A restaurant with no name where bowls of soup are served on Formica tabletops, a bakery tucked into the basement of a village home. Yemen still exists in unlikely places. With oil stained shirts and hands dusted with of flour, the owners of these family businesses are keepers of tradition and a disappearing culture. They are the last vestiges of an ancient people, a tenacious link to the past as the world careens forward. The inevitable assimilation to Israeli life and modernity has erased most of what their ancestors knew; the folklore, dance, art, clothes….very little remains but the recipes.
In the Yemenite Quarter in Tel Aviv a group of twenty year olds passed the entrance to a restaurant and hesitated. There’s no sign. The walls are bare, the paint cracked. A man with theatrical white hair and prominent moustache accosted them on his way out. “Great food”, he said with gusto, his arms emphasizing his words, but they were not convinced. He’s the same fellow who sat at a corner table, engaged in teasing banter with the other diners. Loud, some might say or perhaps loyal customers who long ago dropped the inhibition brought on by public domain. This after all was an extension of their kitchen.
When we entered, the largest and most gregarious of the group looked up and asked jokingly if we were Yemenite and why, for heaven’s sake, weren’t we sitting down already. It was my second visit that day, this time with my family. I’d arrive there a few hours earlier with Liz, a regular at the diner who simply had to glide into her seat for her bowl of beef stew to magically appear. “I always order the same thing”, she explained.
I recognized the soup instantly yet never tasted it before. Cream white beans and beef enrobed in mahogany broth, the complex scent of hawaij elevating, but not overpowering. Simple ingredients are transformed by slow overnight heat, prepared each day after the customers have left. The pebbly beans are coaxed into softness, tough chunks of meat lose their stringiness, enriching the soup with gelatinous goodness. Lacooch, spongy flat bread accompanies each serving, torn in small pieces and dunked into it. Hilbeh, a fenugreek condiment the consistency of whipped egg whites and schoog, a cilantro and chili hot sauce are added generously by some and avoided by others. When the owner notices we didn’t touch the schoog (except for me), he casually transfers it to an adjacent table.
I turned to Israel, who manages the eatery and asked him who taught him to cook. “My father”, he says. Like him, he also made a living as a cook but his mother was the one who prepared the meals at home.
That morning Liz also takes me to Eitan’s Bakery although nobody seems to know who he is. It’s a Friday, and three men, but no Eitan, are busy churning out Yemenite breads- lachooch, saloof and pita. In one area, a fellow is manning about ten pans of lachooch flat breads simultaneously, fires blazing and steam threatening to envelope the room. The baker works with the exacting precision of a circus performer, pulling the bread out just when the doughy glop becomes an intricate mesh and before the bottom begins to scorch. Each pan is free for a millisecond, cooled upside down in a tank of water, before more batter is poured into it and placed over the flame. It’s as finely tuned as juggling five balls, maybe six and one slack in focus is enough to bring the entire enterprise to a grinding, and very smoky halt.
This Tel Aviv bakery is very different than the one woman orchestra in the small village of Tarum. Shulie Dagan operates right out of the basement of her home, where she produces an array of Yemenite breads to distribute to the local community. Although I called in advance to let her know we were coming and then again when we got lost along the way I still had the odd feeling of barging in as we walked into her front yard and down a flight of steps to find her. I’d arrive together with Liz and Ben during the “food festival” of the Jerusalem Hills area though it was more a hodge podge of family food businesses printed on a brochure. The customer was left with the job of seeking them out, sometimes down very bumpy and unpaved roads (read more about the food festival tour on Liz’s blog).
Shulie greeted us with familiar exuberance, as if we were neighbors she hadn’t seen for a long time. We caught her in the middle of baking lachooch bread and I stood by fascinated by the tiny bubbles that magically appeared on the surface. Her method for preparing flatbread is slightly different than what many Yemenites use, with stainless steel pans instead of Teflon. “It helps give the bottom a nice golden color”, she explained. Sixty years ago in Yemen, clay or cast iron were the main materials available for cooking.
Her husband brought in chicken soup, hilbeh and schoog and the three of us enjoyed a spicy feast at 10 in the morning. Sopping up the turmeric colored soup I asked Shulie why I failed so dismally at this Yemenite craft. “The batter has to be the right consistency”, she noted and what has always eluded me. I was successful perhaps once in the ten or more times I tried and now I have the most profound respect for basement bakers.
In small enclaves around the country Yemen flourishes in bakeries, restaurants and even road way stands. The craftsmen of tradition continue to prepare the foods of their childhood. Their reward a few shekels, not more but what they are preserving is priceless.
Tarum Israel (on Road 44)
Telephone: 050-637-4732 or 050 7440584 (call in advance)
18 Nahlieli Road
Yemenite Quarter, Tel Aviv
Israel’s Restaurant (although he told me his restaurant doesn’t have a name)
Opposite 28 Yehyeh Road, Yemenite Quarter, Tel Aviv (it is opposite another restaurant called Shimon, the King of Soups, שמעון מלך המרקים
Another bakery in Tel Aviv is located at the Tikva Market (Souk Hatikva) close to the Hahagana entrance (its within 10 minute walking distance from the Hahagna Train Station)
Liz’s recipe for saluf