Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pesto

A couple of my student-worker colleagues were huge pesto enthusiasts. The only ingredient difficult to come by was basil. For a while, we were unsure whether it was available at all. I hadn't tasted it in any of the Yemeni food. Someone made pesto from parsley once, but the taste just wasn't the same.

Hannah did discover that you could buy basil in the produce market we passed every day on the walk home from our daily lunch restaurant. An old lady sold it, sitting on the corner of the market's entrance next to where the motorcycle taxis waited for fares.

Interestingly, Hannah told us that while basil was available it was not primarily used by Yemenis for cooking. Instead, it is used as a fragrant hair decoration.


The produce market we passed daily


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Food in Yemen

I'm trying to cover some more of the "every-day" aspects of living in Yemen. Here is a desciption of common Yemeni foods found in Sanaa.

Salta and Fasha

Salta is a sort of stew served boiling hot in a clay pot cooked over an open gas torch. Main ingredients are meat broth called (called marag, presumably made from lamb), potatoes, rice, onions, scrambled eggs, hot peppers, sometimes corn, other vegetables, and a green whipped topping called fenugreek (never figured out what that was). Fasha is much like Salta, but with meat added in addition to the broth. I often found this to be a bit more flavorful. When eating both it’s common to ask for extra broth to pour in as you get closer the bottom of the pot.

They’re best eaten by dipping in hunks of bread torn from rolls called kudem. They’re shaped like a country biscuit, but have a hard crust on the outside and a consistency much like an English muffin on the inside. The taste has slight overtones of sourdough. Instead of kudem, it’s also common to eat salta and fasha with pieces torn from large disks of flaky bread.

Kudem is considered army food, which builds into salta’s popular history as a food connected with the Turkish occupation of Yemen (and thus the Turkish army). Legend holds that Salta first appeared in Yemen as a poor-man’s dish. The Turks would cook their food, and then throw the scraps together to serve to poor Yemenis. This stew of scraps became what is now known as salta, an unofficial national dish of Yemen. This “anything goes” attitude lends a versatility to salta that makes it possible to cook up at any time. The ingredients are flexible, allowing one to turn whatever happens to be lying around the kitchen into a delicious meal.

My coworkers and I started a routine of going to my favorite salta restaurant for lunch after our half-day workdays on Thursday. Inside, the restaurant was claustrophobic and often smelled of leaking gas, which was at times disconcerting. But the food made up for it and I have many fond memories of lunching there, yelling over the whooshing hiss of the gas burners to converse with friends. Located in the al-Qaa district, the bright pink walls and blue shutters made the place easy to relocate for someone new to the city.

Fasha in my favorite salta/fasha restaurant

This is how salta (and many other things in Yemen) are cooked

Beidh Adeni

Beidh Adeni (Egg’s Aden-style) was a popular dish for students and staff at our school. A restaurant in Sharia Mataam (Restaurant Street, an alley just off Tahrir Square) served the best stuff around. Beidh Adeni is very similar to an omellette or stuffed scrambled eggs, that is eggs cooked over a stove (or more accurately, like salta, over a huge open gas flame) with tomatoes, hot peppers, and onions mixed in. What adds the special Adeni flair is the sauce. I was never quite sure what it was, but I always conceived of it as mild hot sauce. Like most food in Yemen, it’s eaten by grabbing bits from a communal plate using bread, torn either from flaky disks or rooti, which is sort of an over-processed roll with a hard outside and soft inside; kind of a massed-produced imitation of a baguette.

Eating beidh adeni in Shariaa Mataam

Cooking Beidh Adeni

Fool

Fool is the Arabic word for beans, and the food is ubiquitous in the Arab world. Eaten for breakfast and often dinner, fool to me has always been similar to refried beans although there are other ways of serving it. The best fool I had in Yemen was at a restaurant near the front of Sharia Mataam. This particular place served creamy fool in a steaming earthen pot and produced a special bread, one that I’m guessing is made with more egg and was similar to a tortilla.

