For the better part of our nearly ten years living overseas, we lived in the Middle East. Now there’s a sentence I never expected to write. Over those years we visited half a dozen countries in that region, but the most interesting culinary trek was down a flight path less traveled, to the Republic of Yemen.
Across the Red Sea from Eritrea and Djibouti, west of Oman and due south of Saudi Arabia, Yemen is the first place (and so far, the last) we have had the chance to try a bite of camel. On the outskirts of the desert regions we had heard of restaurants focusing on this humped beast, but unfortunately our travels never took us there. We found our camel at the supermarket in Aden for about six dollars a kilo, and the butcher cubed it for me. Having never priced camel before, I thought it was a pretty good deal. We took it home and slow cooked it with some barbecue sauce, which in retrospect was probably not an authentic local recipe, but we were novices at camel cuisine. The fun part was serving it to our dinner guest without telling her what she was eating. Even she admitted it was tasty. And no, it did not taste like chicken.
My passion for breakfast is no big secret, and in Yemen and the other Middle Eastern countries we visited my breakfast horizons were greatly expanded. I’ll never forget the first time I was offered a bean sandwich. Really? Beans on a sandwich? And for breakfast no less? But it tasted terrific, especially with the hot glass of milky, spiced tea that came with it. The sandwiches were usually made with what amounted to a small French baguette they called ruti. When not sandwiched, we ate the beans with our fingers, using a piece of round, flat bread much like a pita, or a piece of ruti as our utensil. Imagine your family eating with their fingers, all out of a common dish, piping hot right off the fire. So many less dishes to wash. We especially enjoyed the beans mixed with eggs, with just a taste of hot pepper. Our family favorite, however, was a straight-up egg sandwich, made of slices of boiled eggs and crumbled white cheese similar to feta, again on the ruti. To give it a little home flavor, we spiced it up with a shake of Tony Chachere’s.
The breakfast menu was full of surprises. Not long after the initial bean sandwich, someone ordered the liver for me. Yes, the liver – yes, for breakfast. I am a fan of fried chicken livers, no doubt, but there was no batter in sight. I confess: I really liked it. I guess that makes me a grown-up, kind of. In Arabic the dish was called kibda. It was prepared by chopping the liver into bite-sized pieces and stir-frying it with tomato, onion, and various kinds of peppers. Cooked and seasoned properly, usually with a heavy dose of cumin, you could barely tell it was liver.
The traditional lunch was a kind of stew called salta. Tracking down a standard recipe for this dish was nearly impossible – it varied from restaurant to restaurant, from village to village. Usually it had a bit of meat, potato or rice, onions, peppers, and maybe even an egg stirred around in the reddish broth. Once again, it was eaten with fingers and various kinds of bread, but with this one you really had to be careful. Normally, when it was brought to your table, the server carried the hot clay bowl … very carefully … and the salta was literally bubbling in the bowl. If you wanted (and sometimes even if you didn’t) it was topped with a layer of green foam, made from ground fenugreek. On days when we were feeling especially carnivorous, we would order fahsa instead. Fahsa was similar to salta, sans all those pesky vegetables. This was chock full of shredded meat, probably beef but you never really knew.
For the ambitious cook out there, here is an equally ambitious recipe – Stuffed Camel. Ingredients: 1 camel (medium size), 5 lbs pistachio nuts, 20 chickens (medium size), 50 eggs, 30 lbs long-grain rice, 1 lamb (large), 5 lbs walnuts, 110 gallons water, salt and pepper to taste. Skin, trim and clean camel, lamb and chickens. Boil until tender. Cook rice according to package directions. Hard boil eggs and peel. Fry nuts until brown. Stuff chickens with eggs and rice. Stuff camel with lamb and more rice. Broil in large oven until brown. Spread the rest of the rice on a large tray and place camel on top. Place stuffed chickens around the camel. Garnish with nuts. Serves 30-100 people. If you make this, invite Jay.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .