The simple and robust cuisine of Yemen, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, is a reflection of its ancient Bedouin traditions with a few Ottoman influences, which have harvested the rich produce of the land for the table.
Located at the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula, at the confluence of the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, and with plenty of rain and lush green valleys nestled in between verdant mountains, Yemen was once described by Graeco-Roman philosophers and historians as ‘Arabia Felix’ which means ‘happy, fortunate Arabia.’ At the crossroads of the ancient trade routes of ancient times, Yemen was once a land rich in aromatic spices, fragrant resins and agrarian produce, which led the Prophet Noah to describe it as ‘the land of milk and honey’.
Honey is still one of Yemen’s most celebrated products. Sidr honey is considered to be the best and most expensive in the world. The Do’ran Valley is the home of the thorny sidr tree (a variety of jujube tree) whose blossoms generate the golden nectar. These are harvested by nomadic beekeepers, who, in a thousand year-old ritual, have been flocking to the valley from all over Yemen.
And where would the world be without waking up to a steaming hot cup of coffee? Mocha, a city on the coast of the Red Sea, was once the centre of the coffee trade. Marco Polo is said to have had his first sip of this bitter brew at Mocha, and spread the word about its energizing qualities. The Ottomans took coffee under their wings and soon all of Arabia, Europe, America, and the rest of the world became hooked to its charms. Coffee continues to be one of Yemen’s major crops and qishr, a brew made from the husks of the coffee bean, flavoured with spices and ground ginger, and served in cups smoked with mastic gum, is a popular Yemeni beverage.
The simple and robust cuisine of Yemen, one of the oldest civilizations of the world, is a reflection of its ancient Bedouin traditions, with a few Ottoman influences, which have harvested the rich produce of the land for the table. In true Bedouin style, meat and cereals are the mainstay of Yemeni meals. These are community and family events, eaten from a central platter, as in most Arab cultures. Vegetables are a mere accompaniment, as are the spice- and herb-laden sauces that are fixtures at a Yemeni table. Breakfast for most Yemenis is the ubiquitous Arab foul or the slow-cooked bean stew eaten with malooga, a flatbread cooked in a taboon or clay oven. Scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions and herbs, and the pan-Arab shakshouka make for a hearty breakfast accompanied with lahooh, the pancake-like yeastbread, kudem, which has the consistency of a crusty biscuit or khubz which is the most popular bread. Sweet, spiced ‘red’ tea, if in Aden, or black coffee (bunn), if in Sanaa, is served to wash it all down.
Lunch is the main meal of the day for Yemenis. It is a heavy meal of stewed meat with fresh bread to mop it up. Fahsa salta, considered to be Yemen’s national dish, is a common choice, especially as it is a versatile dish that can be made with whatever ingredients are at hand. Leftover or fresh shredded meat, chopped vegetables, lentils and eggs are simmered in a herb-flavoured hearty meat broth called maraq, in a special stoneware pot (madra), which retains the heat. Hulba, a foamy topping of whipped fenugreek paste and zahawik, a salsa-like condiment accompany the dish, which is scooped up with flatbreads like the multi-layered malawah bread sprinkled with black cumin. Kebda, slivers of meat or liver, stir-fried with onions and capsicums; aseed –mounds of thick wheat porridge resembling mashed potatoes, surrounded and topped with meat gravy; fattah, a flatbread soaked in broth; muttafayah, fish in a spicy red sauce; mandi, pan-roasted chicken with rice, and shurabahs or cereal and meat soups, are some of the more popular Yemeni dishes. Rice is served at practically every meal.
In between meals there are always snacks to feast on: sambosas which are savoury stuffed pastry triangles, khameer or small pillows of deep-fried dough, martabaq or stuffed flatbread squares and cheese zahwik – a combination of white cheese, onions, tomatoes and herbs.
An interesting feature of Yemeni food culture is that most of the dishes are available at food stalls in the market places and along the street, which blurs the line between home cooked food and street food. Some of the best and freshest food is available right outside the markets. Mediterranean vegetables like eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, okra and gourds, all add colour and variety to the Yemeni plate. The 1000-year old Bab-al-Yemen Market in Sanaa is a culinary treasure-trove, especially the spice market, which is awash with spices from all over the world.
Yemeni food makes abundant use of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Herbs like fenugreek, coriander and parsley flavour both meat and vegetable dishes. Together with the spices, they form the basis of distinctive Yemeni condiments like hulba, a foamy fenugreek paste, hawaij, an aromatic Yemeni spice mix, zahwik bisbas, a herb relish and zhug, a spicy sauce. Combined with onions, ginger, garlic and liberal lashings of semn, Yemeni clarified butter (ghee), the bouquet of herbs, the combination of crushed or whole spices, gives Yemeni cuisine its distinctive flavour.
While milk may not be popular today in Yemen, yoghurt and cheese from the Taiz region in the mountains are also an integral part of Yemeni meals. Shafoot, a refreshing and filling yoghurt,
and vegetable salad with spongy lahooh bread, is a popular lunchtime dish. Both, yoghurt and the goats’ milk hard white cheese, are smoked with the wood of the sidr tree to give them a unique flavour.
The orchards in the Hadda mountains provide Yemen with fresh and dried fruit, and nuts such as almonds, walnuts, apricots and peaches, which form the basis for Yemeni desserts. Grapes from Rawadh, near Sanaa, provide the sweetest raisins for naqe’e al zabib,
the delicious raisin drink. Most desserts are sweetened with honey and sprinkled with dried fruit and nuts. Many pan-Arabian desserts such as basboosa, kunafah and luqamat al qaidi are popular in Yemen, but it’s specialities include malikia or masoob, which is a banana bread pudding, and bint al sahn, which are honey-soaked layered pastries.
Climate, geography and history have given Yemen a cuisine which is somewhat different from the desert fare of most other countries in the Middle East. The ravages of time have taken their toll, but with its unique cuisine, exceptional coffee and prized honey, it could even now be described as ‘Yemen Felix’ or ‘Happy Yemen!’
– Rita D’Souza