Fasoulia

Fasoulia in Yemen, at least at the restaurant I frequented, is similar to foul in that the main ingredient is beans. However it has an added flavor which sets it apart, which I presume comes from the addition of tomato paste. Fasoulia beans are not mashed into a paste like fool, and they are often served garnished with hot peppers and onions and eaten with routi. I often ate this for dinner at the restaurant owned by the school’s accountant’s father, near the cabinet building, as it was only a two minute walk from work. Sometimes we’d stop there for tea to take a break on our half-day workdays on Thursday, the first day of Yemen’s weekend.

Fatta

Fatta is essentially pita torn into small bits served soaked in some other ingredient. It can be made as an entrée or dessert, depending on what’s added to the bread. I first encountered it as a dessert. This was fatta tamr, that is, date fatta. The result here was a sort of dry paste of bread and mashed up dates, complete with pits, served with honey drizzled on top. I however preferred fatta mouz, banana fatta. The bananas give a moister texture, like bread pudding, and sweeter taste. It too is served with honey.

Lastly there’s fatta the entrée. Rather than mashing the bread with fruit, it’s made by mixing the bread bits with either a milky yogurt and fresh vegetables, like cucumber, or by mixing in meat broth and cooked vegetables. I first tried the latter, but was hesitant as I was visually repulsed by the soggy, Gerber-esque mess. That made the taste all the more surprising, being vaguely reminiscent of a meat pie. I was shocked something so off-putting could taste so good. The yogurt version also surprised me by its edibility and actually proved to be a refreshing meal on a hot day.

With the bread already mixed in, how does one eat fatta?? With a spoon, actually. Except for the date fatta, which is dry enough to pinch off with your bare hands.

Grilled Chicken and Rice (spiced rice)

Far less exotic than the above mentioned dishes, grilled chicken and rice is the standard lunch for Sanaanis. I was surprised by how well Yemeni restaurants season and grill their chicken. The result was almost always a crispy seasoned skin holding backing juicy meat, good enough to rival any good home barbeque. The rice made the meal as well. It was served with spices and had a yellow to orange color, making it tasty enough to eat on its own.

Grilled chicken, in the restaurants that line Sharia Mataam at least, is prepared in tall, flat, multi-row metal rotisseries that often had four or five chickens going at a time on all four vertical rows. You could easily order chicken in the restaurant or take it to go. When ordering you can get either 1/4 chicken, 1/2 chicken, or whole chicken.

A less appealing lunch alternative for the masses was boiled chicken served in broth. The meat was tough and stringy. The broth bath turned the chicken skin a sickly green color. It’s not at all gross when you get into it, but faced with the alternative of grilled chicken the choice is a no-brainer.

Aseed

It’s hard to describe Aseed. It has a consistency and color similar to mashed potatoes, but I’m almost certain it’s not made from them. Aseed is served in a bowl or pot, sitting as a mound over a pool of gravy. An additional hole is dug in the center of the mound and filled with more gravy, volcano-style.

I first ate Aseed when lunching with Aiman’s family at their home in Jibla during my long weekend trip. At the time, Tom, the anthropologist, remarked that it was the Yemeni food he most missed. From that I got the impression that Aseed falls more in the category of home-cooking than restaurant food, although I did have it once at a restaurant in Sana’a. We chose this particular restaurant at the suggestion of one of our Arabic teachers after we discovered our regular lunch spot was unexpectedly closed (they had run out of cooking gas – Sana’a was just starting to feel the effects of the coming fuel shortage crisis). It was a good change of pace, but obviously the home cooked version was better!

(A quick internet search told me that Aseed is made from fish meal. I’m glad I only learned that just now).

Sahawik

Ahhh, sahawik, how I miss having you at every meal. Sawhawik is essentially salsa, like what you would get at a Mexican restaurant. It’s just cut up vegetables, with a tomato base usually including peppers, onions, and goat cheese. Consistency of the sauce runs from diced and chunky all the way to pureed, and even the style served at the same restaurant would change daily, sometimes red, sometime green with more emphasis on peppers, sometimes chunkier, sometimes smoother, sometimes with more cheese and sometimes with less. One time a teacher brought cheese back from his home town of Taiz, which is famous for the stuff, and specially asked the cook at our regular restaurant to make a batch of sahawik using that. Taizi cheese is similar to Gouda and it gave the salsa a rich, smoky taste quite unlike the sahawik we’d usually get.

