Al-Marhabani, Abu Dhabi

The Gulf is one of my favorite places to eat. The more luxurious aspects of cities like Dubai and Doha may get more attention internationally—and many of the region’s various high-end restaurants are, indeed, quite excellent—but it’s the potpourri of holes in the wall that tend to be found in more humble office blocks and shopping centers in the shadow of said cities’ towering skyscrapers that I tend to be most drawn to. In some sense it’s a matter of just having a change of scenery, getting a break from cafes, malls and hotel lobbies. But more than anything it’s about embracing the unknown—walking for a few blocks and popping into the first interesting option without reading a menu or review (something that, owing to the ubiquity of wifi and my own neurotic nature, has grown all the rarer). The results are often unexceptional, but just as often, they’re unexpectedly excellent. The best Thai Red Shrimp Curry I’ve ever had was in Riyadh; I’ve stumbled upon revelatory regional Filipino cuisine in Abu Dhabi. More often than not, I end up opting out of hotel breakfast and hopping to the nearest decent looking South Indian place for idly or a dosa.

During my most recent trip to Abu Dhabi, I had aims of once again going exploring. Unfortunately, it was July and, even after sunset, it rather hot and extremely humid. Two blocks in, as the air grew oppressive and I failed to find any solid leads, I though back to the Yemeni restaurant advertising mandi and madhbi that was across from my hotel. I ran back, quickly browsed the menu and ended up ordering takeout.

I opted for the chicken madhbi, though the menu was quite varied and reasonably priced. It was ready in about 15 minutes, after which I proceeded to haul myself back to my hotel as quickly as possible, plopping myself on the floor and almost jumping in before snapping a quick photo.

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Chicken madhbi is generally, at worst average, but at its best, it can be almost transcendent despite its relative simplicity. Quality of ingredients aside, I often wonder how much of it is randomness. Does better chicken madhbi stem from better kitchen staff? Is it about the quality of the grill? Or is it simply a matter of fortuitous turn, one that manages to catch the interior of the chicken at peak juiciness while the exterior and skin are just managing to crisp? I don’t know to be honest—I’m not a food scientist. Either way, texture wise, this place managed one of the best chicken madhbi’s I’ve had outside of Yemen. Taste-wise, it similarly excelled. The sahawag and rise were nearly perfectly spiced, as was the chicken (all too often, the spicing of mahdbi outside of Yemen too closely resembles that of Levantine farouj).

On that end, al-Marhabani gets a nod of approval. I look forward to eating through their meat options next time I’m in AD.

Al-Marhabani is located in central Abu Dhabi roughly across the street from the Abu Dhabi Marriott

Crossposted at my medium site

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“The Brooklyn Shaibani,” Bay Ridge

The last name Shaibani is more or less synonymous with solid, well priced Yemeni food. While the Shaibani family hails from Taiz province, Shaibanis are present in numerous Yemeni and international cities, with roughly half a dozen of them dotting Yemeni capital’s upmarket Haddah street. The first Yemeni restaurant I ate in was a Shabiani—a place I was guided to while somewhat jetlagged with my friend Azd’s father, equal parts confused and amazed by the as-yet-unknown culinary banquet that I was eventually confronted with. When I heard through the grapevine that a Shaibani—or at least a place being called a Shaibani—had opened up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, I was immediately intrigued.

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In many regards, it was a long time coming. Long boasting one of the most vibrant Arab neighborhoods in the US, Bay Ridge is also a key hub of the Yemeni-American community. Once a heavily Italian, Irish and Norwegian neighborhood, over the past few decades, Ba Ridge has developed into Brooklyn’s Edgeware Road equivalent, with shops boasting a mix of Arabic and English signage and a flurry of restaurants, Arab groceries and specialty shops popping up.

 

Ironically, as Yemen has descended into war, Bay Ridge has boomed. Many Yemeni-American businessmen and shop-owners have directed a lot of money that would have previously been sent home internally, something that’s lead to an uptick in investment. As I walked down 5th Avenue, the neighborhoods commercial hub, with my friend Rabyiah, a Yemeni-American organizer and activist who grew up in the area, we ended up stopping nearly every minute as she pointed out a new shop, each one representing a different story of hard work and perseverance. Incredibly, this has all come as Yemenis continue to be targeted by the Trump administration’s travel ban. It has affected nearly the entirety of the community, in many cases literally ripping families apart. But it has also served as the catalyst for unprecedented mobilization of Yemeni-Americans as epitomized by formation of the Yemeni-American Merchant Association (YAMA) and, most famous, the 2017 bodega strike, which saw New York’s roughly 5000 Yemeni-owned bodegas shut in protest of the travel ban.

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Located in a redbrick building that reminded me of one of the front of my favorite Italian-owned Hoagie places in Philadelphia, the Brooklyn Shaibani similarly gestured to the culinary benefits of immigration. Rabyiah and I ordered fahsa, aqda and haneed, my general go-tos. The fahsa was excellent, as was the bread. The aqda—though delicious—struck me as quite unorthodox; the means of cooking both the chicken and vegetables was rather different than anything I ever remember eating in Yemen. The rice was perfectly spiced to the point of literally giving me flashbacks. To add to everything, they even sell Yemeni sweets made in a shop in Patterson New Jersey that I was, until now, wholly unaware of; the breadth and taste sweets themselves was quite impressive, even by the standards of Yemeni places in the wider Middle East.

The Brooklyn Shaibani is located at 3717 5th Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11209.

Crossposted on my Medium.

Jemenitisches Restaurant, Berlin

When it comes to Yemeni food, Europe is critically underserved. Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian places dot western European capitals. Their qualities vary. I’ve had some astoundingly mediocre exorbitantly priced Lebanese food in London, for example, though Beirut’s Liza has a branch in Paris and one Lebanese television correspondent I met covering peace talks in Switzerland once swore to me that his favorite shawarma place was by the train station in Geneva (I am unable to provide independent confirmation of said shawarma places’ quality). For Yemeni food, however, it’s a struggle to find anything—particularly out of the UK, which has long hosted a large Yemeni community.

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Bab al-Yemen, Arabeeska, Cairo

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.

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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.

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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

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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