After a smashing success with our Serbian dinner last week, we headed down to the southern extreme of Turkish culinary influence at Yemen Cafe on Atlantic Avenue near downtown Brooklyn.
Yemeni diet remained relatively simple for quite a long time due to the vast amounts of desert and the isolated location. For much of the areas pre-history, the people subsisted primarily on dates and camel milk, as well as soups and stews using available meat, typically lamb, chicken and camel. Luckily, some other ingredients were added over time. The Sabaean Kingdom arose somewhere between the 12th and 8th century BCE, with its capital located near the present-day capital of Yemen. The kingdom’s great wealth was centered around the trade of frankincense and myrrh, as well as foreign spices that made their way into the food, such as cardamom, caraway, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and turmeric. The riches of this kingdom made meat and other vegetables much more widespread, especially as great waterworks were built for irrigation.
Later additions to the cuisine actually came mainly in the form of spice usage from Ethiopia and the Ottomans, although some Levantine dishes entered the menu, and the Ottomans helped spread the consumption of lamb as the main meat source.
Atlantic Avenue has changed much over the years, but has still retained a “little Middle East” right next door to pricy Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. There are several different Middle Eastern shops and restaurants spread across a few blocks west of Court Street.
Yemen Cafe maintains a humble informal cafe décor except for the neon lights out front and the huge tropical fish tank in one wall. We arrived at the tail of the rush and ended up waiting quite a while for service, with even the self-serve tea being empty, although when it did arrive, it was sweet and delicious and didn’t end up on the bill.
We ordered the following:
- Foul $8
- Baba ganoush $8
- Vegetarian w/rice $12
- Loubia $19
- Zorbian $18
For a total of $65 pre-tax/tip, split four ways.
We were all brought a salad immediately after ordering. It was mainly Iceburg, but there was a delicious salsa-like salad dressing. Everyone else also got a brothy soup upon being seated, but I showed up late and was omitted We also received an insane amount of flaky flatbread throughout the night to sop up the delicious stews and the nice spicy green salsa that came before the meal.
The foul is a bean dish similar to refried beans served in a sizzling stone pot that keeps the dish hot quite a bit longer than any other vessel. This is actually a pretty traditional way of serving Yemeni food and is how the Loubia came as well. The Loubia actually had a bean stew with frothy fenugreek topping served in the hot pot, and the lamb served on a plate on the side. Actually, I think the Loubia is just some sort of deviation from the national dish, Salta. I couldn’t confirm if there was any meat juices in the stew, but the vegetarian at the table ate it anyway. This was all to be poured over buttery rice before eating.
Baba ganoush is one of the remnants of the Levantine influence on Yemeni food, of which there are surprisingly few. It’s a mash up of eggplant, olive oil and sesame batter that is simply divine for flatbread dipping. It’s also super healthy as it fills you up with good fat.
The Zorbian also contained lamb, but this was boneless and came pre-mixed with the sauce and veggies. It also seemed to be a bit of a higher quality than that in the Loubia, which had a slight off flavor. The veggies in all of the dishes were some mixture of at least three of the following: carrots, potatoes, okra, corn.
All in all, the food was good, but not gourmet. The portions filled us to the brim with plenty left over for each of us to have our next day’s lunch covered, so the value was solid. The guys working there were very friendly despite the glacial service. They actually seemed like they were a bit in the weeds, and I’m always willing to forgive that.
On a side note, Detroit apparently has a large Yemeni population, so if you happen to be there looking at abandoned buildings, look around for some authentic Yemeni… or just go to Yemen Cafe.
I went down a Wikipedia hole while researching this post and found out that carrots have been cultivated for over 5,000 years, but were typically whitish or purple. They also sound like they were pretty crappy, like most food before people really got into selective breeding, being described as, “thin and woody and mostly of a vaguely whitish colour.” Check out the Carrot Museum for more details.
Ok, so now there is no turning back. We just bought tickets to Hawaii for a month in May/June. If we chicken out with the whole ‘mini-retirement’ thing, we’re out 866 bucks.