Sahawik is generally served as a side or appetizer at just about any meal. If you’re eating salta or aseed or anything else served in a pot, you can dump it straight in and mix it with the food. Otherwise it’s used to flavor whatever else you’re eating and is also good to eat straight on the flat flaky bread served at many meals (quite like eating chips and salsa).


Sahawik in our regular lunch spot

Grilled Fish

Grilled fish is a treat we had every once in a while, cooked to perfection in our favorite restaurant. Planes fly from Aden daily carrying fresh fish to Sana’a, perched high in the mountains. We’d first walk to the back of the restaurant where the day’s catch would be spread on a table. We’d pick our fish and the cooks promptly got to work. Grilled fish is served split lengthwise down the middle and splayed open, with the now exposed inner meat, highly seasoned with orange spices, facing up with the scales still attached to the underside of the presentation. A veteran fish eater could use a spoon to skillfully pull away the spine and remove most bones. I was surprised the first time we ordered fish to discover the head is left attached. Despite the creepy appearance the fish itself tasted marvelous, especially when spritzed with the lime slices usually served on the side.

Jambouri

Jambouri is simply Arabic for shrimp. Shrimp served Sanaani style are cooked with vegetables, peppers, and spices in a clay pot with a reddish/orange sauce. The final product is somewhat similar to Cajun cooking. Like most other Yemeni dishes, they’re eaten out of a communal pot by scooping up bits with pieces of flat flaky bread.

I first had jambouri in the al-Shaybani restaurant, famous in Sana’a for serving classic Yemeni cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. However I most enjoyed jambouri when getting it with one of our Yemeni Arabic teachers and one of my British colleagues. As a special treat after work on payday, the three of us would catch a minibus to the fish markets in al-Qaa district to purchase the shrimp fresh (more or less). Our teacher would haggle over the price for 10-15 minutes, with occasional input from my colleague (she is an extremely accomplished Arabic speaker). Meanwhile I followed along as close as possible. Once we settled on a price we’d take our shrimp down the block to one of the many seafood restaurants surrounding the markets where we’d hand the bag of shrimp over the cook he could cook up a batch for us fresh. After sipping Cokes (or Fanta or Bebsi or ginger beer) and chowing down some bread and sawhawik, the shrimp would finally arrive steaming hot simmering in a glorious stew of spices and vegetables. These were meals I greatly enjoyed, not only on account of the great food but also because of the intimate company. Sharing a quiet meal in a small restaurant with two of my favorite people was a nice change of pace from the more common large excursions to upscale restaurants in the Hadda district.

Mashakl

Mashakl means something like “all mixed up.” When ordering mashakl for lunch, this meant chicken or lamb mixed with vegetables. There were two options at Mataam Al-Qadhi: maskhakl abiad (white) and maskhakl ahmar (red). White is drier with an emphasis on potatoes and a texture similar to hash browns. Red is a moister mix including your standard array of veggies. A regular lunch as this favorite restaurant of ours included sahawik and a few plates of mashakl. It’s eaten with bread from communal dishes.


Mashakl Abiad

A common lunch spread

Kebda

Kebda is chopped up strips of meat cooked in a skillet and mixed with peppers and onions. Visually it resembles fajita meat, and since it tasted good I never gave its “meat identity” any thought beyond that. I was shocked later to learn that it was made from liver, something I never would have voluntarily considered eating before. This is another dish I often got at the restaurant around the corner run by our accountant’s father.

Shewarma

Lastly we arrive at shewarma. You might otherwise recognize this as kebob, the kind popular at street stands in Europe and Australia. Shewarma is a lamb or chicken sandwich popular across the Arab world. The meat is cooked on a large upright skewer rotisserie and shaved off as needed to make sandwiches. This leaves the meat on the rotisserie in an upside-down cone shape. I found Shewarma in Yemen markedly different from Shewarma in Cairo or Lebanon. In those countries, one sandwich is enough for a full meal. In Yemen, a single sandwich’s “filling-you-up” capacity is more akin to a McDonald’s snack wrap. This Yemeni version was often topped with a dash of hot sauce. When eating shewarma for dinner, I’d often get three.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trip Outside Sana'a: Part 4 - the Text

The following morning I woke early to take a swim in the Red Sea. I had been there before during my semester in Egypt, but that was hundreds of miles north and on the Sinai side of the Gulf of Aqaba. During that first trip I could look across the Gulf and see the mountains of Saudi Arabia. I never thought that one day I would be on that same shoreline, albeit much further south. This time I imagined myself sailing straight across to the Eastern shore of Africa. I would most likely land in Djibouti.

