Halawiat al-Qubati, Bab al-Yemen(s), Amman

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.

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Atayeb al-Yemen, Istanbul

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.

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Al-Janadriya

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.

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On Writing and Resolutions

For too long, this site has been dormant. In the spirit of the start of a new year, I’ve opted to resolve to post here more often, ideally once a week, barring situations that may make me right more (interesting visits somewhere) or less (some sort of outbreak of massive Yemen related news or another #Barrymoregate-esque brush with unintentional viral stardom). If the past is any indication, I’ll aim to keep things eclectic; I’ve previously used this space to do everything from comment on Al Qaeda leader’s sartorial choices, discuss the surprising ubiquity random KPOP singles, expound on the importance of facial hair, and contextualize media frenzies, in addition to posting photos and aggregating my recent writings. I’ll refrain from setting any real limits or making any firm predictions on where things may lead: if the time since I unfortunately inadvertently set this space aside is any indication, things are likely to take a series of twists and turns. Either way, I’ll aim to use it as a place to post writings and reflections that don’t fit into my usual platforms (in addition to, hopefully, using it as a means of facilitating my long ruminated aim to begin reviewing the burgeoning number of Yemeni restaurants popping up around the world). Here’s hoping what I write will be of use to readers on some level–or, at the very least, make for somewhat interesting reading.