Yemeni food is Middle Eastern food like you've never had it before. This is not humus and falafel, fatoush salad or shawarma-style Near Eastern cuisine. Yemeni is hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, southern comfort, done Arabian-style.
Two of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes come from this canon of Arabian Gulf-cooking: chargrilled chicken muthbi and a rich bean dish called fassoulia.
Muthbi is traditionally cooked on hot stones that are super-heated over a bed of charcoal on the roadsides, but here it is more often cooked over a hot barbecue flame. The chicken is simply seasoned, letting the smoke act as its primary flavoring agent. It is then served over an intoxicating plate of spiced rice along with a small side of cucumber yogurt, some raw onions, and a dish of tangy, spicy chile and tomato salsa.
Sounds simple. It is. But the trick of this dish is in the eating of it.
You need to pull a piece of the steaming hot chicken from its bone, splash on some tomato sauce and yogurt, take a bite of raw onion, then scoop the sauced chicken and a small pile of rice into your mouth, using only your fingers. This is a messy meal that taps into primal instincts and deep pleasures that are simply not attainable when using a fork and knife.
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Fassoulia, on the other hand, comes with a side of warm bread with which to eat it, but it is no less hearty or satisfying. The thick, meaty fava beans are slow-cooked then sauteed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and a bit of dried ground okra, a signature ingredient in Yemeni cooking.
I love beans. Chickpeas, limas, black beans, or pintos: They're all good to me. But fassoulia, finished off with a squeeze of lemon or lime, is my absolute favorite.
This week, I found both at a little corner of Arabia on East Apache Boulevard in Tempe: Mandi House Restaurant.
The unassuming, no-frills restaurant delivered on their promise of Arabian comfort foods, right down to the syrupy sweet glass of cardamon-spiced tea that ended my meal. It was transportive. It was exactly what I was craving, though I didn't know it until after I began to eat. In that way, it was utterly perfect, and it most certainly was the best thing I ate all week.