Chicken Soup For The Yemenite Soul
Yemenite Chicken Soup (Rachel Ringler)
Don’t forget to add the chilba!
Don’t forget to add the chilba!
Growing up, homemade was the only food Meirav Komemy ate. Her parents, Yemenite Jews from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, arrived in Israel in 1949, lived in transit camps, and eventually made their home in Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv. And while Meirav was born in Israel, her mother prepared the foods of Yemen in her Israeli kitchen. When Meirav returned home from school each day, she knew what to expect: a freshly made pot of her mother’s Yemenite chicken soup.
A new pot every day? Yes. Fresh food was prepared and eaten daily. Nothing was refrigerated or frozen; the concept of leftover food did not exist. And Meirav loved the spice-filled and inviting scent she inhaled when she walked in the door from school. It smelled like home. While I came to expect a glass of milk and a Ring Ding, each day in the American suburban kitchen of my childhood, Meirav ate soup.
“The food that defines Yemenite cuisine is beef soup,” says Sue Spertus Larkey, author of Bone Soup and Flipped Bread: The Yemenite Jewish Table, “In Yemen, chicken soup was given to new mothers after childbirth as a restorative. Chickens were a rare luxury. Once the Yemenites came to Israel, where chickens were widely available, chicken soup became much more popular. In serving her daughter chicken soup,” she continued, “she probably felt she was giving her the best possible snack.”
The scent of Meirav’s mother’s chicken soup was different from that of the soup that Jews from Eastern European heritage find in their chicken soup. The Jewish chicken soup from Yemen, in contrast to the Jewish chicken soup from Poland, is a whole different kettle of…soup.
Does it have chicken? Check. Onion? Check. Carrots and garlic? Of course. Leek? Sometimes. But herein lies the difference: Yemenite chicken soup has whole tomatoes, chunks of potato, fistfuls of fresh cilantro, and then, its special ingredient: the Yemenite spice mix, hawayej.
While Eastern European cooking was flavored with goose or chicken fat, garlic, onions, and salt, the Yemenite Jews have those elements, and more. The combination of cumin, black pepper, ground coriander, turmeric, and cardamom, the standard ingredients found in this Yemenite curry, gave color, spice, and flavor to the chicken soup of the Jews of Sana’a. It is readily available for purchase, but can be easily made at home, as well.
And lest you think you’re done once the soup is made, think again. Yemenite cuisine, known for its deep green schug sauce, made of cilantro, parsley, and hot peppers, has a special sauce for soup as well. Chilba, made of ground fenugreek combined with schug, is served on the side, an added condiment to give color and heat to the flavor-filled soup.
Meirav, now known as Meirav Wilner, still lives in Kfar Saba. She is married to a man from a family with Eastern European roots. She is not a professional cook but she does cook regularly for her family. She does not prepare a fresh pot of chicken soup as a daily snack, but on Fridays she makes her mother’s chicken soup for Shabbat dinner. While she also cooks food from other cultures, the foods of the world have found her modern Israeli, her sons miss her Yemenite soup when they don’t find it on their Friday night table. Meirav recently returned from three weeks away, and the first thing they asked for? You guessed it.