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Breaking Bread

Very few things bring together hearts and souls like sharing food. Breaking bread, scooping up a bit of meat or vegetable stew and a spicy salsa, licking your fingers…its hard to keep distance from people you have eaten with. Here in Yemen, the sharing of a meal is way of honoring a guest; and if the guest comes by when it is not mealtime, then they are at least served a snack with tea or tiny cups of bitter coffee and sugar cookies or dates, symbolic of the bitterness that is so often mixed with the sweetness of life. Everyone sits on the floor around a plastic ma’idah, or mat, and eats from communal plates.

You can imagine the effect that the propane shortage here is having on the people. Except for in the most remote villages, almost everyone uses propane to cook, The poorest people, as usual, are hit the hardest, as only the rich can afford what tanks are available, which have more than doubled in price. The inherent generosity of the Yemenis is now somewhat tempered by the reality of simply not being able to offer so much a cup of tea, due to the necessity of saving the precious fuel.

This is not the first time that we have been faced with propane shortages. In the Northern village we lived in for three years, the road to the city was peppered with land mines, and Shi’ite guerrillas made a habit of shooting at cars, or stopping and harassing the occupants- thus only the bravest, or most greedy, businessmen made the trip to buy the tanks. They could then charge whatever they liked for each tank, and usually the price was exorbitant. Needless to say, we ate a lot of salad and cheese sandwiches Things have not gotten that bad yet here, and we can hope that they will not.

The diet here varies from place to place, but day to day eating is simple, without a lot of variation, and it is usually hot- maybe the dusty brown landscape inspires in Yemeni cooks the desire to add some spice to their meals! Most meals consist of rice or bread along with a stew of some sort (for us, there is no meat in it, but many people can afford a bit of meat or fish to add flavor), and small bowls of various spicy condiments. Breakfast is bread dipped in a spicy bean sauce, sometimes with eggs added, and lunch is the main meal of the day. Supper is often the left over lunch, or more beans and bread like breakfast. It is not a very varied diet, but is generally quite healthy. One can hope that the people hold fast to their traditional diets instead of embracing the unhealthier western diet that the upper classes emulate. Not only is it more appropriate to their land and resources, but it is healthier- as the growing girth of the people of the upper class clearly shows!! In my eight years here I have seen the blossoming of obesity amongst all ages in the cities, especially children, and it is very sad to witness.

In the spirit of peace, and to break bread with you all in the small way I am able from this tumultuous part of the world, I am offering you some everyday Yemeni recipes. Of course, there are as many variations as there are cooks, so feel free to experiment with them, to make them more to your liking.

Sha’eer (Flat Bread)

Makes 4 Sha’eer

5 1/4 cups flour

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 pkt quick rising yeast*

4-5 tsp vegetable oil (optional)

2 cups warm water

Habbah Sawdah-black Nigella seeds, or Simsim-sesame seeds (optional)

Sift the flour with the salt into a bowl. Add the yeast and mix to combine the dry ingredients. Mix in the vegetable oil and rub in with the hands. Gradually add the warm water to the flour and the yeast and mix with the hands until a smooth, round, soft dough is produced. Knead for another 7 to 10 minutes until the dough is elastic and smooth, essentially the same as ordinary bread dough. Form into a ball, cover with a damp cloth and leave to rest in a moderately warm place for about an hour or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil and place in the oven to get hot.

When the dough has risen divide into four equal sized balls. Shape or roll out on a lightly floured surface into oval shapes to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. After shaping the sha’eer, wet your hand and form deep grooves or cuts down the center of each oval. Sprinkle with habbah sawdah (Nigella seeds) or sesame seeds if wished.

Remove the hot baking tray from the oven and place a sha’eer into it. Bake immediately for eight to ten minutes until the sha’eer is golden brown. The bread should be fairly crisp and hard on the outside. Repeat the process with the remaining balls of dough.

When removed from the oven the sha’eer should be wrapped in a towel or tin foil to keep from drying out.

*the Yemenis usually use a kind of sourdough starter instead of yeast.

Salataa (Tomato Salsa)

8 oz white onions

3 or four hot green chili peppers

1 lb fresh tomatoes

at least 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

3 tbs vinegar

1-2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

1 tsp habbah sawdah (black Nigella seed) optional

Peel the onions and then either grate them or chop into small pieces in a blender. Put aside. Cut up the tomatoes roughly and puree them in a blender with the chilies. Now mix the tomatoes, chilies, onions and garlic together and add the vinegar, salt, sugar, and habbah sawdah. Mix well, and then store in clean, dry jars in a cool place.

Makes about two one-pound jars.

Salta (spicy vegetable stew)

Serves 8

In a large, heavy saucepan sauté in 1-2 T. oil:

1 onion, chopped

Add and brown:

1 lb. stewing beef, cubed (substitute stock or two beef bullion cubes)

Add:

2 large fresh tomatoes, chopped

Cook 10 minutes over high heat, stirring occasionally.

