As you scan the menu at a Yemeni restaurant, you’ll likely see hummus, sambusas or salad nestled among the starters. You’ll also spot one of Yemen’s most popular appetizers: shafout, flatbread drenched in a tangy, herbed sauce and topped with fresh accents such as lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Spices and herbs vary by cook, explains Taha Alhuraibi, chef and partner at Saba’ Restaurant, as do the garnishes, which allow for more creativity. Likewise, how it’s served is flexible: The bread may be left in a whole round, to be broken up with a spoon by diners, or torn into large pieces before being covered in sauce.
Shafout (also spelled shafoot or shafuut) has a striking balance of flavors and textures. Bites of flatbread melt away, while garnishes offer a delicate, fresh crunch. Many customers like it freshly dressed, says Ahmed Sheikh, chef and owner of Marib Restaurant; but if allowed to soak overnight, as he often does at home, the bread becomes almost custardy. It’s eaten year-round in Yemen and is also an essential dish to break the fast during Ramadan. Here in the Washington area, its bright flavors are particularly appealing on a sizzling summer day.
Refreshing herbs add jolts of flavor to the sauce — mint cools, while cilantro and oregano bring a little earthiness. You might see other herbs like dill, parsley or basil in the mix, too.
Lahoh (also spelled lahouh or lahooh), a slightly sour, spongy flatbread, is most traditional, although any type of bread can be used. Making lahoh is a multi-day process: At Saba’, whole-wheat flour is mixed with a little yeast, salt and water, then allowed to rest in the refrigerator for two days to develop flavor before the batter is cooked in rounds on a skillet. Arwa Aljarmozi, chef and co-owner of House of Mandi, grew up eating shafout with tandoori bread and serves it that way at her restaurant.
Buttermilk or yogurt thinned with milk forms the base of the sauce, which is flavored with a slew of seasonings, including garlic, cumin and black pepper. The spice in the versions at Saba’ and House of Mandi comes from fresh jalapeño; Marib’s milder sauce is enriched with walnuts and almonds.
In the Washington area, you’ll likely see shafout topped with shredded lettuce, cucumber and tomato. Depending on the season or the cook, you may also get pomegranate seeds, sesame seeds or grapes.