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The hidden flavour of Yemen.

Anyone who has enjoyed Arab hospitality is aware of the variety of Arabic dishes that are served at any one meal. Some, such as hommus and shawarma are appreciated the world over. But there are other traditional platters, such as those commonly seen in Yemen which are largely unknown - even to other Arabs.

Yemeni cuisine is based around several ethnic dishes which are eaten almost every day. Others show the influence of Ottoman occupation while a taste for spices is the result of contact with Indian traders on the Red Sea coast. Yemeni food is always served fresh and piping hot and where possible, only freshly slaughtered meat, or poultry is used.

Breakfast is often skipped here in favour of a hearty lunch which precedes the afternoon qat chewing session. A mild narcotic, the qat leaf depresses the appetite, the reason why the evening meal is light.

The many types of bread are an important ingredient of every meal. The most popular sorts are khubz, a thin, white leaf made from sorghum flour, and maluj, which also thin and round and eaten with soups and dips.

While few Yemeni dishes are genuinely nourishing, for ingredients tend to be sparse, the result is always flavoursome. Helba, for example, a tasty cross between a dip and a soup, is one of the most innovative flavours in Middle Eastern cookery. It is prepared from ground fenugreek seeds (previously soaked to extract the bitterness) blended with meat and stock. This is whipped to a froth with spring onions, hot peppers, mint and spices and the mixture is served in scalding hot earthenware bowls. Zahawiq is another spicy dip prepared from chillies and tomatoes, to which wasif (small dried fish) are sometimes added.

Soups are very popular, especially in the cooler highlands. Shurba (made from onions, sour milk, wheat flour and butter) and addas (made from onions and lentils) are a lunchtime ritual. Asid, a thick gruel made from sorghum flour, water, broth, honey and oil, is served in many rural areas. A famous Yemeni dish having a texture similar to Yorkshire pudding is bint al sahin. its baked crust may be eaten either savoury, or sweet with melted butter and honey.

Fresh milk is rarely used in Yemen. Instead, sheep or goat's milk is made into buttermilk for use in dishes such as mattit, a breakfast soup of eggs, tomatoes and peppers mixed with crumbled bread, butter and honey. A pungent smoked sheep's milk cheese, or jubn is made in the Tihama foothills.

Mutton is the most popular meat in Yemen, alongside goat, rabbit and deer. Sheep brains and liver are eaten with relish. Fried.liver, foule and bread comprise a traditional breakfast in Shibam, a mountain town outside Sanaa. Common main course dishes include lahmi marreg (lamb), kabsa roz (minced meat eaten with soup and rice), aghda (stewed mutton, spices and puree of tomatoes), susi (layers of bread with eggs, milk and butterfat) and the perennial favourite, bint al-sahin. Meals are generally served on a tablecloth laid on the floor. .

Camel meat is not generally consumed in Yemen while coastal communities avoid beef, a result of their long association with Hindu merchants. Dates and grapes are favourite fruits. Mineral water and soft-drinks are drunk with the meal while tea, coffee or qishr is served afterwards. Regrettably, the coffee for which Yemen was famed is something of a rarity these days since most of the land used for its cultivation has since been given over to growing qat, so Nescafe is more likely to be served. However, apart from coffee, mineral water and soft drinks, the culinary art of Yemen has changed little for generations.
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Title Annotation:Yemen's culinary secrets
Author:Osborne, Christine
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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