SHARON ONA (this piece was originally published JANUARY 2013)
“How much hawaije do we need?” I asked my mom as we stood over a pot of chicken, potatoes, and vegetables. “I don’t know, just keep pouring. When it smells right, I’ll tell you.”
Rich and bright yellow in color, Yemenite soup is a fragrant chicken dish fortified with hawaije, a curry-like spice blend that bridges the culinary divide between the Arabian Peninsula and the east, where the majority of spices were traded as far back as the biblical times of King Solomon.
Yemenite Jews are thought to have roots in Yemen dating back nearly 3,000 years, but little archeological evidence exists to account for their migration to the region. Their unique history distinguishes them from other Jewish populations, including Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, because of their relative isolation. Their traditions, language, culture and religion have remained largely unchanged for centuries and Yemenite Hebrew is considered to be the most accurate form of the Biblical language.
Mass emigration from Yemen to Palestine, or modern-day Israel, began in the 1880s and culminated with Operation Magic Carpet beginning in 1949 and ending in 1950 as a result of Jewish persecution in the predominantly Muslim country. Today, only a handful of Yemenite Jews reside in Yemen, while the remaining have infused their rich cultural heritage across the Israeli culinary landscape.
My mom got this recipe for Yemenite soup from a family friend when I was a toddler and until now she has never measured any of the spices. It’s always been a little (or a lot) of this, a little of that and hope for the best. “That’s why it never tastes exactly the same each time I make it,” she told me as she added more spices to the simmering broth.
My dad and I have always been the sole consumers of this soup in our house, a sort of father-daughter tradition I relish, giving me a sense of connection to his Israeli homeland as we methodically prepare the last components of the meal before we sit down to feast. The hilbeh, zhug, Israeli salad, and rye bread fresh from the bakery are requisite elements, however nontraditional in the case of our preferred carbohydrate.
Hilbeh is a fenugreek relish that requires a fair bit of coddling before it is ready to be eaten. Think of it as the Yemenite equivalent to poi – distinctively ethnic and requiring an adventurous palate and some getting used to. Light, airy, and gelatinous in texture with a mildly bitter flavor, hilbeh has a multitude of health benefits including high iron levels, the ability to lower LDL cholesterol, assist digestion, control blood sugar levels, mitigate the effects of PMS and menopause, and is a cure for heartburn. It also has one not so favorable side effect: the more you eat it, the more you smell like it. So unless you have lingering houseguests you’d like wish bon voyage, winter is probably the best season to indulge in this potent delicacy. Use it as a dip for bread, or an addition to Israeli salad mixed with zhug, a hot chile and garlic paste that is a staple in Yemenite kitchens.
Traditionally, to serve Yemenite soup, the chicken and vegetables are plated separately from the broth and the meal in its entirety is served as the entrée during Friday night Shabbat dinner.
I have included recipes for hilbeh and zhug, and many Middle Eastern markets carry packaged versions of zhug and hawaije. We buy the hawaije spice soup blend (make sure you purchase the one for soup, not coffee), and for as long as I can remember we have been given containers of homemade zhug from friends.
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 bunches cilantro
- 3-4 jalapeno chilies
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Puree all ingredients in a food processor, scraping down the sides. Zhug can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or frozen for up to 6 months.
1 tablespoon coarsely ground fenugreek seeds
Cold water, as needed
½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt to taste
Soak fenugreek seeds in water to cover, replacing the water every few hours for the first day. Cover with water and let sit at room temperature overnight. The next day, drain most of the water from the seeds, add salt and lemon juice and whip vigorously with a wooden spoon, adding more cold water as needed. You should achieve a billowy texture and the volume should double. Alternatively, this can be done in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment on high speed for 5 minutes, then low speed when adding the salt and lemon juice, adding more cold water as needed. Leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator.
Seeds can be soaked for up to 3 days. Hilbeh can be chilled in an airtight container for 4 days. Whisk before serving.
- 4-6 scallions, chopped
- 2 large tomatoes, peeled and small diced
- 5 Persian cucumbers, peeled and small diced
- 1 teaspoon canola oil, or other neutral oil
- 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic salt
- Salt to taste
Mix together the canola oil, lemon juice, pepper, and both salts in the bottom of a large bowl. Add the cucumbers, tomatoes, and scallions and coat with the dressing. When you are ready to eat, portion out into individual bowls and top as desired with zhug and hilbeh.
- 2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 tomato, diced
- 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 4-6 whole chicken legs, bone in and skin on
- 3 tablespoons hawaije for soup (we use Pereg)
- 2 tablespoons turmeric
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Boil 10-12 cups of water. Pour vegetable oil in a large stockpot. Add onion and garlic and cook 5 minutes, until soft. Add potatoes, tomato, cilantro, chicken, and spices. Pour boiling water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cover 2 hours. Cool and place in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, skim the fat off the top, then reheat and enjoy.