Rich or poor, Saudi or expatriate, everyone in the Kingdom has dug into the delicious and wholesome bread that tamees is. Indeed, it is difficult to miss this bread as scores of shops selling it dot the Kingdom.
As simple as this bread fundamentally is - baked in the traditional round oven - there are a number of variations the makers of tamees and their customers indulge in. Toppings of cheese and onion are legendary, as is the ‘biscuit’ version that literally looks and tastes like a massive biscuit.
The bread originated in Central Asia and was introduced to the Hejaz by Central Asians centuries ago. Even now the makers of tamees are overwhelmingly of Afghan or Pakistani origin.
The Saudi Gazette visited one of the oldest and most famous tamees shops in Taif and met the men behind this mouth-watering bread.
Ali Shan, a 33 year old Pakistani expatriate, who is married and supports his family in Pakistan, bakes tamees bread and knows what the recipe for its success is.
“The bread has been at the same price for years even though the price of everything else has risen in the whole world,” he remarks. “We cannot sell this bread at the same price in our own country, as the price of wheat and flour is very high. Over here, the price of both ingredients and fuel are considerably lower,” he adds.
His co-baker Mohammed Akbar is a 40 year old Pakistani expatriate who also works to support his family back home. “Now we use electronic mixers, but bakers used to use their hands to mix the dough before. That was not hygienic at all,” he comments.
“We have now been instructed by the owner of this shop to wear gloves when preparing the dough, and the extremely high temperature of our oven means that any bacteria will be killed. We change our ovens every two years,” he added.
Another co-baker Mohammed Yusef, who has been working in the business for more than thirty years takes issue with the constant commotion in his shop.
“The most crowded days for us are during the month of Ramadan, the Ashoura days and on the ninth day of Dhul Hijjah (Arafat day) when many people keep voluntary fasts,” he remarked, adding that the occasion of Eid allowed them to create a special kind of tamees that is produced with milk and cooking fat and priced at SR 3.
“We are considering getting an electronic system to control the queue as in some fancy restaurants. Many problems occur because of the present queue system as customers quarrel about who’s first and often we have to call the police to break the fight up,” says Ali Shan.
Mohammed Yusef proudly claims that their shop is the oldest and most famous tamees shop in all of Taif and adds that they get regular visits from customers from Jeddah, Makkah, and Medina as well from Riyadh and Dammam during the summer. However, he admits that the taste of tamees has definitely deteriorated in the past few years.
“We used to bake tamees in a clay oven with the use of coal, but ever since the municipality has prohibited coal for safety and health reasons, we have started using gas. However, the flavor has changed. Tamees used to be a lot more delicious when it was baked using coal,” complains Yusef.
Most shops in the Kingdom also sell accompaniments with tamees such as foul (beans boiled and cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes), although hummus is another popular side-dish.
“Some customers have commented that they found this kind of bread at stores in other countries like the U.S., Britain, Egypt and Malaysia.
I have also read in the papers that some Saudi students who go abroad for their studies on scholarship, have started baking and selling this bread and other local cuisine over there,” says Mohammed Akbar with infectious glee. He is obviously thrilled at the export of tamees.
Mohammed Yusef, on the other hand, is more interested in how to lure young people from the appeal of fast food like pizzas and burgers, back to tucking into a wholesome meal of tamees and foul.
“Besides tamees and foul, we have also started selling famous, traditional food items that might appeal to young people. We sell mantoo (a dish that contains meat, onion and spices steamed together with pasta) and yagmush (the same as mantoo but baked rather than steamed). Both dishes are piping hot and delicious when eaten with hot sauce or black pepper,” Muhammed Yusef advises. – SG