Solving a Yemeni culinary mystery with the help of a student/neighbor and making new friends in the process.
Ever since first tasting Fahsa from the Yemen Cafe here in Brooklyn, I’ve wanted to learn to make it. I’d been doing all sorts of research but hadn’t quite landed the recipe I thought would get me to what I was enjoying at Yemen Cafe.
I was also confused about Mereg which was one ingredient in some of the recipes, but appeared to be a soup in its own right (did I really have to make one soup, in order to make a second soup? And if so, was the same meat used?).
At some point in 2017, at one of my volunteer sessions at the Arab American Family Support Center (AAFSC), I tried to use these culinary questions as practical convo for our English conversation practice but it proved a bit too complex.
A weeks later I had the guts to ask my server at Yemen Cafe for help. I had just polished off yet another bowl of Fahsa, and showing him my recipe printout and notes, begged him to help me understand…. didn’t really get much farther.
And then in early 2018, I finally got up the nerve to ask a neighborhood mom whom I initially met at AAFSC, but now also saw most weeks because our son’s were in adjacent classrooms. I first invited her for Biryani at our house (I was often asked for my recipe at the AAFSC) and asked if someday she would give me Yemeni cooking lessons. She asked to set a date immediately for that and we were off and running!
She brought her two children and two friends to help with the cooking. They wouldn’t let me help, but instead told me to take good notes while they demonstrated. Every now and again my daughter tried her hand, but otherwise, our kids made fast friends while the ladies and I were in the kitchen.
BUT, soon after that lesson I came across Yemen Blues and became obsessed, even seeing them live in New York City a couple times. Since then, their music is not only a part of our regular rotation, it’s a requirement when we eat Yemeni food (home cooked or ordered from Yemen Cafe).
Yemen Blues Live
I’ve seen Yemen Blues live a few times in NYC and they were incredible shows. This video of them playing Jat Mahibathi (incidentally my fav of their songs) in Old City Jerusalem is pretty fabulous.
The first big lesson was that that the difference between Fahsa and Salta really depends on who you ask! I thought Salta was vegetarian and Fahsa had meat but they said that is only true in some areas. Some people call even the vegetarian version Fahsa. The types of “typical” meat (lamb, chicken and even fish!) and vegetables also changes by region. On top of that, family preferences dictate the recipe so there are many variations.
I think a good equivalent is chili here in the US. There is no one way to make chili. It can be vegetarian or full of meat, and both of those versions vary wildly. The meat can vary from hunks of a single type of meat, to a variety of ground meats, or even just be based on some kind of sausage, and probably includes one or more types of beans. Vegetarian versions are likely heavier on beans and often have tofu or other substitutes.
At any rate, the below recipe will provide the foundation, and you can try other vegetables and meat as you wish.
The Mereg (pronounced more like “morocg”) is the initial soup that is made, where the chicken and veggies cook in the broth, and then the Fahsa/Salta is a separate dish, which is made using the Mereg as a base, but transferring it into a madara (a special stoneware pot), mashing the veggies adding shredded meat (if desired), and possibly other veggies (they added okra to mine, which had been sauteed with oil, garlic and a bit of potato).
Recipes for the following are below, in the order in which you should start them for your own feast!
Bread, if you are making! (I’ll need 2-6 hours of rising depending on the type you choose: khobz or kidem or…)
Hulba (needs alternating time in the fridge and getting hand beaten)
Have on hand:
Kidem, khobz (or other Yemeni bread, or store-bought pita in a pinch).
Large pot to eat out of, family style.
Don’t skip this part. It takes a lot of time and arm power but the payoff is a very unique flavor and presentation. It’s so memorable that it’s the basis of my kids’ nickname for it: “the soup with the island.”
NOTE: If whipping by hand, expect it to take about 20 minutes. This is how we did it, though I’ve seen some recipes that appeared to use some sort of a mixer.
1seeded green chilioptional
1/2tspsaltor more to taste
In a 3:2:1 ratio:
1whole sprigs mint
Put the ground fenugreek and water in a medium-sized bowl and put it in the fridge for several hours (5 is recommended, but ours ended up being about 2.5).
After at least 2 hours in the fridge, when the fenugreek has absorbed some water, carefully pour off the excess water and begin to beat it with a fork. It will take a good amount of effort and will begin to get fluffy and turn from brown to white/ pale green. [side note: I would love to know the history of this. Who sat around whipping this for so long to discover the flavor and texture?!]
You may need to give it (or really your arm) a rest for a bit, and if so, put it back in the fridge, then beat it some more when your arm is ready.
When good and fluffy, prepare the herb/heat additions: put the 3 herbs and chili (if usinin a food processor with a tad of water and chop well. Add to the fluffy fenugreek along with some salt and mix. Add salt to taste.
Keep in the fridge until ready to use it to top the Fahsa/Salta.
The moment of truth! Once your Mereg is done, it’s time to transform it into Fahsa. The below served 4 adults and 4 children, along with everything else on this page.If you don’t have a madara (large stone pot with low sides, that can go on the stove top), a 8-10 inch cast iron pan would probably work nicely. You will not only prepare the Fahsa in it, it should also be placed in the center of the table (or floor, as you might do do in Yemen*) and eaten family style, using bits of bread to dip/scoop. You may also want to add some of the sahwk right there in the pot, but only add enough for your won consumption, and don’t stir it in.
a pot to prepare and serve it family style (see note above)
~3cupsof Mereg(broth, veggies and meat)
other cooked veggies you have on hand(they put in some sauteed okra)
more salt to taste
3spoonfuls of Hulba(see above)
Kidem or Yemeni flat bread to eat it with**
In and unheated madara or cast iron pan, mash up about half of the veggies from the Mereg, using a fork. Add a bit of broth to help it along. Here is where you would add in any other desired veggies.
Once good and mashed, add some of the meat, shredded into small pieces, careful to discard any bones, and add more broth if desired.
Put the pan on the stove and heat the Fahsa on medium heat for at 15-20 minutes to allow flavors to combine. Add salt to taste.
When ready to serve, add scoops of Hulba on the top and do not stir it in (make the island!). Serve with Kidem, Yemeni flat bread, or even pita.
*Yemeni dining etiquette** I didn’t yet try either of these recipes because my friends brought Kidem, but I plan to soon.Update (29/4/18): YES. Take the time to make the bread. The Queen of Sheba site for their khobz bread which was turned out really good but I think I will try it again to perfect it; bread can be finicky! They also have a recipe for Kidem, which I will try next time)
My guest chefs made it inside my teapot but next time I would just do it in my favorite chai pot* for easier cleaning/viewing. The kids and I did a taste test and we all preferred it without milk (which is the way most patrons of Yemen Cafe seem to enjoy it when I’m there, as well. Personal preference! Try both…
2 1/2tspAl-Kbous loose tea
6cardamom pods, cracked
In a pan with a spout, heat 2 cups of water, tea, cloves, cardamom pods and sugar.
Once boiling, let steep for 2 minutes.
If desired, add 1 tbsp evaporated milk, stir to combine and turn off the heat.
Enjoy immediately, or later as it’s quite nice chilled, as well.
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