Food trails: the rich history of Yemeni cuisine

In the last of your four-part series on food from the region, we turn our attention to Yemeni cuisine to find out its history and how it has been influenced by nearby countries, and Yemen's importance as a trade centre.

Mandi served at Qasr Al Asala restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
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In both the Quran and the ­Bible, Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, is said to have ruled the kingdom of Marib in Yemen about 1,000BC. Her legend is also told across the Red Sea, in Ethiopia. Interestingly, both holy scriptures ­mention that the land was blessed with a ­variety of spices which the queen gifted to kings.

Among these were myrrh and frankincense, known as the earliest “Arabian oil”, and responsible for bringing great wealth to the Yemeni kingdoms in the first millennium BC and the first century AD.

Such was the prosperity of ancient Yemen that the Greeks and Romans hailed it as the ­Felix Arabia, which translates as “the happy or blessed ­Peninsula.”

As an important trade ­centre located along the ancient ­incense and spice route, later adding coffee and honey to its exports list, these aromatic ­influences are still evident ­today within Yemeni culture,  including its rich cuisine.

“It is part of our tradition to keep our homes, our clothes and our food smelling ­lovely,” says Buthaina Akeel, who is from Aden and lives in Abu Dhabi with her ­family.

The 47-year-old and her sisters spend a lot of their time in the kitchen, where they cook for more than a dozen relatives.

“We don’t have maids, so we do everything ourselves,” she says. “Cooking traditional food is a very special art and for our Yemeni dishes, we use very ­special spices, some that ­cannot be found outside ­Yemen.”

Next to their traditional dishes of rice, potato and meat, flavoured with spices, there is also a traditional chilli-tomato sauce known as sahawek that is served on the side.

“It is a special Yemeni red chilli, and it is not too spicy, but has a very unique hotness to it, and you can’t make it with other chillies you find here,” Akeel says. “Another special red-chilli paste is used for marinating fish and cooking. Different regions of Yemen have different national dishes.”

Perhaps the best-known ­Yemeni dish is mandi, made of basmati or Indian rice, slow-stewed meat, and spices.

Originating in the southern city of Hadramaut, mandi’s name comes from the word “nada” (dew) referring to the “dewy” texture of the meat.

“What makes the dish extra delicious is when you eat it with your hand,” says Akeel. “It is usually made as a large dish so it can be shared and bring people ­together.”

Yemeni cuisine is not known for salads – instead, a very simple “salata” is often served, made up of ­lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and sometimes carrots, occasionally served with no dressing or a yogurt.

A soup known as maraq is sometimes served before main dishes. It is meat broth with a slice of lemon on the side.

A popular daily appetiser is shafoot,  a yogurt dish laced with cumin, dry thyme, salt and Yemeni pitta bread.

Aside from mandi, main dishes include: salta, a meat stew with “holba” froth – a creamed fenugreek-based sauce that has a sour and tangy flavour – along with the spicy salsa such as ­sahaweq. It is also known as the “poor man’s meal”, a hearty dish of rice, potatoes, scrambled eggs and vegetables that is served in a stone bowl.

“It is a dish of leftovers, where people would put whatever meat and vegetables they had left over, mix it in and then add holba and sometimes ­sahaweq.”

The same practicality can be found in ogda (meaning knot), a stew made from mixing a variety of ingredients including lamb, chicken or fish with vegetables such as tomato, carrot, potato and courgette.

“Our dishes are a bit carbohydrate heavy, but you don’t see Yemeni people back in Yemen struggling with weight as they lead a very active life,” Akeel says. “Coastal towns have more fish dishes, while those in the mountains and near deserts have more meat and chicken-heavy dishes.”

Since the cuisine historically has been influenced by India, east Africa, the Mediterranean and even East Asia, some of its dishes are similar to dishes from those places.

For instance, zerbian, or zurbian, is similar to Hyderabadi biryani from India, where it is a meat and rice dish made with saffron and all the ingredients are cooked together, unlike mandi where each item is cooked separately.

“There is a renewed interest in Yemeni food, particularly among the expats,” says Yaslam Al Breiki, a 32-year-old Emirati of Yemeni origin. He owns two Yemeni restaurants: Qasr Al Asala in Abu Dhabi near Abu Dhabi Mall,and Redan in Al Shamkha, Abu ­Dhabi.

“Mandi is the most popular dish. Traditionally, the meat is cooked in the tanoor, a special kind of oven, which is a hole dug in the ground and covered inside by clay [similar to an ­Indian tandoor].

“Then dry wood is placed inside the tanoor and burnt and the meat is suspended inside the tanoor without touching the charcoal, and cooked,” he says. “But given regulations we couldn’t set up this kind of oven in our restaurants, so our Yemeni chef cooks it as closely as possible to what the traditional mandi would taste like.”

Besides the many meat and fish dishes, Al Breiki’s restaurants also serve different types of Yemeni breads and breakfast items such as the malawah or malouh bread, layered and folded with butter or ghee, and shakshouka – a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chilli peppers, onions and potatoes, often spiced with cumin.

“Ghosi is also a popular dish for special occasions such as weddings, where the whole slaughtered goat is placed over the rice dish, with just the skin removed,” he adds.

“Yemeni food is quite filling. Different households will add their own touches to the traditional dishes, with the overall result tasty, diverse dishes for the whole family.”

For examples of how gut-­bustingly hearty Yemeni dishes can be, look no further than the desserts. They have interesting names, such as Bint Al Sahn or sabaya (daughter of the dish or girls), which consists of layers of pastry with butter in between and Yemeni honey and black sesame seeds on top.

Or how about muqasqas (cut up), bits of Yemeni ka’ak or cookie that you can eat mixed with raisins and nuts, and masoob, a sweet dessert made from a base of overripe bananas and ground flatbread with cream, cheese, dates, and honey. And then there is also fatah tamer, which is dates with bread.

These are definitely offerings that demand attention.

“It is the food of queens and warriors,” says Akeel. “It will give you energy and leave you with a good memory.”