Getting up was hard considering the long day before, but I wouldn’t have too many chances to swim in Yemen and I looked forward to the opportunity. We saw a Yemeni family out swimming as well. Two young women waded out into the shallow sea, black gowns swirling in the lazy tide, and tossed a ball with their younger brother or son.

Having another long day ahead of us, we wrapped up the swim before 9am, checked out, and hit the road. We would drive north along the flat coastal plain to Zabid, a town that once ranked with Cairo’s al-Azhar as a premier center of religious learning, then continue on through Beit al-Faqih, and take a right on the Houdaidah road to climb back up the mountains and return to the Sana’a Plateau.

We bumped along the long coastal highway, sharing the road with plain-dwelling motorcyclists zipping back and forth, scarves wrapped tighter around their faces and kilts flying in the wind. Scrub brush lined either side of the road. To the left along the shore thatched-roof huts clustered in tiny villages, reminding me of the ancient ties between Ethiopia and Yemen’s coast. We sped happily along before suddenly slowing to a crawl. The road was clogged with Land Cruises and Hilux pickups, with sheep, goats, and cows. We’d past through a handful of small towns already. Why was this one so busy, choked with people beyond the capacity of the surrounding town?

“Souq al-Sabt, the Saturday market,” our Yemeni archaeologist companion said. He went on to explain that towns all up and down the Tihama plain hosted weekly markets, one on each day. Merchants traveled from town to town, following the market rotation. One of our fellow travelers, my coworker, was in need of a specific antibiotic. We decided to stop and see what we could find.

The market had the medicine and more. Wending through livestock, clothes, baskets, produce, cheap goods imported from Asia, men leading baby goats by their front legs, men straddling their motorbikes, we found our way to the pharmacy in the back of the open-air market. Located in a block concrete building, we found inside the exact antibiotic we were looking for. Walking out of the pharmacy I bought a pack of playing cards with $100 bills printed on the backs. The souq had a whole different atmosphere than highland Yemen. It felt more relaxed. Women wore more colors. The infusion of African influences contrasted with Sanaa’s references of ancient Arabia.

After perhaps 15 minutes we had drawn quite a crowd and the Toyota Land Cruiser was surrounded by curious onlookers playfully passing around a cheap fez. Having found what we came for, we waved goodbye and drove on. On the road again we got a good look at how livestock was transported to market: by motorcycle. A motorbike in front of us had two small goats peaking like baby kangaroos out of a satchel draped across the back seat.

We stopped for breakfast just south of the city of Zabid proper. It was a small restaurant on the roadside, a squat concrete building with a tin roof. We sat at picnic tables on a covered porch in the front the restaurant. Part of a cow hung on a hook at the entrance to the building. After taking our order, the waiter approached the carcass, held it steady at the rope, and sawed off a hunk of meat. This was diced and mixed with vegetables, spices and wonderful sauce and cooked over a blue butane flame. We ate the final mixture with large flaky disks of bread. It was the tenderest meat I ate in Yemen.

We finally arrived in the old city of Zabid, squeezing the Toyota through winding alleys of whitewashed brick buildings. Zabid is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, but is in danger of losing funding due to lack of commitment to proper upkeep programs. After finding a place to park where we wouldn’t block the entire alley road, we piled out to explore this ancient city. First stop was the Mosque of Zabid, in front of which we had parked. I now forget its significance. Perhaps it was the largest mosque in Zabid, or the most renowned for religious studies. However, I do remember the next mosque’s significance: this was the Great Mosque, and it is the oldest in Yemen. Both mosques were beautiful and similar in style, at least to my untrained architectural eye. A surprising feature of both was the preponderance of Stars of David. The symbol is found throughout Yemen, and mosques are no exception.

