Exploring Yemen’s rich, historic culinary culture

Exploring Yemen’s rich, historic culinary culture

Newly published book ‘Bittersweet: A Story of Food and Yemen’ looks at the food and humanity of region whose narrative is so often dominated by conflict.

Around a year ago, photographer Sayed Asif Mahmud was in At Turbah, a town near the south coast of Yemen, when a “very old” local woman invited him into her home, offering to prepare him a meal. Inside, he watched as she simmered a rich beef broth in a traditional stone pot, stirred in a fragrant fenugreek paste, presenting him with a hot, hearty bowl of salta – Yemen’s national dish.

“I’m not [usually] a big fan of food, it’s more of a survival thing,” Mahmud says. “But when I came back to Oman, I’ve [started] going very often to the local Yemeni restaurant to have salta and fahsa. It’s special for me.”

Such charity, kindness, and delicious food was common for Mahmud in his time travelling around the country. He was there making pictures for a newly published book Bittersweet: A Story of Food and Yemen – an exploration of the rich, historic food culture of the country. Inside are texts and essays authored by Marta Colburn and Jessica Olney, which trace food in the region from the beginnings of agriculture in the southern Arabian Peninsula to its absorbing influence from the Ottoman Empire and the global seafaring trade.

The book helps to shine a different, warmer light on a region that has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past century. It’s a country that rarely captures the imagination of those in the Global North, save for reports of famine and conflict with insurgency groups. Over the past few months, the UK and US have been targeting Houthi rebels with airstrikes, after the group targeted trade ships in the Gulf of Aden. It comes after years of brutal civil war which has led to “one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world”. According to Unicef, 12 million children are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. It’s a disastrous situation, which Western superpowers have played their parts in creating.

“Politics come and go, different crises come and go,” says Colburn, who spent 14 years living in Yemen and has been travelling to the country since the early 1980s. “Whether it’s the current crisis or in 1990 when Yemen unified the communist South and capitalist North – at the time the Gulf War was happening and Yemen was cut off from all assistance from the Gulf and the United States and Europe because they were perceived to be siding with Saddam Hussein. Which isn’t true, they were actually promoting an Arab solution and when they voted no for the ground war in Iraq in the UN vote the American representative came to the Yemeni representative and said: ‘That was the most expensive no vote you ever cast.’ And it was.”

Flipping narratives surrounding the country led Colburn and Mahmud to want to make the book. “So Yemen has been through a lot of different times, but a common thread is the amazing hospitality and kindness of Yemenis – and food is a big part of that,” she continues. “It’s not just about suffering – the dominant image in the media has been about conflict, terrorism, suffering and lots of negative aspects. That is part of the story, but it’s the superficial story, Yemen is a lot more than that.”

Its chapters dive into the importance of bread, salt, honey and fish in the local cuisine and culture, while a surprising origin story for a hot beverage that many take for granted each day also emerges. “I visited Mocha, where the story goes that around 700 years ago, the captain of a British ship landed at Mocha and was suffering from seasickness,” Mahmud says. “And the imam of the mosque offered the captain coffee – that’s how they started exporting coffee to Europe.”

And to illustrate the texts, dozens of Mahmud’s pictures are printed across the book’s pages. Featured are dynamic shots of people in the kitchen preparing flatbreads or fishing at sea, others highlight the beauty of the country’s landscape, while warm close-up portraits showcase an intimate, shared humanity – if there’s one thing people have in common, it’s the need to eat.

“When there is a crisis, people come together,” Colburn says. “This is the human story – the only way we get through all of the history we’ve ever had is with one another.”

Bittersweet: A story of food and Yemen is published by Medina.

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