October 23, 2013 | Posted in:Food
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.