Yemen is a remote and little-known country, closed to the outside world for centuries and still not very accessible. Not surprisingly, it has a distinctive cuisine.
A bit of cultural background
The Roman name for Yemen was Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, partly because of its wealth: It stood athwart the main spice and incense routes. Another reason for the name was that Yemen is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to get substantial rainfall. Located on the Indian Ocean, it’s exposed to the monsoon winds, and the Yemenis make the best use they can of the resulting precipitation. In some places, the hillsides are terraced, as in Southeast Asia. However, even this agricultural benefit is not enough to support the country’s population. For centuries, half of its adult men have worked abroad. (There are a number of Yemeni farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.)
Today, Yemen is the 37th poorest country in the world. It has potential tourist attractions, particularly in its impressive architecture — the Yemenis seem incapable of putting up a dull building, even when they use cinder block — but poverty and, recently, sectarian violence have kept it from drawing many visitors.
Although the country is best known to gourmets for producing coffee, most Yemenis can’t afford to drink it. Nearly all the beans are exported, and the locals instead drink a tea made from the husks, called gishr. It tastes like green coffee beans, I’m sorry to report — which is probably why it’s always flavored with spices — and contains no caffeine. For a caffeine-like kick, the Yemenis chew a local narcotic called qat (also pronounced gat or chat). It’s supposedly addictive, but I’ve chewed with wealthy Yemenis who could presumably afford the best and I found it about as stimulating as an espresso or two. I’ve concluded that people chew qat because it’s the principal social activity. (Women do it too, but in separate rooms.)
The fundamentals of Yemeni cuisine
After its spice and then coffee industries collapsed, Yemen was entirely isolated from the outside world for many years before 1963, when there was a revolution that devolved into the continuing period of instability. As a result, very little has been written about its cuisine, and all that most Westerners know about it comes from the cookery of the Yemenite Jews of Israel. Probably the best-known Yemeni food is a spice mixture/sauce whose name, s’hug, means “ground” in Arabic. There’s no canonical recipe; it can be made with just about any combination of ground, chopped or crushed flavorings. In the country’s capital, Sanaa (where they use the plural form of the word, sahawig), it’s usually chopped tomatoes, chiles and onions — essentially identical to Mexican salsa cruda.
Yemenis retain a medieval tradition of cooking in pots carved from soapstone; they prefer stone to metal because it doesn’t add any flavor to the food. Stoneware takes a while to heat up, much like cast iron (though it doesn’t have to be seasoned); it is also surprisingly sturdy, even amid leaping flames in restaurant kitchens.
The most common main dish is stew (marag), often including tomato and potato and usually flavored with fenugreek. The Yemenis are the world’s biggest consumers of fenugreek, mostly known to us from commercial curry powder and artificial maple syrup. They eat so much of this spice (which belongs to the legume family) that it contributes measurably to their protein intake. They prepare it by soaking the seeds in water for a couple of hours to soften them and leach out some of their bitterness, then whipping them to a froth with ground leeks. A dollop of this pale-green foam is often served on top of marag. The result is curious — imagine chili con carne garnished with bitter applesauce — so it takes some getting used to.
Because of the popularity of qat, Yemen is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a tradition of sit-down restaurants. But these are far from fine-dining places — the customers are all in a hurry to get something in their stomachs before a chew, so the scene tends toward a roiling chaos of people calling out their orders (usually the only choices are beef marag or chicken marag) and wolfing down the food.
In homes, you may find a wider range of dishes, such as duqqa, which is chopped meat and onions braised with parsley, or mkashshan, chicken stewed with browned green onions. Because of the country’s poverty, though, the diet is heavily based on grain, featuring lots of gruels and porridges and dishes containing bread.
Fortunately, bread is the cuisine’s strong suit. There’s an excellent flaky bread called mulawwah, which has a curved shape from the way it’s stuck on to the wall of the tandoor. For my taste, the finest Yemeni bread is lahuh (pronounced la-HOOH, with both h’s strongly articulated), a spongy, crepe-like product similar to Ethiopian injera but with an attractive crunchy quality of its own. As injera is preferably made with Ethiopia’s native grain t’ef, lahuh is made with Yemen’s indigenous white sorghum (dhura baida), which accounts for 80% of the country’s grain production. It resembles a cornstalk bearing popcorn balls instead of ears.
So there you go. If you find yourself in Yemen, try to get some mulawwah or lahuh with your marag. And if somebody offers you qat, say, “Oh, heck, why not? But only as long as you’re paying, partner.”
Main photo: A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: Copyright iStockphoto/ lenazap