Add:

1 c. zucchini, cubed

1 c. okra, sliced

3 carrots, sliced

1/2 c. tomato paste

1 c. water

Continue to cook on high.

Add:

1 large potato, cubed

1 large green pepper, chopped

1 T. salt

1 T. cumin

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 hot green chili peppers, or 1 t. chili powder

1/2 cup cilantro (kabzarah) finely chopped

1 c. water or stock

Reduce heat and simmer until meat and vegetables are tender. Serve over rice or with fresh bread (Sha’eer).

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12 comments

Susan Albert on July 1, 2011 4:57 pm

Khadijah, this is fascinating. I’m astonished to hear that Yemeni children are becoming obese, and so sorry that our Western foods are invading Yemini kitchens. The traditional diet is so much more healthy for people and for the planet. Thank you for the recipes. I’m collecting flatbread recipes: here in TX, it is the tortilla (corn and flour) that is traditional. I’ll be sure to try this one, with the salsa.

I can see that fuel, too, is a huge issue. Food and energy–they go together and both will be a huge challenge for all of us in the decades to come.

Khadijah on July 1, 2011 7:00 pm

And the issue goes beyond the obesity, diabetes and heart problems which are becoming more and more common here- there is the matter of waste disposal. Fifteen years ago the kitchen scraps would be put out and the goats would make short work of them. Now there is some organic matter but mostly packaging, packaging, packaging, and the garbage issue is totally out of hand. Most of the garbage now is plastic and wrappers from junk food and medicines and such. And of course the goats eat it as much as possible, but that is not good for them, nor is is sufficient to clean up the waste. I will send you a couple more of our flat bread recipes, we use them a lot here. I’ll even send you Sukhailah’s incredibly yummy herb bread recipe!

mary devries on July 1, 2011 5:41 pm

READ THE LINE AFTER ROLLING IT OUT INTO TO OVALS WET YOUR HANDS. i KNOW WHAT YOU MEANT BUT THE ENGLISH TEACHER IN ME SAW IT COULD BE READ AS PUTTING GROOVES IN THE HANDS NOT THE LOAVES. BUT LOVE THE RECIPE AND WILL TRY IT SOON

Khadijah on July 1, 2011 7:08 pm

Thank you so much for pointing that out! I have a degree in English, and I appreciate the importance of clear writing! I changed the sentence to make it more clear.

Janece Suarez on July 1, 2011 5:47 pm

I am also saddened that our eating style has invaded Yemini kitchens! How sadly ironic that just as Americans are beginning the struggle to regain our health, apply healthy eating habits more in season and within our own cycles that both our horribly poor diet habits, and the increase in costs and supply woes of fuel, grows like a tumor beyond our borders.

My daughter in law and I are about to can salsa next week! I cannot wait to add your version to our cupboard! Thank you!

The homemade flat bread sounds wonderful as well.

I love your site and your blog. Thank you for sharing!

Khadijah on July 1, 2011 7:05 pm

At this point it is largely a problem with the upper and upper middle classes. One problem I see is the proliferation of snack foods like chips, cookies, and candies of every description. Traditional snacks are so much healthier- roasted black eyed peas, soups, boiled potatoes and eggs dipped in a hot spice mixture, bean sandwiches…but if you give a child twenty riyaals and just tell him to get a chance, I am sure that transformer cheese curls will win out over a baked potato most of the time. BTW diabetes is also a HUGE problem and getting worse all the time.

Chery on July 1, 2011 6:00 pm

Khadijah I will eagerly be trying your recipes this weekend with Miss Maria- I love your writing, love learning about the culture and traditions.
Your writings enrich our minds, our souls and now our stomachs too!
Thank you for so beautifully sharing your world. Blessings to you and the family
Chery

Khadijah on July 1, 2011 7:09 pm

I’m so glad that you’re going to try them out- we will be with you in spirit!!

Nancilynn on July 1, 2011 6:12 pm

I will keep the receipe for the Sha’eer. I like to try new kinds if healthy homemade breads .
Must wait for winter or try to cook on the grill outdoors as it is
to impractical to cool the house then turn on oven.
I am making homemade hummus today!

Khadijah on July 1, 2011 7:07 pm

We often cook it on the stovetop, it works just as well- you just have to make it a little thinner! We also like to use part whole wheat flour in ours, most people do not, though.
Mmmmm- hummus!! One of our favorite dishes!

Tahirah Shamsid-Deen on October 17, 2012 8:30 pm

I truly miss the middle eastern diet- that traditional one that is! The lack of variety in dishes is made up by the rich spices and great cooking skills many there have! Inshallah this week Ill attempt at making this bread.

Khadijah on October 17, 2012 8:33 pm

It is so healthy, mash’Allaah. We still follow it, more or less, with a few twists here and there. Let us know how the bread turns out, insh’Allaah. Nowadays Juwairiyah makes all the bread in our family, she will have to share some of her recipes as well, insh’Allaah.