“Yemeni cuisine is such a foreign thing to people,” Amjaad Al-Hussain says 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 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 flavor and lusciousness. “This is my go-to dish for brunch,” she says 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. “It’s known for its culture, its coffee,” she says. “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 favorites 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 says. 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 traveled 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 says. 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 says 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.”
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