Evolution of [Archives:1997/45/Culture]

November 10 1997

the Yemeni Cuisine
By: Fatima Mutahar
The kind of food people eat directly reflects the level of their income as well as their cultural heritage. In addition, it shows the degree of interaction with the rest of the world. One of the key events in our recent history to affect all those factors was the revolution of September 26th. This revolution did not only overthrow the archaic Imamic regime, but it also broke the isolation imposed by the Imam. To prove that point, I will use the evolution in the Yemeni cuisine, and its evolution, starting from a short period before the revolution until our present time. To help shed light on the subject, I spoke to Mrs. Warda, aged 60. She indicated things before the revolution were quite different. The kind of food people ate was limited in variety and abundance. Although the meals were simple, cooking was a much harder job because each family had to prepare the food and ingredients. Excerpts:
Q: Tell us about gathering fire-wood? A: Every woman in the household used to wake up at dawn to go to the wilderness. Depending on where the family lived, this could mean walking long distances. Coming back with a pile of wood and shrubs on our heads was a painful undertaking. Although wood gathering is a morning chore, if the family is big, some women would have to go back in the afternoon for another supply.
Q: Cattle dung was also used to make fire? A: Yes. We used dried cattle dung to make fire. But that was also a major undertaking. We used to clean the pen and put the waste matter in a pit, one meter deep. Then, we put some water and two days later we went down and treaded on the waste matter to compact it together. We then shaped the packed waste and threw them outside the pit to dry under the sun.
Q: How did you learn this method? A: We saw our ancestors doing the same thing to benefit from the cattle waste. I have seen some women making fuel out of cattle waste until very recently. The method of using cattle waste as a fuel began to disappear due to people’s tendency towards getting education and employment. Also, gas ovens made this old method obsolete.
Q: What did you use for lighting? A: We used kerosene to light. In those days, each family was almost self-sufficient in everything, and kerosene was one of the few things we bought because it was imported. We only used kerosene for lighting. That was a short time, because we did not stay up late at night. Families used to sleep after dinner so that they could get up at daybreak.
Q: What did you have for breakfast, lunch and supper? A: Breakfast included ‘matit’ – made out of milk, thyme, salt, pepper and a little bit of barley flour. We ate this with ‘kafoo’, corn or lentil bread, or ‘matit’ and barley/sorghum bread along with ‘keshr’ coffee which is made from the outer shell of the coffee bean. Sometimes, it was just dry bread that we used to dip in milk, tea or qahwa.
Q: Why did you eat mainly barley/sorghum bread? Did you not grow wheat? A: We got used to grow a local variety of wheat called “samra” which was not good for bread-making because it used to disintegrate during baking. It was also in limited quantities. So we used to grind this wheat to make ‘hareesh’ – ground wheat placed into boiling water and mixed with milk and ghee. As for lunch, it was ‘asid’ – milled sorghum, or ‘fatoot’ – pieces of bread soaked in milk or meat soup. We ate meat with ‘asid’ or ‘harish’ on Fridays. We ate lentil with thyme and salt at dinner or what had been left at lunch.
Q: What about chicken? A: Chicken was mainly given to women during the first 40 days of their post-natal period. Actually, these were chicks rather than egg-laying hens. If the chicken was already laying eggs, then we believed that its meat was not good for our daughters.
Q: What vegetables and fruits did you eat? A: The vegetables only included tomatoes, leek and radishes. The fruits included plums, grapes, pomegranates, bananas and figs. ý
Q: When did you start using modern kitchen appliances and utensils? A: We started using modern appliances with the arrival of electricity after the September revolution. The first time I saw electric lights when I came to Sanaa, to partake in the celebrations of a relative’s wedding. I was afraid of electricity because of shocks. Later on, someone from the village bought an electric generator and my sons wanted to buy one like it. I was afraid after that incident, but they told me that it shocked only when touched by a wet hand or if the wire was scratched. I reluctantly agreed.
Q: Are you still afraid of electricity? A: No, but I am very cautious.
Q: When did you start using modern gas cookers? A: The cooking stove came after electricity. I heard people say that it would blow up and cause death so we did not buy it. After many people at the village bought them, I started to get used to it. So my husband bought one for us. It has been twenty years now.
Q: How did you get to know canned foods? A: When my brother came back from Saudi Arabia, he showed us many new types of food which we did not know. I also learned how to bake cakes and other sweets from the Egyptian women teachers in our village. With time, we got to know many strange foods which we disliked at first. Now, I can’t imagine living without them.
Q: Any last comments? A: One of the major advantages of modern cooking is that most of the ingredients are readily available, and there is little preparation before cooking. Also, there are big differences between our traditional dishes such as asid, fatoot, mateet and keshr, and modern things such as jams, canned foods, sandwiches.