The Yemeni restaurants of Brooklyn: Traditional tastes made in America [Archives:2008/1168/Last Page]

June 30 2008

Sarah Wolff
Wherever there are Yemeni people, Yemeni food is likely to follow. I learned this during my first experience with Yemeni food, which was actually in the United States. An acquaintance offered to take me to a Yemeni restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, I was afraid to take any type of journey to Yemen – food-wise or otherwise – so I politely declined. But as I later learned when I moved to Sana'a, I really should've taken that culinary leap of faith.

Approximately 80,000 Yemenis live in the U.S., with thousands of Yemenis having immigrated to New York State, mainly to the city of Brooklyn, between 1990 and 2000. While there's no official count of how many Yemenis reside in Brooklyn, the fourth largest city in the U.S. with every immigrant group imaginable living there, the area is well known for its substantial Yemeni community.

This community of expatriates soon opened simple restaurants to serve the foods they grew up with, worlds away from the McDonalds and Pizza Huts surrounding them in their adopted home. The oldest and most established of these Yemeni restaurants are in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill district, a quaint neighborhood with tree-lined streets and historic homes near the city's waterfront.

Although Middle Eastern cuisine, mainly that of the Levant, gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1990s, Yemeni food remains largely unknown. Locally, Cobble Hill's Yemeni restaurants have gained fame through word of mouth. The tender meats, spicy sahawwiq (a spicy salsa-like condiment) and fluffy bint al-sahin (a flaky layered dough and honey dessert) on offer at these establishments wow Yemeni-Americans, other Middle Easterners and those who simply love trying new foods.

The first Yemeni eatery to open in the U.S. was the Yemen Cafe & Restaurant, which has been in business for 23 years. Abdul Hatem, whose father and uncle own the famed spot, say newcomers like myself typically start with something they know, such as roasted lamb or chicken, but quickly move on to other Yemeni treats.

Hatem's family originally is from Rada'a, although Hatem himself was born and raised in the U.S. He says the only concession they've made for American tastes is allowing guests to eat the savory porridge aseed with a spoon instead of their fingers, as Yemenis do.

Otherwise, “We do everything we do in Yemen,” Hatem says, which includes preparing shafout, a yogurt and bread dish, true to form, stuffed with enough garlic to repel vampires – not to mention humans – for weeks.

Ammar Sulaiman, son of the owner of the Hadramout Restaurant, one of the newer Yemeni spots in town, says the most popular dish at his father's place is mendi, which is a whole roasted lamb. However, due to space constraints and Brooklyn's tough fire codes, they can't prepare it over charcoal as they would in Yemen, so they use gas instead.

And don't forget Yemen's national dish, salta. After offering to show me around Sana'a the next time he's in town, Hatem told me that when I return to New York, I must visit his restaurant and try his version because “It's 23 years in the making,” he boasts. The spicy stew of ground meat topped with fenugreek sauce is also his restaurant's most popular dish.

The Yemen Cafe and Restaurant also is popular. Hatem claims that he “knows everyone in Yemen” because of his customers, which include President Ali Abdullah Saleh's sons and Yemeni ministers visiting the U.S.

“I was just at the Yemeni consulate three days ago,” he says, noting that he also does take-out and catering for special orders like these. He adds, “I was at the Saudi consulate yesterday. They know us there and they're cool guys.”

Although Yemeni visitors and expats make up the core of these restaurants' clientele, both Hatem and Sulaiman say they offer their delicacies to those from every background, including non-Yemenis like me. “We serve people from Arab countries and the Middle East, Pakistanis, Indians, whites, blacks – everyone,” Sulaiman notes, “We mix it up.”