The bittersweet wonders of Yemeni cuisine



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With the help of their national dishes, Yemeni people are rebuilding their lives

It’s 7am in Obock, a fisherman’s village on the coast of Djibouti, and a small crowd is already gathering outside Ali Hamed’s restaurant. In the smoke-filled kitchen, the sweaty 25-year-old is spinning large pieces of dough up in the air like a professional pizza maker then placing them on a hot pan to cook. It’s time for Yemeni breakfast.

A women gathers water in Thula, Yemen before the war – Dinosmichail / Shutterstock yemeniA women gathers water in Thula, Yemen before the war – Dinosmichail / Shutterstock

Hamed is one of the thousands of refugees who have fled Yemen since the start of the civil conflict in April 2015 when Houthi insurgents ousted the government, prompting a Saudi-led airstrike campaign. War has plunged his country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with an alarming 18.8 million people – almost two-thirds of the population – in need of emergency aid and seven million at risk of famine.

The situation is forcing tens of thousands of Yemenis to seek asylum in Western nations or to cross the Red Sea into neighbouring Djibouti. But employment options for refugees are very limited, so many are becoming entrepreneurs and opening their own restaurants.

Despite the current famine, Yemen has a deeply rich culinary history that has grown over centuries of cultural exchange and combines flavours from three different continents. Their love of bread alone could fill up several recipe books; from their biscuit-like thamool to the fluffy, buttery flatbread that is Hamed’s specialty, the malawah.

The old town of Sana'a is a UNESCO world heritage site, but it now lies in ruins – Shutterstock yemeniThe old town of Sana’a is a UNESCO world heritage site, but it now lies in ruins – Shutterstock

Eggs are also a favourite in Yemeni cuisine. Shakshouka is a popular egg and tomato dish in North Africa, where it often features poached eggs. But the Yemeni version usually consists of scrambled eggs and uses green chilies. That’s what local fishermen, refugees, and UN workers are all eating this morning, sitting on their plastic chairs outside Hamed’s favoured hole-in-the-wall. “Yemenis are actually boosting our local economy with their food,” says Ahmed Houmed, who manages the nearby refugee camp and loves spicy eggs for breakfast.

But humanitarian workers are not the only ones discovering Yemeni flavours. Refugees are sharing their delicious recipes with host communities the world over, from food trucks in Berlin to beachside restaurants in Dubai. Even Djibouti’s slow-moving capital is now home to dozens of highly regarded Yemeni restaurants like the newly opened Happy Yemen.

Bean saltah is a traditional Yemeni stew – ShutterstockBean saltah is a traditional Yemeni stew – Shutterstock

It’s owner, Aziz Almohaidi, used to be the manager of a five-star hotel in Sana’a. Now, he runs this small joint, which still smells faintly of drying paint. “People in Djibouti have been so welcoming,” says Almohaidi. “This is my way of giving back.” Behind him, a young couple waits for their food sitting on red, Coca-Cola branded chairs, while a large family breaks bread on the carpeted floor.

Happy Yemen is hard to find but can be smelled from a block away thanks to its skilled young chef, also from Sana’a. His specialty is saltah, a mouth-watering beef stew made of chilies and tomatoes which is considered Yemen’s national dish. Stews are a staple of Yemeni food. Goat, lamb, chicken … They are all chopped up and slowly cooked on a base of onion, green pepper and hawaij (a traditional mix of spices with cumin, cardamom, turmeric, and clove).

A short walk from Almohaidi’s place, is Saba, another popular Yemeni restaurant specialising in seafood. Southern Yemenis are known for their fishing skills, and Saba takes pride in having the freshest catch in Djibouti. Customers can enjoy it in their large pink dining room packed with fans.

Yemeni fishermen are renowned for their skill on the water  – Dmitry Chulov / Shutterstock yemeniYemeni fishermen are renowned for their skill on the water – Dmitry Chulov / Shutterstock

Most patrons order Mashwi (grilled fish) and ask to be shown to the fridge where they can pick from a wide variety of scaly choices. The fish is then grilled whole and served simply with lime and sauce.

Sauce is the lifeblood of Yemeni cuisine. Yogurt sauces are common, but true connoisseurs swear by Zahawiq – a spicy chutney similar to Mexican salsa, which accompanies almost everything from rice to fish and meat.

Almohaidi believes that “food feeds the soul as much as it does the belly”. And he says he misses his wife’s cooking the most. She is still in Sana’a looking after their children but, as soon as the restaurant picks up, he hopes to bring them over.

“Can you taste the hulba?” he asks me as I dunk my bread in the spicy stew. Hulba means fenugreek. The brown seed is a crucial ingredient in Yemeni cuisine, and it tastes like burnt sugar – bittersweet.