In the spirit of new years and new (re)starts, I’ve opted to return to a longstanding passion of mine: food writing.
In better times (for Yemen and, arguably, myself as well) this space once hosted Sanaa’s number one (and potentially only) English-language restaurant guide. In the ensuing years, many of these locations have been closed while the burgeoning diaspora spawned by the ongoing conflict has itself spawned an ever-increasing network of Yemeni restaurants. I’m often asked for recommendations–and its difficult to provide them concisely. It’s not just that Yemeni restaurants vary widely in quality: the quality of what’s on offer will often vary widely. A place with solid fish will have subpar mandi; a place offering quality haneed will have bad salta (in full disclosure, I absolutely abhor eggy salta). Someone, I’ve often thought to myself, needs to record this for the greater good.
In that spirit, I’m happy to announce the inauguration of a series of rolling Yemeni restaurant reviews. To state the obvious, I’ve got a bit of a backlog; I’ll aim to post reviews of noteworthy places I’ve visited recently, starting with the below. That being said, I’ll aim to review in real time as much as possible. (I’m more than happy for recommendations; please forward to them via twitter or my email; in the spirit of embracing cross-border culinary connectivity, I’ll also aim to look into places featuring Yemen-adjacent cuisines on occasion, so feel free to send recommendations of Ethiopian, Somali, Saudi, Kuwaiti, etc places as well). Here’s hoping that the situation will improve to allow for reviews of places from Yemen again sooner rather than later.
As the great Joni Mitchell once observed, one often is unaware of what one has until it’s no longer available. I’ve found this particularly true of food. I often find myself craving the oddest things from my formative years, foods that I’d never imagine myself craving. Back home for Christmas, I found myself feeling the need to order overly rich local stuff that I never really ate much like Baltimorean crab dip. On rainy days I still find myself craving relatively simple foods I grew up with like like my grandmother’s pasta e patate and her ostensibly Italian chicken soup. Utz potato chips and Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels have literally made cameos in a few of my dreams.
My Yemen equivalent is Kabab Sanaani. For the unaware, Sanaa’s take on Kabab consists of deep fried meat served with Arabic bread, sahawaq and a simple lettuce, tomato and onion salad. Living in the old city of Sanaa, I literally passed half a dozen places offering Kabab Sanaani on a daily basis; I probably ate the dish a maximum of once a month. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself craving it for years. Partially for that unique way the combination of the crunch from the meat gives way to a melding of the kabob’s juices and the tomato-y sahawaq, I’d imagine, but partially because of its instant association with the old city of Sanaa, arguably the most beautiful urban setting on earth.
A few months ago, when I was in Istanbul for work, my friend Mohamed took me to Atayeb al-Yemen, a hole in the wall not far from the Istanbul’s Aksaray metro stop, for aseed (somehow, half of Yemen knows about how much I love aseed). The aseed was, as the below photo suggests, absolutely excellent; the broth was on point, the sahawaq complemented it well, and the assed itself was perfectly doughy. But the kabab Sanaani reminded me of what I’d been missing, flashing me back to sitting in Bab al-Sabah making small talk with guys manning market stalls as the popping sound of sizzling meat in a nearby well of oil kept me oddly on edge from the fear of a grease burn.