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.

4 comments:

  1. I think you should write about food, bes. I have two additional comments: there's no foul in the Maghreb (haram!!!) and my nanny growing up made Jake and me roti as a snack! It's my favorite and I've been searching for it ever since. It's Indian in origin.

    ReplyDelete
  2. No way! It's no surprise that Roti originated in India; Yemen has a long history of trade with the country. I think that's where a lot of the curry and other spices in Yemeni dishes comes from.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello Paul,

    You have a way with food descriptions! Visuals only, I wouldn't be assertive about trying some of those dishes, but your words make them sound palatable.

    OK, maybe not the fasha.....

    Thanks for the food tour of Yemen. You obviously have great affection for the country, its people and its culture.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete