Cairo boasts a population of as many as a million Yemenis and, while much of this population is from recent war-related relocations, the community dates back decades. In many regards, this stems from Cairo’s historic status within the Arab world. Many Yemenis come here to study; an astounding percentage of Yemeni ministers have degrees from Cairo University. Others come here for business related reasons; many of Yemen’s wealthier families have long maintained apartments in the city. Still others came here to plot revolution—or went into exile here after falling on the wrong end of political machinations.
The upshot of this is one of the world’s most matured Yemeni diaspora communities. In contrast to, say, Istanbul, the concentrations long predate the war; Doqqi and Manial have had a noticeable Yemeni presence, I’m told, for decades.
What does this mean on the culinary front? On the one hand, a lot of uneven restaurants. My purpose with this space isn’t to name and shame, but I’ll note that I’ve had a number of distinctly subpar meals at Yemeni restaurants in Cairo, with faux pas ranging from poor spicing to confusingly fishy tasting meat to overly fatty fahsa. That being said there are undeniably clear standouts.
This time around, I joined my friend Jamila at Bab al-Yemen (no relation to last week’s Bab al-Yemen). A post-2014 addition to Cairo’s Yemeni restaurant scene, Bab al-Yemen quickly established a reputation as one of city’s best, thankfully managing to overcome a brief blip in quality last year that was so notable that I heard about it all the way in Beirut. As things stand, its undeniably regained its status as one of Cairo’s best. The meat—both burma and haneed—was of high quality and well-spiced. The key standout here, however, is the salta. Its remarkably hard to get good salta out of Yemen; something is always off (the worst example of this being a certain otherwise excellent Yemeni restaurant in the Gulf that serves a salta that’s eggy to the point of resembling soup covered scrambled eggs). Bab al-Yemen’s is the closest to perfection that I’ve had outside so far, both with regards to spicing and components. Bab al-Yemen also makes Yemeni sweets on site; I always take a few boxes of their nutty harissa to go.
Following lunch I went to run some errands in a nearby Yemeni grocery with Jamila (beyond being one of the world’s most astute observers of Yemeni politics, she’s also an excellent cook). I’ve seen groceries stocking some Yemeni products before, but our destination, Arabeeska, stands out. In a lot of ways, it was the Yemeni equivalent of the Italian stores I grew up going to in Baltimore’s Highlandtown with my family: a near encyclopedic collection of the tastes and smells of the homeland. The spice collection is extensive, as are their honey stocks. Beyond that, they carry an odd mix of uniquely Yemeni products that I didn’t realize I missed until I saw them: betook gum, qamariya coffee and, most importantly, Abu Waled Sandwich biscuits, Yemen’s iconic oreo analogue. Staff is friendly and, even for those less familiar with Yemeni food, it makes for interesting browsing; for those aiming to cook Yemeni food at home, Arabeeska is an essential stop if passing through Cairo.
Bab al-Yemen is located off Doqqi street, under the bridge, a few minutes walk north from the Doqqi metro station. Arabeeska is located a short walk away off Iran street
Crossposted on my medium.
For some reason, the only place I ever really ate halawa in Yemen (with the exception of Halawiat al-Suri, though that’s a different story for a different day) was Souq Raqqas. A moderately sized qat souq that caters largely to middle class Yemenis and boasts a number of restaurants featuring Taizi food, Raqqas is—or, at least, was–aa favored midday meeting place for many of my Yemeni friends owing to its proximity to Sanaa University and Change Square, Yemen’s Arab Spring-inspired protest encampment. It wasn’t my preferred souq, but every time I’d get taken there by a friend, I’d inevitably run into more people we knew—other journalists, activists, or a sheikh’s guards picking up his qat for the day. It was a place where we all felt immensely comfortable. Its ultimately one of those things I miss the most about Yemen—that societal connectivity, the constant flood of friendly faces and the easy societal immersion that made Sanaa feel more home than my actual hometown of Baltimore. But at times, of course, it would get exhausting. When this happened at Souq Raqqas, I’d withdraw to the Halawa place—its politics marked by a photo a photo of slain Nasserist president Ibrahim al-Hamdi—and load up on sugar and qishr while I waited for my friends.
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.
Not far from Riyadh airport, a collection of buildings rise out of a sparse expanse of sand and farms. Mock-castles and tower houses abut expanses of shops, emerging somewhat discordantly from the outskirts of the Saudi capital. Most of the time, they’re roughly as desolate as the desert that surrounds them. But for two weeks a year, the compound buzzes with activity, hosting al-Janadriya, one of the largest and most anticipated festivals in the Arabian Peninsula.
Hosted under the patronage of the Saudi National Guard, al-Janadriya was first held in 1985. What began, I’m told, as a comparatively modest event, eventually ballooned in size. The pavilions–the bulk of which represent Saudi provinces and branches of the Saudi government–grew into mammoth compounds that could, in other contexts, serve as event venues all on their own. It’s a pleasant, if somewhat overwhelming, cacophony–albeit it one that’s rather well-organized for a gathering that attracts as many as three million visitors. Recreations of the traditional architecture of different parts of the kingdom line the compounds wide boulevards, with copies of homes and landmarks from mountain and coast alike housing markets selling the typical foods and handicrafts of different Saudi provinces. Stages spread throughout the festivals grounds host artists performing traditional Saudi music and dance. Saudis, expats and visitors from outside the country crowd the compound, taking advantage of the pleasant weather–al-Janadriya takes place during the extremely temperate Najdi winter–and enjoying the variety of whats on offer.