We weren’t planning to fly anywhere after we quit, because that was part of the point of this whole thing – flying sucks and I damn well don’t want to do it anymore if I don’t have to. But I had to. The flights were $433 RT, and Hawaii is boldfaced on my list. I figured it would likely never be cheaper for us, and it really won’t be all that convenient in the future, even when we’re on the west coast. Really, it was just an offer I couldn’t refuse and I didn’t want to take the chance that this would be one of those places that constantly eludes us for years (see my forthcoming Montauk post).
Hawaii will be an interesting first test of our budgetary acumen. We are quite good at budget traveler, spending our time soaking up the beauty and culture of a place without spending gobs of cash, but HI is pretty expensive, and there will be more flying in our future because there don’t seem to be ferries between most of the islands. The flight to get there isn’t too bad. Amortized over 34 days, it comes to about $25 a day. We’ve calculated out a very generous $75 a day average over the likely period of our long-term travels, which would give us a good amount of time before we’re flat broke, even in the unlikely event that we don’t have any income whatsoever. We’ll probably go over that in HI a bit, especially with all of the internal flights, but we’ll make a go of it. If we spend another $500 on internal flights, that is another $15 a day, which still leaves us with $35 a day. Most of our time will be spent spending nothing on hiking and biking and very little on camping, so we may be able to pull it off.
I have already been spending a bunch of time planning the trip. It is INCREDIBLE to have so much time to work with. I cannot describe the relief of planning with this much time – it’s like a huge load of bricks has been taken off my face. We no longer have to skip tons of stuff we wanted to see, while still packing in ridiculous amounts of travel time. Man, we spent almost as much time traveling in Peru as we did on the ground. Exaggeration, but still, a huge percent was lost, and we were harried. I also don’t feel like we need to plan everything, but can leave a lot more up to chance. I do want to do this though.
Now, back to the planning!
Lewis ~ My one weekend in Serbia was back during my time “studying” in Hungary, so I was more focused on drinking cheap beers and meeting girls. I did find the people to be unbelievably friendly, especially considering this was 2004, about five years after we bombed the hell out of them. The beers were also incredibly cheap (I brought back a 3-liter jug for use in dormitory beer pong). However, I did not get much of a culinary experience, and after a visit to Kafana in Alphabet City, I regret that. My only memory of food in Belgrade was a foolishly ordered plate of calamari, which turned out to be the worst I’ve ever had. I certainly didn’t have any deeply smoky cured sausages, tender pork chops or beans baked to perfection.
Serbia lies between Turkey, Greece and Central Europe, right in the middle of the stretch of land known as the Balkans. While this position at the confluence of various great empires throughout history means it has been a hotbed of conquest and ethnic strife for centuries, these same forces brought with them various culinary tastes. Like most of the countries in the area, Serbian cuisine is strongly influenced by Turkish and Greek from the south, and Austro-Hungarian from the north.
Kafana, or KAФAHA, is a dark, candle-lit eatery in the classic East Village bourgeoisie style complete with exposed brick, wooden tables and a massive antique cash register. It is very cozy despite the huge open front. This is likely accomplished with the step-down patio seating that provides a transition to the relatively quiet Avenue C.
Like most of Europe, bread is an important part of the Serbian diet, and we received a basket of it upon placing our order. While not a highlight, it wasn’t bad either and was the perfect texture to soak up the remnants of our dinner. The roasted red pepper spread that came with it was simple, but made a cool and smooth accompaniment to the bread (I get a kick out of the fact that bread and beard are essentially the same word, especially since one ends up in the other fairly regularly).
