I have always believed that food is an important social and political tool. It has the power to bring people together, and it promotes understanding between cultures. You may think you don’t like the South, but you’ll put up with it because of barbecue, country ham, cheesy grits and biscuits. You might think the French are a bunch of snoots, but you cherish every single croissant. So, in this vein, I have decided to highlight the culinary contributions of the (now) six countries targeted in the latest incarnation of a travel ban, blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii and facing a likely appeal. It is my hope that, through an understanding of their culinary traditions, you will be more compassionate toward their peoples.
I begin with Yemen, a country with so many problems that a ban on travel to the United States seems unlikely to even be on their radar.
Yemen lies east of North Africa and south of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq. Civilization has thrived in the region since the 8th century B.C., and its location on the western Arabian Peninsula, bordering both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, made it an important crossroads in the lucrative spice, textile and incense trades between India and Europe. Everyone wanted to control Yemen to compete with the East India Trading Company. The Ottoman Turks tried to steal it twice. The British tried once. It was the epitome of a hot property.
In addition, the early-15th-century Sufi monasteries were cultivating the coffee beans they found in Ethiopia, and by 1500 coffee was leaving the Yemeni port of Mocha to supply the Ottoman Empire. This early success transformed Yemen into one of the most advanced Arabian societies. Everybody loved it! The Romans even dubbed it Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia.”
The influence of trade on this culture is reflected deliciously in its cuisine. Though the food is similar to that found across the Arabian Peninsula, it is uniquely influenced by Indonesia, eastern Africa and India. Fenugreek, ginger, cilantro, cumin, turmeric and cardamom are ubiquitous. Hawaij, the traditional spice mixture found in many recipes, contains a very Indian mixture of anise seed, fennel seed, ginger and cardamom.
Flat breads are not unusual in the region, but the Yemeni menu includes an Indian roti and a spongy pancake similar to Ethiopian injera. They are baked daily in a taboon – a clay oven shaped like a truncated cone, with its opening on the bottom or at the top like a tandoor. Similar to the Indian and Asian tables, many dishes are enlivened with highly spiced condiments, including the frothy hulba, made from whipped fenugreek, herbs and hot chiles.
But more than their multicultural pantry, it is the Yemenis’ hospitality that makes them unique. Guests are treated like royalty, and a refusal of food is considered an insult. In remote areas it is said that a Yemeni will shoot over the heads of travelers who do not stop to sample their hospitality. (I have no such tradition. Feel free to keep moving.) Meals are communal, and Yemen has not bothered to incorporate such western frivolity as tables, chairs or utensils. Dishes are scooped up with pieces of bread or simply the right hand (which is ceremonially washed beforehand).
If you are a guest you will probably be served meat dishes (mutton, chicken, goat or fish along the coast), which are generally reserved for special occasions or an ill family member who needs the extra nourishment. Porridges from local grains (sorghum, millet, corn) or legume flour are popular and highly nutritious. There is also a giant flour dumpling called aseeda, which is garnished with either sweet or savory condiments. Aseeda has a long history as a Bedouin staple and resembles similar African fare. The national dish of Yemen is saltah, a stew made from lamb or lentils, with many regional variations.
There is no alcohol served in the Muslim home, although Yemeni Jews enjoy raisin wine and arak, anise-flavored spirits. Tea is the preferred beverage, after the meal, served highly sweetened with cardamom or mint. Coffee is too expensive for most families, but qishr is a popular drink made from ground coffee husks and ginger. Dessert is rare, but, if you are very lucky, you might be served the brioche-like bint-al-sahn, to be dipped in butter and honey. Yemeni honey is considered a delicacy and a status symbol, but you likely will only find it in the cities, along with more exotic fruits.
Rather, you would have found it, when there were cities in Yemen.
Struggle for control of this strategic site has seemingly never ended. The current civil war is two years old, but it’s rarely covered in the news, because the situation in Syria is so much bigger.
In 2015 the Houthi, a Shia minority group, took over the capital, Sanaa, and kicked out the U.S.-backed government. Worried that the Houthis were being supported by Shia forces from Iran, a Saudi-led, mostly Sunni, multinational coalition with support from the U.S., U.K. and France began a targeted air campaign. As in Syria, the bombings took out civilian targets, including schools and hospitals. And as in Syria, these actions created the perfect breeding ground for Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Also as in Syria, rebel-held regions have been cut off from international aid. So Yemenis are dying not only from violent military attacks, but from starvation. The UN currently estimates Yemen has nearly 2 million malnourished children. Not a lot of saltah being enjoyed of late.
But unlike Syria, the people are very, very poor. Conflict throughout the modern era has created a failed economic state, so most Yemenis cannot afford to flee. Plus, Yemen is much farther away from Europe. Consequently, there are no boatloads of refugees (another reason Yemen is not making the 6 o’clock news). Nevertheless, 3 million Yemenis are internally displaced.
So — since you aren’t getting much Yemeni news, I’m offering you a chance to get to know Yemeni culture, a spoonful at a time. Make this meal. Invite a friend to your table (or floor). Don’t take “no” for an answer. Learn a little more about this rich history. It’s important to understand and empathize with these places. Because high population growth, drought, female inequality, widespread poverty, escalating food prices and the collapse of the state will make young men in any country pick up arms.
SALTAH: THE NATIONAL DISH OF YEMEN
Make this great variation on beef stew and, while it’s cooking, make the accompanying flat bread and condiments. Then brew some tea and throw some pillows on the floor.
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound ground lamb or beef
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic
2 green chiles
2 large tomatoes, chopped
4 large red or white potatoes,
peeled and cubed
5 cups beef broth
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablepsoons hulbah*
2 tablepsoons zhoug**
1. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add the meat and onions and cook until onions are translucent. Then add garlic and chiles, cook for another minute, then add tomatoes and potatoes. Cover with broth, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.
2. Use a potato masher to smash all the potatoes, until the stew thickens. Add beaten egg and stir for another minute, until it cooks. Finally, add the hulbah to the center of the pot, and as it heats, spread it across the surface. Remove from heat and serve with extra zhoug, plain yogurt and flatbread.
*Hulbah: a Yemeni condiment
2 tablespoons ground fenugreek seeds
1 clove garlic
1 green chile
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons zhoug*
1. Place fenugreek seeds in a bowl and cover with cold water. Set it aside to soak for 1 hour.
2. Drain off all but a little water from the seeds, and whisk them with an electric mixer (or by hand) until they thicken to a paste.
3. Transfer fenugreek paste to a blender or food processor, add remaining ingredients and blend until the mixture is smooth and frothy.
** Zhoug: another Yemeni condiment
4 green chiles
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
2 bunches fresh cilantro, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ to ½ cup olive oil
Combine all ingredients except oil in a blender or food processor. Process to begin breaking everything down, then slowly add the oil until a paste forms. The consistency is just like Italian pesto.
Khobz: a Yemeni flat bread
4½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and whisk together. Make a well in the center and add the water. Stir until a dough forms, then transfer to a work surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until soft, smooth and not at all sticky. (Add more flour as needed.) Divide the dough into golf ball–size pieces, roll each into a ball, brush lightly with oil, then cover and set aside to rest for 1 hour.
2. Heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet over high heat. Roll each dough ball out as thinly as you can. Use your hands to stretch and pull it out even more. (Get it as close to see-through as you can.) Place on the hot griddle and fry until golden and puffed, about 30 to 60 seconds a side. Serve immediately, or store airtight to keep fresh.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.