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.
Yemeni Halawiat is as colorful as it is sugary, its most ubiquitous form hailing from the southwest corner of the country (the last name “Qubati,” indicating origins in the district of Qubayta). The varieties are manifest—and, in a telling sign of the culinary influence of India through British colonization of Aden, sharply similar to desserts more common in the subcontinent. My personal favorite, halawiat al-laban, incorporates mild to create something almost akin to a chocolate-less fudge. Others, like harissa, pack a nutty, spicy punch.
Halawiat al-Qubati, which opened last year, is one of the few places specialized halawiat located outside of Yemen. In a nod to its host country, it resembles a Jordanian or Shami baklawa place in its setup. What is on offer, of course, is widely different—they boast a nearly encyclopedic, colorfully kaleidoscopic array of blocks of Yemeni sweetmeat, in addition to honey sourced from Yemen. Service is excellent and they have a counter for those aiming to eat hot halawa or harissa on the spot.
Halawiat al-Qubati is located at the northern gates of Jordan University, meaning it’s just a stone’s throw from Bab al-Yemen al-Said, Amman’s veteran Yemeni restaurant. It’s a popular place for local Yemenis, NGO workers and diplomats and visiting politicians and officials alike (my partner for this specific lunch was UK Ambassador Michael Aron, who’s experience with Yemen dates back to when he backpacked across the YAR in the 1980s). Their tomato-y fahsa, while departing from the dominant form on offer in Yemeni restaurants abroad, calls to mind the fahsa of Shaibani Super Delux across from Kumaim in Sanaa. The meats and zurbians are also on point, though the gentler charring of their chicken madhbi tasted more akin to Lebanese farouj (not that it wasn’t delicious).
That being said, I’d be loath to discuss Bab al-Yemen al-Said without delving into its new branch in Ghorsheh street, where I found myself for lunch the following day.
The University branch is certainly more than adequate, but in all regards (with the exception of proximity to a Halawiat place), Taj is the superior restaurant. The burma–a Yemeni dish of meat and broth–was the best I’ve had outside of Yemen (the pouring of the broth, marq, from the cooking pot into individual bowls is among the great theatrical moves of Yemeni cuisine). Taj also get special points for their excellent okra. My friend ordered Yemeni savory fatteh off menu. It came out great, underlining the kitchen’s culinary abilities and willingness to adapt. (For all of this and the excellent service, the Ghorsheh street branch gets — for the moment at least — my nod as best Yemeni restaurant in Amman).
Explaining myself as I took some photos, I noted the start of my Yemeni restaurant project.
“Yemeni food unifies people,” my Yemeni friend’s Jordanian sometime business partner remarked. “There’s no cuisine like it.
“كلام في الصميم” I said, “Complete truth.”
Both Bab al-Yemen al-Saeed and Halawiat al-Qubati are located at the north gates of the main campus of Jordan University in Amman. Taj Bab al-Yemen is located on Abdullah Ghorsheh street.
Crossposted on medium.com