JEDDAH: Ramadan is marked by plenty of local traditions in Saudi Arabia, with food and drinks specially prepared during the month, including the refreshing beverage sobia.
Made from simple items found in every kitchen, the drink is believed to have found its way into the Hijaz region through Egyptian pilgrim caravans that arrived there centuries ago.
It has gained popularity among Hijazi families over time and become the go-to homemade Ramadan drink due to its thirst-quenching properties and taste.
Due to high demand, sobia can be found on sale in the street but only the savvy know where to find the best one.
Recipes for the drink have been handed down from one generation to the next, with each family adding their own personal touches and preferences.
Some of the most famous Hijazi families are Al-Khosha in Madinah, Al-Khodari and Al-Hussaini in Makkah and the Hanbazaza family in Jeddah.
In the search for the best sobia, Arab News spoke to Essam Hanbazaza who has been making and selling the drink with his sons for over 40 years in Jeddah.
Their stall is tucked away in an alley of the city’s Al-Bawadi district.
Hanbazaza, a 65-year-old retired Saudi airlines electrical engineer, has been supplying Jeddah residents with his special homemade recipes.
He ensures that the best quality ingredients are chosen, even testing and tasting the product months before the start of Ramadan so his customers are guaranteed to enjoy it.
“After graduating from college in 1985, I started to make sobia for my family members and they used to be impressed by the good taste,” he told Arab News. “They encouraged me to start selling sobia in the neighborhood and I worked on developing my recipe for five years before selling it to my friends in the office. Gradually, I started to gain more popularity and people started to come for my sobia from Makkah and Madinah.”
During Ramadan, each day after 4 p.m., people make a beeline for sobia vendors.
It is available in three traditional flavors, including the white version made of barley, flour, dry bread, and sugar. Red sobia is made with the same ingredients but with added raspberry. There is also a version with raisin. Spices such as cardamom and cinnamon are sometimes added.
It is prepared two days prior. Ingredients soak in an airtight container for at least 24 hours. The drink is then passed through cheesecloth or gauze to remove any impurities.
Although Hanbazaza has kept the authenticity of the original taste by offering the three main flavors, he has created some special varieties to keep up with the new generation’s preferences for experimenting.
“I have added raisin pieces to the raisin sobia so people can enjoy drinking and eating at the same time. I have also created flavored barley sobia with
natural fruits including mango, peach, red berries from Taif, strawberry, and watermelon.”
Sobia prices range from SR12-17 ($1.6-$4.5) and the drinks are offered in old-school packaging, a plastic bag.
Loyal customer Feras Muhammed said he was introduced to Hanbazaza’s sobia by his uncle, who used to work at the Saudi airlines years ago. “I come here every Ramadan to pick my favorite raisin sobia,” he told Arab News.
Hanbazaza is also known for being an enthusiastic chef.
“I have a huge passion for cooking as my father used to be the chef for the late King Abdul Aziz when he’d stay in Jeddah and, during college days in the US, I used to make traditional Saudi dishes for my roommates and they all used to admire my cooking talent.”
He also inherited the art of pickle making and offers an array of traditional pickles made in the true Saudi way, developing over 13 types. Only a Hijazi would know how important the assortment is, for no table is complete without pickles.
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