The West knows Yemen’s war and famine. A daughter of immigrants is spreading the word about its cuisine

|     Kara Elder     |

“YEMENI cuisine is such a foreign thing to people,” Amjaad Al-Hussain said one Sunday afternoon in February.

She’s just finished cooking a batch of adas, a hearty breakfast stew of red lentils, onions and tomatoes, spiced with cumin and coriander.

As the adas sputters in its final minutes of cooking in her Fairfax, Virginia, kitchen, she warms a few glugs of olive oil in a small skillet, drops in a generous amount of minced garlic and cilantro, and fries the aromatic mixture until the garlic is golden and the herb almost blackened and crisp.

Then she stirs the supercharged oil into the adas, adding a jolt of flavour and lusciousness. “This is my go-to dish for brunch,” she said as she serves it with spoonfuls of an herbed sweet pepper, tomato and feta salad.

Al-Hussain, 28, has never actually been to Yemen, which her family fled in the early 1960s for political reasons.

2016 self portrait of author Amjaad Al-Hussain in Bali
Amjaad Al-Hussain self-published Sifratna: Recipes From Our Yemeni Kitchen

“It’s known for its culture, its coffee,” she said. “But today the first thing everyone talks about is the war and famine.”

She knows there’s so much more, especially when it comes to the cuisine. Last fall, Al-Hussain self-published Sifratna: Recipes From Our Yemeni Kitchen, as a way to share accessible recipes with her friends, family and colleagues.

Because there are so few cookbooks that focus solely on Yemeni cooking, Sifratna also opens a window onto an aspect of the Middle Eastern nation that gets little attention in the West.

Sifratna (Arabic for “our dining table”) is full of classic Yemeni dishes, twists on Al-Hussain’s own favourites and recipes infused with elements of Yemeni cooking.

The vibe reflects that of most families with immigrant roots – there’s tradition, sure, but local ingredients and techniques also work their way in.

She spices agda, braised beef and oxtail, with Montreal steak seasoning. She makes luhooh, a spongy flatbread that’s “somewhere between a crepe and a pancake,” with a bit of pancake mix, a trick she learned from an aunt.

Magluba, “flipped” rice with chicken and vegetables, is found in every Arab household, writes Al-Hussain, but when she developed one with her mom, they based it on leftovers of chicken in a spiced broth and misaga’a, a dish of layered and baked eggplant and potatoes in tomato sauce.

Among the book’s desserts you’ll see mafhoosa, warm bits of nigella-seed-studded bread doused in honey – a recipe from Al-Hussain’s grandmother – and, a few pages later, crumble-topped carrot cake, because her dad really likes carrot cake.

When her husband cooks dinner at home, it’s often a riff on steak and potatoes.

Such juxtapositions are, of course, completely normal for a person who grew up among multiple cultures. But when she was younger, Al-Hussain dreaded explaining her identity.

“Whenever you go to a place that’s a part of you, you always feel like you’re the opposite,” she said.

When visiting family in Saudi Arabia, she’s American; in northern Virginia, where she and her three brothers grew up, she’s Arab.

“I never knew how to explain where I’m from.” Even if she wasn’t wearing hijab, “I’m visibly not white.

So there was a period where I’d answer, ‘Oh, I’m from Falls Church,’ and then get a look. When I was a kid that would make me so upset.”

Now a health systems professional and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, she describes herself as lucky to have never personally experienced racism. (“Maybe in the airport, but only a little.”) She is old enough to remember 9/11, but the only time she truly felt nervous about her identity was after the 2016 election, when she started hearing local stories of harassment, and random people would flip her off while she was driving.

To her, one solution to such anxiety and even conflict can be found at the table. Food represents “the only way that you can get a little more intimate with people, once you start sharing your culture, and talk about these things.” Everybody eats. Food is an entry point to empathy.

Yemeni cooking is full of such dishes as the adas, built on the same set of basic ingredients that, when put together, create something complex. Layers of flavor come by liberal use of parsley, cilantro, garlic, coriander, cumin and turmeric. Many dishes are cooked in a maglaa, or clay pot, which keeps its contents warm and bubbling – especially when making fahsa or salta, a stew topped with whipped, herbed fenugreek, served boiling hot. Bread and/or rice are practically required, to act as edible spoons and to soak up plentiful sauce.

