What I knew about Yemeni food wouldn’t fill a shai teacup. There was no place to explore the cuisine in the Triangle — never has been, to my knowledge — and I haven’t come across a Yemeni restaurant in my travels.
Then, a few weeks after Yemen Kitchen opened in February in a nondescript strip mall on the southern outskirts of Raleigh, toward Garner, I walked through its front door. And I began to learn about a cuisine whose delights (including shai, Yemen’s sweet, spice-fragrant answer to India’s masala chai) are at once exotic and familiar.
My education is far from complete, and I’m certainly not qualified to make pronouncements about authenticity. I have learned enough, though, after sampling my way across nearly half the menu, to be eager to continue my studies. In the meantime, I’d like to give other novices an idea of what to expect, and to suggest a course of study.
The classroom, if you will, is a small, neat-as-a-pin space (formerly a Bruegger’s Bagels) with Yemeni cityscapes on the walls, booths upholstered in traditional woven fabrics, and an ornate fretwork partition wall between the two small dining rooms. Mingled perfumes of exotic spices, incense, and slow-cooked lamb reinforce the mood.
Lamia Rhazi, Yemen Kitchen’s hospitable and quietly efficient dining room manager (and likely your server as well), will be happy to answer any questions. Think of her as an approachable professor, with guest lectures by chef Amar al Saaidi, who frequently ventures out into the dining room. Feel free to turn to either for guidance, whether you have questions about any of my recommendations, or if you decide to design your own independent study course.
Note: In the evenings, you’ll be served a small complimentary bowl of lamb broth at the beginning of the meal. It’s delicious as it is, but you can tweak the flavor if you like with the accompanying chile sauce or a squeeze of lemon.
Yemeni Cuisine 101
Ease your way into the cuisine with a Yemeni specialty with a recognizable counterpart in a more familiar cuisine. Samboosah, like India’s samosa, is a triangular pastry with your choice of meat or vegetable filling. The pastry in the Yemeni version is a wonton wrapper, though, and the filling options — ground beef, or a medley of cabbage, corn, diced red bell pepper and parsley — are distinctly Yemeni. Both are excellent.
Plan on sharing the main course with at least one other person. Saltah, which the menu describes as the “most famous traditional Yemeni stew,” arrives at the table still boiling furiously in the traditional earthenware dish it was baked in. Saltah is available in vegetarian and meat versions, both blanketed with hibah (“a fenugreek whipped condiment,” according to the menu, that resembles molten cheese) and a basket of house-baked flatbread.
After such a filling meal, something light for dessert. Nammoura, a syrup-soaked semolina cake garnished with an almond (fans of Lebanese cuisine will instantly recognize this one) ought to hit the spot. And by all means, order a cup of shai tea.
Begin your meal with a comparative study of regional cultures — hummus, say, or baba ghanoush, both of which are similar to their Lebanese counterparts. The chief difference is that here they’re served with a flatbread baked in a clay oven whose name (tanoor) will be recognizable to fans of Indian cuisine.
Mandi chicken — half a bird, slow-roasted and served on a nest of basmati rice spangled with a few turmeric yellow grains, and fried onion threads — is a reliably safe entree option. Lamb haneed is slightly more challenging, only because the slow-roasted meat is served in hefty chunks, some on the bone and some fatty. Extra credit if you order both dishes.
Fatah is a no-brainer for dessert. The menu describes fatah as “bread pudding cooked in a clay pot,” a description as apt as any I can think of. The bread in this case takes the form of rice-size grains of toasted whole wheat Yemeni bread, cooked in sweetened clarified butter and topped with cream and your choice of honey or mashed dates. Take your pick.
But be warned that you should allow the fatah to cool a bit before attempting to eat it. Not only will you avoid searing your tongue, but you’ll also discover that the bits of bread in the bottom of the pot get crispier the longer they remain in contact with the hot clay pot.
Start with shafout, “a cool mouth-watering yogurt-based dish blended with fresh basil, mint and jalapeño” served over torn pieces of flatbread. Lamia Rhazi says shafout is traditionally eaten as a salad, but the tzatziki-like consistency comes off more like a dip to a Western palate. You might want to order a basket of flatbread for dipping.
At this point, you should be ready for lamb liver sautéed with tomatoes, onions and spices. You’ll find this one among the handful of traditional Yemeni breakfast dishes, but you don’t have to take on the challenge at the start of the day. Breakfast is served all day here. That includes shak-shookah, an egg-and-tomato dish popular in variations all across the Middle East, if you’re just not up for liver regardless of the time of day.
Dessert? Easy. Just order whichever fatah you didn’t get last time.
It wasn’t until after my last visit that I learned that Yemen Kitchen is not in fact the only — not even the first — Yemeni restaurant in the Triangle. Turns out owner Ahmed Alhadrani also owns Al-Aseel on East Davie Street. I’m already looking forward to pursuing a graduate degree there
117 Small Pines Drive, Raleigh
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casual, exotic, inviting
Noise level: low
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: sambosah (meat or vegetable), mandi chicken, lamb haneed, saltah, fattah
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30