Inside the Great Mosque some religious attempted to proselytize to us. They were polite but insistent. I explained I was Christian and so knew God already; they explained that this was good but insufficient. Monotheism followed a historical progression, they said. First was Judaism, introducing Man to the One God. Then came Christianity, which improved upon and displaced Judaism. Then came Islam, the final and complete revelation of God and his message to Man. Like a baby develops into a youth and then a man, they illustrated. I said Christianity suited me just fine, but to keep things cordial mentioned I’d think about this metaphor. But tension grew when they asked our Yemeni archaeologist why he had not already proselytized to us. They questioned the quality of his faith. We left.

The old souq of Zabid was empty. Either it was a bad time of day or the local economy was getting hit hard. I did see one concrete stall selling baby chicks vibrantly dyed. We then moved on to try and see some old manuscripts in an archive the archaeologist knew of. By archive I mean a second storey room in an ordinary unmarked house with locked glass cases. There was a long delay while someone from the building sent for the key. Seeing the manuscripts piqued my interest as a history major, but there wasn’t much to see inside. We were supposed to receive a presentation on something but this didn’t happen. I don’t remember why, but I do remember being hot, humid, tired, and fatigued. We all were. We were happy to pile back in the car and move on. We drove out of the city under a recently restored medieval gate.

After a much needed nap in the back of the car I woke up in time for lunch. All I can remember was fried chicken and defending my food from relentless flies. I couldn’t believe it was only lunchtime; it felt like it had already been a full day. After finishing lunch we had to wait a while before getting back on the road. Aiman the driver was searching for some Dew, which people drink with qat, which he had already bought so he could stay awake for the long drive through the mountain pass back home to Sana’a.

Another nap bridged the gap to our next stop: a bathroom break somewhere north of Bait al-Faqih and south of Houdaidah. While waiting for the girls to finish their business, I got out of the car to stretch my legs. A group of boys, from middle school to high school age, were playing foosball in a small outbuilding a couple yards away. They invited me in to play with them, where I enjoyed a five-minute game of footer (as our German students at the school used to call it). This is one of my favorite snapshot memories. Foosball is everywhere in Yemen; from street corners to cafes to clubs in remote villages boys can be found playing the game. This was the first and only time I got to play the game on a whim.

Traffic was clogged on the way out of town from our pit stop. Some of our crew bought necklaces of jasmine from the vendors on the road, taking advantage of the long line of stopped cars. Finally moving again, I settled back into my backseat perch, buried in Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen. I found the book so confusing the first time through, a deluge of brand new names, places, geographical features and formations. I had no foundation in this. Our Middle Eastern studies classes had no place for Yemen deferring to the important examples of Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Any mention of Yemen was merely a footnote to Nasser’s attempts to spread Pan-Arabism there in the 1960s in war known as “Nasser’s Vietnam.” The book made so much more sense now after having been in Yemen for two and a half months and absorbing from popular culture who the important historical figures were and where the major geographical features and regions are.

I could not keep my head buried in the book for long, however. Yemen’s geographic diversity was about to surprise me again. We began the trip three days prior by driving along the north-south mountain range which spans the entire western portion of Yemen. We followed the range south through Ibb, Jibla, and Taiz, gradually lowering in elevation. We crossed to Mokha, on the southwestern tip of Yemen on the Red Sea shore. From here we drove back north along the coastal plain known as the Tihama, through Khokha and Zabid. We were now parallel to Sanaa again, but on the wrong side of the Haraz mountains. We were at sea level. The capital was on a plateau atop the mountains, near the highest peak in the Arabian Peninsula. We had reached the road that connects Sana’a to Houdaidah, the Red Sea port city. It was time to turn east and climb.

The lush verdant valleys were the first to catch my eye. Bubbling brooks, running water! cut fertile valleys through the barren rocky mountains. I was awestruck to see such green, such life, in a country that for me had so long been defined by the dusty city of Sana’a. Shortly after entering the mountains we pulled to the side of the road, deep in one of these valleys, to let the engine cool before beginning the long, hard climb up the Chinese-built highway. A red rock face met the left side of the road. The right side dropped off into a cultivated farm sprinkled with banana trees before abruptly ending again at the mountain side shortly across the narrow valley. After ten minute or so we piled back into the car and started off. Hidden green valleys watched over by stone tower houses passed by the window.

The last leg of the trip was spectacular. The road began switchbacks once we got higher into the mountains and the sun began to set. I cannot even describe the view. All I can say is that you have not seen naturally beauty until you’ve driven the Houdaidah-Sana’a road, starting at the bottom in early afternoon and arriving in Manakha at the peak of sunset, when the sun finally falls behind the previous row of mountains and the sky turns pastel purples and oranges.

Well, I’ll try to describe the views anyway. You can just see more and farther than anywhere else I’ve been. After reaching a ridge after a long set of switchbacks, you can turn around and see the entire valley spill out before you. You can spot the bend in the asphalt, thousands of feet below, thick as a shoestring, and think “oh, I remember being there a couple hours ago.” To your right you see another ridge peak, a couple miles away and at the same altitude, but with a valley that seemingly drops down do sea level in between. To your left is the same. Atop every ridge is a quaint stone house, built in the unmistakable Yemeni style. The house sits at the highest point possible, both for defense and to conserve space on the mountain side, which is carved into terraces. Much of Yemen looks like a brought-to-life topographical map. You look to that distant peak, with the bottomless valley in between, and the isolated house on top. You look closer, squint, and spot another peak perched by another impossibly remote house.

I remember finally reaching Manakha, the halfway point where the climb ends and the trip through the high mountain passes that take you to the Sana’a plateau begins. I turned to look back across the valley. The surrounding mountains had turned an icy blue and purple, the sky shown a soft orange, every crag and jagged peak, every silhouette of a mountaintop house, thrown into colored relief by the sunset. An immense valley between us and them. By this point my camera had died, but I don’t think pictures could have done it justice.

The drive had its fair share less transcendent moments. I already mentioned the switchbacks. These usually involved blind hairpin turns, with a rock face on side of the road and a thousand foot drop off on the other. Aiman’s qat had kept him awake, but it also seemed to make him a little more aggressive in navigating the road. I was more worried about the other drivers, however, many of whom seemed to enjoy taking these blind death-traps at great speed. Who cares if someone’s coming in the other direction? This road, as I’ve mentioned, connects Sana’a to the port city of Houdaidah, the main point of entry for imports making their way to the capital. Accordingly, large trucks filled the road. Before every turn I imagined one of these trucks rounding the corner just as we did and the carnage that would ensue. I got over it eventually.

Darkness fell and we continued through the mountains to Sana’a. We arrived at the final checkpoint before the city and handed the guards the last copy of our travel permits (in Yemen a permit is required to move from governorate to governorate, for foreigners at least). A half hour later we crested a ridge and below us spilled an immense bowl filled with orange lights. We were back in Sana’a.

***

Epilogue:

The students back at the school were abuzz. Mubarak’s fall the previous night sparked spontaneous celebrations in the streets, which then turned into demonstrations. Up to that point all protests had been organized in advance with set times and dates. They usually began around 9:00am and ended in the early afternoon, when most people left to lunch and join qat chews. These organized protests were foundering; people were losing interest. Only two days before clerks at our hotel in Taiz seemed convinced that Yemenis were more interested in going home to chew qat to sustain a protest like those in Cairo.

These new protests, fired by the enthusiasm of Egypt’s success, were the first to arise unplanned. A handful of inspired students began a sit-in at Sana’a University.

This was February 12th. Over time the sit in grew. Activists set up a permanent stage for speakers. The mu’atasimeen, literally the “sitters-in,” set up tents to emphasize their commitment to maintain the sit in until Saleh abdicated power. In early March a protester was shot trying to bring his tent into the camp. The tent-city later expanded beyond the university square, now dubbed “Change Square,” and stretched into the surrounding streets. More protests were shot on March 12th, and then 52 were massacred on March 18. This led Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen to defect from the army on March 21, sparking fears of civil war. I was told by my boss to leave the country on March 23. I boarded a plane early the next morning.

Trip Outside Sana'a: Part 4 - the Pictures

Driving up the mountains to Sana'a

Verdant valley and running water in the mountains

Inside the Mosque of Zabid

Mosque of Zabid

Selling jasmine necklaces

The Great Mosque

The Great Mosque

Dyed chicks for sale

Mosque of Zabid

Mosque of Zabid

Outside of the Mosque of Zabid

Transporting livestock - the Tihami way

Souq al-Sabt, outside Zabid

Aiman posing with the gathering crowd in Souq al-Sabt