‘Djibouti-ville,’ the country’s slow-moving capital, is home to dozens of excellent Yemeni restaurants from the traditional Sanaa, which deceptively resembles a hole in the wall, but affords diners a balcony view of the bustling streets below, to Happy Yemen, a new refugee owned joint where diners can sit on the floor and enjoy the house specialty of meat stew.
Sabab is a favourite with the international UN crowd for its fish and seafood dishes, while Moukbasa offers a more upscale dining experience.
Few of them have menus so here’s everything you need to know to make the most out of your Yemeni feast.
Yemeni food is largely eaten by hand with the help of freshly-baked bread placed directly on the table over a newspaper. There are literally hundreds of Yemeni bread varieties – from the flatbread, khobz al-tawa, the focaccia-like kidem. Malawach is the most popular in Djibouti and is particularly tasty because it is kneaded into layers with generous amounts of butter.
Ready for a Yemeni breakfast? Try some delicious scrambled eggs with vegetables. Shakshuka is a popular egg and tomato dish in North Africa, where it is usually eaten with poached eggs. But the Yemeni version usually consists of scrambled eggs and green chillies. A perfect way to start the day with a kick of protein and spice.
Yemenis are renowned for their fishing skills, especially in the southern part of the country. So it’s no surprise that Yemeni restaurants often have the freshest fish in Djibouti. You can order mashwi (grilled fish) and trust the waiter. Alternatively, ask to pick your own. Yemeni fish is most often grilled whole and served simply with lemon.
Stews are also a staple of Yemeni food. Goat, lamb, chicken… they are all chopped up and slowly cooked on a base of onion, green pepper and hawaij (a traditional mix of spices with cumin, cardamom, turmeric and cloves). Salta, a mouth-watering brown-meat stew made with fenugreek, chillies and tomatoes, is considered the national dish.
Sauces are the lifeblood of Yemeni cuisine. Zahawiq is a spicy chutney similar to the Mexican salsa, which accompanies almost everything from rice to fish and meat. Yoghurt sauces are also common. If you encounter a strange taste you can’t seem to place, it’s probably hulba (fenugreek in English). This gold-brown seed is a crucial ingredient of Yemeni food and has a bittersweet taste, like burnt sugar.
For best results, pair your Yemeni feast with a strong cup of coffee, sweet tea or freshly-squeezed juice. Order extra bread to take home with you but know it probably won’t make it.