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)
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)
2 large fresh tomatoes, chopped
Cook 10 minutes over high heat, stirring occasionally.
1 c. zucchini, cubed
1 c. okra, sliced
3 carrots, sliced
1/2 c. tomato paste
1 c. water
Continue to cook on high.
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).