we could purchase a sheep. We disembarked and Yusef invited us into a small pen where three sheep were housed, two long-haired haroof and one harri.
Yusef is there to help us select a sheep.
Haroof and harri sheep.
Back Fat Check
Bdah asked Yusef to hold one of the haroof still. It struggled and then settled down when Yusef grasped it by the horns. Bdah knowingly placed his hand on the animal to feel the texture of its back and tail. He was looking for a meaty texture under the heavy coat.
“I’m checking the fat on his back,” explained Bdah. “It’s full of meat. Also, the tail is full of fat. But let’s check the other one.” He checked the other haroof and was still not satisfied. Bdah said, “Now, the harri,” turning his attention to the white, short-haired sheep being held steady by Yusef.
Bdah carefully inspected its back and tail. The flesh quivered when he patted it with his hand. “Look how deep,” said Bdah with knowing satisfaction. “Put your hand here. It’s full of fat.” My fingers sank into the fatty tissue.
Yusef holds the harri.
We feel the fatty meat under the harri’s coat.
“Masha ‘Allah this is a good one,” said Bdah. “This is the best one for me. OK, khallas, this one. This is a male harri.”
Yusef brought the harri out of the pen and tied two of its legs together. Bdah opened the back hatch of his Land Cruiser, and Yusef placed the sheep inside and climbed onto the rear bumper. Conveniently, the slaughterhouse was only two hundred meters away. We drove slowly across the sand with the hatch still raised, the vehicle’s open-door alarm beeping and the poor harri bleating periodically. Yusef held on tight.
Yusef carries the sheep to the car and accompanies us to the slaughterhouse.
Sharp Knife Butchers
I watched as our harri was killed in the Halal manner required by Islamic law. After the blood was drained, the skilled attendants used sharp knives to skin and gut the sheep quickly and place the carcass in a large plastic bag.
The butcher makes quick work of the harri.
Next stop was a nearby catering business that specializes in preparing large khabsa meals. The meat was placed in an aluminum pot. It would be boiled and left to simmer with a mixture of spices, such as black pepper, cloves, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay leaves and nutmeg. 
Bdah knew exactly what he wanted and issued clear instructions to the caterer in Arabic. Afterwards, and perhaps for my benefit, he continued in English, “Cook it very well. Well done. Very good rice. Fresh spices. On time. Eight o’clock exactly in Fardaniyah. Khallas? No oil!”
The meat is carried into the catering shop.
Bdah notes the cooking method and instructs the caterer.
Time to Invite Guests
We had a few hours before the dinner party. Bdah gave me a brief driving tour of New Ain Dar. We drove by the dramatic Jebel Al Riyahiyah, aglow in the late afternoon light, then circled the roundabout adorned with “AIN DAR” in large letters. We passed by the Friday Mosque. Beside the petrol station, we stopped at the drive-thru coffee kiosk for tea and water.
We continued north to the outskirts of Old Ain Dar, and Bdah showed me the old concrete camel trough he remembers from his childhood. Then, as night fell, we made our way to Fardaniyah and to the Emir’s (mayor’s) residence. We sat in large chairs as Emir Abu Nasser welcomed us with tea, coffee, and conversation.
All this time Bdah was working the phone. He made multiple calls to friends and family and invited them to the dinner that would take place in a couple of hours. In true Saudi fashion he gave his invitees little advanced notice and most accepted his invitation. Even the Emir.
Jebel Al Riyahiyah.
New Ain Dar.
Tea and water for the road.
Bdah shows Abu Jack one of his boyhood hangouts, the camel through on the outskirts of Old Ain Dar where he swam with his friends on hot days.
Abu Nasser, Emir of Fardaniyah.
Party Tent Across The Street
Bdah had erected a large yellow tent in a vacant lot just across from his mother’s Fardaniyah home. Guests started to arrive. As is the custom, Bdah’s sons and nephews took turns serving coffee, tea, and dates. Polite conversation and storytelling ensued.
When a new guest arrived, everyone would stand up and shake hands and exchange pleasantries with him, one-by-one. Soon the party reached about 35 men. It was almost eight o’clock.
The party begins.
One corner of the tent was designated as the dining area. Right on time, several of the catering personnel arrived and spread out a clear plastic sheet on the carpet, to catch any spillage. Then they carried in the khabsa platter, raised on a low platform and large enough for eleven people to encircle. Bottles of Laban, a type of fermented milk, and soft drinks were arranged around the platter. The meat and rice were decorated with fresh cucumbers and cooked chicken livers. It was beautiful.
The khabsa platter arrives.
Bdah went to work selecting the first shift, inviting the elders and special guests to dine first. I was seated beside Bdah’s cousin, Mohammed Nasser, and across from the Emir. The meal was delicious. Mohammed helped me pick out tender morsels of meat that were still too hot for my fingers. One gentleman across from me literally tossed me a choice piece he had selected. It landed softly in the bed of rice in front of me. I copied the technique of pouring a little laban on the rice, the better to make rice balls in your fist.
As we enjoyed the feast, Mohammed Nasser whispered, “They are waiting for you to finish.” He reminded me that normal etiquette requires diners to wait for the foreigner or guest of honor to finish before they do. After all, the second shift was politely waiting in the wings for their turn to eat.
I decided to take one more bite and rolled up a ball of rice and meat in my right palm. Just then, the Emir stood up. He is a busy man and had apparently waited long enough. The rest of the group quickly left the platter. I had missed my chance to signal that we had finished.
I sat on a low cushion because my legs don’t bend as well as the Saudis.
Our generous host, Bdah (center in white ghutra), joins in the second shift.
It wasn’t long before the party dispersed. Some of us went to a local shop for tea – the first upscale coffee shop of its kind in the tiny village of Fardaniyah. But that’s another story.
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 Khabsa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabsa
Khabsa is an Arab mixed rice dish, served on a communal platter, which originates from Saudi Arabia. It is commonly regarded as a national dish in all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. It can also be found in regions such as southern Iran, the Negev desert in Israel, and the Malabar Coast of India.
These dishes are usually made with rice (usually basmati), meat, vegetables, and a mixture of spices, such as black pepper, cloves, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay leaves and nutmeg.
The main ingredient that accompanies the spices is meat. The meats used are usually chicken, goat, lamb, camel, beef, fish, or shrimp. The spices, rice, and meat may be augmented with almonds, pine nuts, peanuts, onions, and sultanas.
The Arabic word halal means permissible, and the rules of slaughter are based on Islamic law. The animal must be alive and healthy; a Muslim must perform the slaughter in the appropriate ritual manner, and the animal's throat must be cut by a sharp knife severing the carotid artery, jugular vein and windpipe in a single swipe. Blood must be drained out of the carcass.