Recipes vary from region to region, family to family, diaspora to diaspora. (Multiple transliterations of Arabic words also abound; the words in this article are written as Al-Hussain writes them in her book.) Every cook has their own hawaayij, a blend of spices including coriander, cumin, cinnamon, pepper, turmeric and cardamom. The blend has travelled as Yemenis have, including to Israel with Yemeni Jews. One of Al-Hussain’s aunts makes kubaana, a cornbread flavored with faintly bitter nigella seeds, a little dry, to be served with tea; her mom makes it a touch more oily, with a higher ratio of cornmeal to wheat flour. (For Yemeni Jews, it’s a completely different thing, made with wheat flour and a lot of butter, and baked overnight to be eaten on the Sabbath.)

When writing Sifratna, Al-Hussain faced a problem common among recipe writers: working with someone deeply familiar with the food, so familiar that there’s no measuring or slowing down – in this case, her mom. “It was a little stressful when she  was just throwing things in, and I’d be like, ‘No wait! I have to measure!’”

Initially, she had no plans to sell Sifratna. “I felt like no matter how hard I tried, it’s never going to look like something that came out of Barnes and Noble,” she said. But a few months before publishing, she decided to donate profits from the first 100 books sold to famine relief efforts in Yemen. “I’m talking about cooking and these people are starving to death, so it just made sense,” she says.

The recipes aren’t perfect: Ingredients don’t always appear in order of their use, for instance, and some instructions could use more elaboration. But several include step-by-step photos, which she took herself. And, as Al-Hussain said with an unassuming laugh, the book is “pretty dang good for something I did on the evenings and weekends.”

She’s now talked with people who, unlike her, have been to Yemen and are excited to see a whole cookbook devoted to its cuisine. The tables are turned, since she knows the food but hasn’t experienced the beauty of the country. Food becomes a thing they can share, and her book offers a reminder that in the face of ongoing atrocities, famine and war, there remains culture to celebrate and preserve.

“It’s almost like finding every way to embed yourself in that culture,” she says. “Cooking and documenting is one way to keep that part of me intact and pass that on. Even if my great-grandchildren don’t speak Yemeni or if they lose traditions or smaller nuances, there will be something that’s always on the shelf.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post

Yemeni Spice Blend (Hawaayij)

YEMENI SPICE BLEND (HAWAAYIJ)

TWENTY servings (Makes 1 1/4 cups, one tablespoon per serving)

This all-purpose spice blend can be used in anything savoury – try it with chicken, fish, lamb, eggs, lentils, potatoes and other vegetables.

Cookbook author Amjaad Al-Hussain writes that each Yemeni cook has their own variation (and you should feel free to adjust the ratio of spices as you like), but that each blend contains the basic spices you’ll find in nearly every Yemeni or Middle Eastern dish.

Store at room temperature in an airtight glass jar for up to three months. (Al-Hussein keeps a small jar at room temperature and freezes the rest for refilling to keep the mixture beyond three months.)

Ingredients

One teaspoon whole cloves

1/3 cup coriander seed

1/3 cup cumin seed

1/4 cup whole black peppercorns

Two tablespoons green cardamom pods

Two teaspoons ground cinnamon

Two tablespoons ground turmeric

Steps

Toast the cloves, coriander, cumin, peppercorns and cardamom pods in a medium dry skillet over medium heat for four to five minutes, until fragrant. Transfer the spices to a spice grinder and let cool for a few minutes.

Pulse the spices until they are ground to a fine powder, working in batches if necessary. (You can also use a mortar and pestle.)

Sift the ground spices through a fine-mesh sieve into a small mixing bowl; use the back of a spoon to help push the mixture through (regrind any large pieces that may remain and add those to the bowl.)

Stir in the cinnamon and turmeric until combined. Transfer to a glass jar, cover with a lid, and store in a cool, dark place.

Nutrition | Per tablespoon: 25 calories, 0g protein, 3g carbohydrates, 1g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 0mg sodium, 2g dietary fibre, 0g sugar

Yemeni Breakfast Lentil Stew (Adas)

YEMENI BREAKFAST LENTIL STEW (ADAS)

FIVE to six servings

Cookbook author Amjaad Al-Hussain prepares this as filling and comforting vegan option at brunch, and serves a tomato, cucumber, herb and feta salad on the side. The extra – but optional – drizzle of garlic, cilantro and oil adds a lush boost of flavour.

If you have hawaayij (see related recipe), add about one teaspoon and reduce the amount of cumin and coriander to 1/2 teaspoon each.