Dried and smoked meats and sausages are taken very seriously throughout Serbia. These delightful appetizers came from the Austrians via the Vojvodina region, which is still more influenced by Austro-Hungarian cuisine than the rest of the country. This includes much more dough, pastry, pasta, dumplings and filled breads. I have always loved cured meats and Kafana did not disappoint with the Assorted Meze ($13.95). I always think meat and/or cheese platters are overpriced, but the portion was closer to reasonable than most. The four varieties pretty much covered the range of cured meat styles. There was deep and smokey (a flavor profile that would recur in the grilled meat), and slightly slick and stretchy. There was a thicker, more moist cousin to prosciutto. One was lighter, more hammy, but very dry and thin. And of course, there was the ubiquitous composite sausage. All were fantastic and raised our expectations for the main course. The pickle spears were a lightly spicy and soft way to cleanse the palate.
Serbian food is characteristically meat heavy, and the grill has taken over the countryside. Lamb is common, but pork is by far the top hog on the grill. Kafana has a wide selection of grilled meats available, but who can pass up the Mešano Meso (mixed grill for two $33.95)? This guy contains five traditional grilled meat dishes – grilled pork chop; smoked pork neck; ljuta (spicy pork sausage); bacon-wrapped morsels (chicken liver and prunes stuffed with walnuts and cheese); and the national specialty, minced meat “fingers”- piled on a place with copious amounts of romaine lettuce. The “fingers” I believe contained a mix of lamb and pork. The pork chop was a bit devoid of flavor, but was perfectly tender. Everything else was great, and the portion was beyond satisfying.
I was a little dubious about paying $10.95 for a plate of baked beans, but it’s another “national dish,” so I had to give it a shot. It is found everywhere in Serbia, and everyone has their own recipe.Lima or great northern beans are used, and paprika is always involved. That latter certainly came from the north as Hungary is the top producer of paprika and they live and die by that stuff. (When I studied in Budapest there was a huge scandal involving a bunch of paprika labeled as “Hungarian” which was discovered to be tainted with a fungus that can only grow in Brazil.) While still a bit high in price, the beans certainly impressed. The large, white beans with their velvety texture merged with the rich sauce to give an almost mac & cheese experience. They skyrocketed in my esteem in the second bite when I discovered thin strips of onion that added a juicy bridge between bean and sauce.
The blitva side ($5.95) of chard with boiled potato and garlic was a buttery green addition to a meaty meal. It was enjoyed by all, especially thanks to its similarity to southern collard greens.
We also drank a Serbian beer, Jelen. It was as expected from a non-beer country – light adjunct lager.
All in all, I would say this was a smashing success. We got to try some traditional specialties that turned out delicious and reasonably priced for the location. Yes, there are some “essential” items that we missed, most notably slivovice. This plum liquor is the national drink thanks to the huge amount of fruit trees in the country. Of course, plum isn’t the only fruit used, and liquor isn’t the only fruit beverage ubiquitously drunk, but ya gotta choose one, eh?
Total cost with tip $90 or $30 a person.
I’ll leave this post with a grim fact. Serbia was the flashpoint of WWI and 58% of the country’s soldiers were killed, as well as 16% of the pre-war population of the country. Naturally, they tried to stay neutral in WWII, but didn’t get off so hot on that one either.
One of the most amazing things about NYC is that it is a true multicultural city, and not just two or three cultures, but dozens. There are so many different cultures from all over the world, and many of these people coalesce into tight communities where they keep their language and customs and, oh yes, their food! It dawned on me the other day that it is possible to eat at a restaurant from a different country, not to mention ethnic divisions within countries, every week for a year or more. Of course, this gave me a project idea, and my favorite type of project begins with making a huge list!
From now until we leave the city, Brandy and I will eat at a restaurant from a different country. This isn’t really a new concept, but it is an awesome way to explore the city.
Space permitting, we will try to go with groups of up to six people so that we can taste as much as possible. We will probably stick more or less to one meal per country. I know massive countries like China and India have a wide range of food and one restaurant will hardly be representative. Tough, get a smaller country.
The journey through the stomach starts next week. Where to first??
Speaking of food, I’m writing this in Battery Park and there is this huge turkey that lives here and is lurking around the lawn where I’m sitting. I’m taking it on trust that this guy is not a flesh-eating attack turkey, or if so, he has been trained to get the tourists first.