Arguably the world’s most stunning island, Soqotra is a place that needs no introduction. Dubbed “the Galapagos of the Arab world” in media reporting dating back since time immemorial, Soqotra is an otherworldly place with a unique culture and ancient language. The landscapes are as diverse as they are breathtaking, pulling together mountain, beach and plateau alike. The more forested areas call to mind the works of Dr. Seuss, with colorfully dressed Soqotris tending flocks of goats among the island’s stunningly, strangely beautiful endemic trees. The coastline is a mix of sandy and craggy beaches, the less inviting rocky stretches disguising untouched coral reefs home to a mindblowingly kaleidoscopic array of fish and marine life. The food is memorable, if simple, as well; in my most recent trip I was hosted by local officials and notables, feasting on freshly slaughtered meat.
Soqotra’s restaurant scene, however, is rarely noted, perhaps for good reason. While obviously frequented by natives of the island, they reflect the mainland far more than they that of Soqotra itself. Largely, if not entirely, owned and staffed by Yemenis from off the island, they tend to pull mostly from the cuisine of south and central Yemen (according to my Soqotri friends and contacts there isn’t a single place on the island serving salta). But while the dusty restaurants of the Soqotri capital of Hadibu may not be the first—or eighth—thing one thinks of when they think of the island, I was more than excited to explore them.
Deferring to my friend Ahmed Said, who knows his native Soqotra better than nearly anyone else on or off the island, I found myself at Shabwa restaurant. As the name suggests, the restaurant is owned and run by a native of Shabwa province. But, crucially, much of the food on offer is sourced from the island itself. For obvious reasons, we opted for fish makhbaza. The preparation was simple—just a smattering of spices and some tomatoes and onions for garnish—but masterful, being cooked just enough of the way through to retain flavor and freshness; the accompanying bread was on point as well, maintaining the crucial composition of chewiness and crunch that Yemeni flatbreads are known for and, while I had to ask for it, the cheese sahawaq certainly satisfied as well. Against my better judgement I ordered fatteh with cream and banana as well; it wasn’t the best I’ve had in or outside of Yemen, but it was more than adequate as well, especially when accompanied by red tea. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that Shabwa restaurant was one of the only places on the island that I could find that sold diet pepsi (I had no luck at Hadibu’s various baqalas).
The setting was certainly humble, but the outdoor seating offered a solid chance to see Hadibu’s street life go by. It may be Soqotra’s largest city, but Hadibu is ultimately a small town, and the sight of Ahmed greeting and recognizing many of those who walked by underlined the close bonds uniting Soqotri society (few places demonstrate John Donne’s dictum that “No man is an Island” better than, well, islands). This is probably one among the many reasons why a restaurant culture akin to that in the rest of the country has yet to kick off here: even by Yemeni standards, Soqotri hospitality is legendary, and just in a short trip, I had more invites than I could have possibly accepted. Either way, if hungry in Hadibu—or simply craving some quality fish—Shabwa restaurant certainly earns my recommendation.
Shabwa restaurant is located in central Hadibu
Crossposted at my medium site.