Serve with warm flatbread.

The stew can be refrigerated for about five days; reheat with a little water to loosen it up, or add broth to make a quick soup for dinner.

Ingredients

For the stew

1 1/2 cups dry red lentils, rinsed

Three cups water

One tablespoon olive oil

One large red onion, chopped

One large tomato, chopped (may substitute 1/2 cup canned, diced tomatoes)

One tablespoon tomato paste

Two cloves garlic, minced

One teaspoon ground cumin

One teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

One cup chopped fresh parsley

For optional oil topping

Two tablespoons olive oil

Three cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Steps

Place the lentils and water in a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stir, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, stirring from time to time, 15 to 20 minutes, until the water has mostly absorbed and the lentils are tender and broken down.

Meanwhile, heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers.

Add the onion and cook, stirring a few times, about four minutes, until the onion has softened and its colour starts to fade.

Add the tomato and cook, stirring often, for two minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and garlic and continue to cook, stirring often, one to two minutes more, until the juices have mostly evaporated.

Stir in the cumin, coriander, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes, if using, to incorporate.

Add the cooked lentils and the salt, stir, and reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook and stir occasionally for about five minutes, or just until the mixture starts to bubble. (It may spit and sputter, so be careful.)

Meanwhile, if making the optional oil topping, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat.

Add the garlic and cilantro and cook, stirring occasionally, three to five minutes, until the garlic is golden and the cilantro is a little crispy on the edges.

Remove the stew from the heat and stir in the chopped parsley, then stir or swirl the oil-garlic-cilantro mixture into the stew. Serve right away.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on six): 210 calories, 14g protein, 33g carbohydrates, 4g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 115mg sodium, 8g dietary fibre, 3g sugar

Yemeni Cornbread (Kubaana)

YEMENI CORNBREAD (KUBAANA)

TEN to 12 servings

Typically served with tea, coffee or soups, this cornbread skews dry and is only a little sweet. Nigella seeds lend an irresistible extra pop of flavour. Kubaana is best eaten warm, drizzled with good honey, but is also delicious at room temperature.

Use a nine-by-13-inch pan to get thinner pieces, or a slightly smaller dish to get thicker (and more moist) kubaana; adjust the cooking time as necessary, following visual cues.

Cookbook author Amjaad Al-Hussain frequently bakes these in mini muffin pans. To do so, scoop the batter so it almost reaches the top of each well and bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. There will be more batter than will fit in one batch of mini muffins. Repeat to use the remaining batter.

Kubaana keeps at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Nigella seeds (also called black seed, kalonji or black onion seed) are available at Indian and Middle Eastern markets and well-stocked spice shops, or online.

Ingredients

Two large eggs

Three cups (372 grammes) yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup (60 grammes) flour

3/4 teaspoon dry instant yeast

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon nigella seeds, plus more for garnish

1/2 cup corn oil or other neutral oil

1/2 cup ghee or clarified butter, or unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

One cup water

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a nine-by-13-inch metal, glass or ceramic baking dish with cooking oil spray.

Separate one egg, putting the white in one small bowl and the yolk in another. Lightly beat the yolk.

Whisk the cornmeal, flour, yeast, baking powder, salt, sugar and nigella seeds in a medium mixing bowl. Add the oil, ghee or butter, the reserved egg white and the remaining egg; stir with a spatula to combine. Whisk in the water, scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula to make sure everything is well blended. The batter will be thick.

Spread the batter in the baking dish, then brush the reserved beaten egg yolk evenly over the surface.

Score the batter into squares (however large you’d like the pieces to be), then garnish the centers of each with nigella seeds. Cover the dish with a towel or plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 45 minutes.

Bake (middle rack) for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the top feels firm when gently pressed and the edges have pulled away from the sides of the pan a bit. A tester inserted into the center should come out clean.

Cut the bread along the score lines and serve warm.

NOTE: To make ghee (clarified butter), place 12 tablespoons of butter (1 1/2 sticks) in a saucepan over low heat.

Cook without stirring until it has liquefied, then skim off and discard the foam until the butter is clear enough to see through to the milky solids at the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and strain the clear butter into a container; discard the solids. The yield is about 1/2 cup.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 12): 340 calories, 4g protein, 30g carbohydrates, 20g fat, 8g saturated fat, 50mg cholesterol, 80mg sodium, 0g dietary fibre, 1g sugar