My order of kabsah, an Arabian chicken-and-rice dish, has been scooped onto a large white plate so that the prime ingredients are hopelessly intertwined. It’s like Middle Eastern chicken biryani, minus the clay pot and the punishing pepper heat found in the classic Hyderabadi version. It’s also way too much food for one person. Maybe even two.
You’ll have to excuse me. I find it hard not to obsess about food waste at Saba’ Restaurant, a friendly Fairfax outpost that specializes in Yemeni cuisine. If you haven’t been keeping track of events in Yemen — understandable given the chaos within our own borders — the country is locked in a vicious civil war between Houthi rebels who have ousted President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and a Saudi-led coalition that’s trying to restore him to power. Amnesty International calls it “the forgotten war.”
Three years in, the war has exacted a terrible price from the people of Yemen. Thousands have died, and millions have been forced from their homes. More than three-quarters of the population require outside aid to survive, and millions are at risk of starvation. Critics have accused the Saudi coalition of targeting farms, water sources and supply routes, a part of a campaign to use famine as a weapon of war. The news coverage of starving Yemeni children is just soul-crushing.
And here I am at a Yemeni restaurant with a heaping plate of cumin-scented kabsah, half of which will go untouched unless I somehow find time in a food critic’s schedule to eat the leftovers. You’re a lost cause if a meal like this doesn’t make you ponder fate, privilege and the immorality of tossed food in America.
My hand-wringing, of course, has nothing to do with Taha Alhuraibi, the chef and partner behind Saba’. The Yemeni native has spent most of his adult life in the United States, studying the hospitality industry so that he could one day offer Americans a taste of his mother country. That day arrived in 2014 when he opened Saba’, the Arabic spelling of Sheba, the ancient kingdom thought to be located in present-day Yemen. (A second Saba’ debuted in 2016 in Falls Church, but Alhuraibi is not a partner in it.)
Alhuraibi is not a chef by training, but, like so many expats, discovered a love for cooking once he was living in a foreign land. It’s a way to hold on to a piece of home. I imagine there are days when a skillet full of toasted cumin seeds and green cardamom pods must make him as nostalgic for Sanaa, his hometown, as an old childhood photo.
No matter what route he took to the kitchen, Alhuraibi has found a home there. His plating — sometimes little more than a pile of turmeric-tinted rice topped with meats and crispy onions — is just as homestyle as his cooking. If there’s a commonality to the dishes on Alhuraibi’s limited menu, it’s that each one feels prepared especially for you, as if you were a guest at a Yemeni house, not a customer at a Yemeni-American restaurant.
Start your meal with a cup of maraq, a seemingly artless broth built from the liquid used to cook the lamb mindi. A friend of mine, an Iranian American who has traveled the world, took one spoonful of the broth and announced to the table, “That’s what the Middle East tastes like.” I can’t confirm that, but I was transfixed by the soup’s fragrance and depth, both sweet and savory, so unexpected from this unassuming liquid. When our server tried to remove the maraq, to make room for our entrees, my friend intercepted the cup and drained its contents, refusing to let one drop go to waste.
Two other appetizers take dramatically different approaches to bread. Formed into a pureed chickpea bowl filled with chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and little pools of olive oil, the hummus has a pronounced tahini bite and comes with a manhole-size round of pita bread. It’s nothing like the flatbread you wrap around gyro meat. This disc, baked golden in a tandoor, arrives puffy and chewy around the edges but crispy at its center. It’s the kind of bread you can build a civilization around.
You might not even know there’s flatbread at the base of Alhuraibi’s shafout, a superb Yemeni salad that you eat with a spoon. Chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley lounge in a sherbet-green yogurt sauce infused with herbs and cumin. Submerged in the salad you’ll find two treasures: a spongy flatbread called lahouh, like the Yemeni equivalent of Ethiopian injera, and a time-release dose of garlic.
Alhuraibi prepares fresh rice every 30 minutes or so, which should give you an idea of the grain’s importance at the Yemeni table. White rice, spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and more, serves as the base for entrees such as the chicken mandi, in which pieces of roasted leg and breast live up to the dish’s name, derived from the Arabic word for “dew.” This is some juicy bird. A lustier rice, cooked with the leftover braising liquid from the accompanying meat, serves as the foundation for more full-throated lamb dishes like the haneeth. Should any of these entrees leave you underwhelmed, you can always spike them with sahawiq, a tomato-and-hot-pepper chutney that’s available in three spice levels, from mild to hot to we-warned-you.
You’ll find a savory whipped topping on several dishes, including the succulent chicken aqdah, in which you dip pieces of pita into a bubbling cauldron of meat and vegetables garnished with a cloud of slightly bitter fenugreek foam. It’s Middle Eastern molecular gastronomy without the pretense. Even better is the jareesh, an Arabian porridge in which cracked wheat, Egyptian rice and whole milk are slow-cooked for hours and garnished with sliced onions, oil, cumin and dried lemon. It’s congee. It’s oatmeal. It’s something better than both.
No matter how full you feel, don’t leave Saba’ without a slice of Alhuraibi’s bint-as-sahn, an eggy, layered, bread-based dessert drizzled with clove honey. It’s as much savory as sweet. Plus, it’s easy to justify: Every month, Alhuraibi sends money to his mother back in Yemen, where food prices have skyrocketed beyond the means of most citizens. Think of your meal as one incredibly small way to help a war-torn country on the brink of starvation.
3900 Pickett Rd., Fairfax, Va., 703-425-1130.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Prices: $1.49 to $8.95 for appetizers and soup; $6.95 to $19.95 for entrees.