Mukhbaza: Yemeni chefs bring Aden's seashore to Sheffield
"What do you want to eat today?" a Yemeni mother asks her British daughter. "And please don't say fish and chips," she adds, with a generous hint of sarcasm in her voice.
"You know what mama, I do want fish today... But Yemeni style."
And those were the words that triggered a three-hour road trip to what is known as Britain's very own 'Little-Yemen,' in the green valleys of South Yorkshire.
Home to more than 550,000, Sheffield is among the ten largest English cities and hosts the biggest Yemeni community in the country.
Naturally of course, this means the most authentic Yemeni cuisine can only be found here (don't quote me on that) – and in particular, a small restaurant on the outskirts of the town centre in Wicker, called al-Diyafa.
We arrive on a Tuesday evening and yet the restaurant is somewhat busy. Unlike most other well-established Arab cuisines, Yemeni restaurants worldwide focus less on interior design and more on the flavours of food and the act of hosting. So, do not be disheartened if the establishment itself isn't as flashy as your local Lebanese or as elegant as the Syrian restaurant next-door. Rest assured, the food will most definitely compensate.
My mother and I take our seats, joined by my uncle, a local who arrived earlier and sorted out our order beforehand – connections and all that.
"Mukhbaza?" I ask. He replies in the affirmative. Sorted.
Now for those baffled as to why we would travel three hours for food, here is the justification.
Mukhbaza is possibly the most popular dish to come out of the southern coastal city of Aden where I was born, and it is absolutely worth that three-hour journey (you can quote me on that one).
|The dish is centred around oven-baked fish|
Essentially, Mukhbaza is a three-part dish that centres around a slow-baked fish complemented by a very unique, thin and feather-like bread. It is served with a variety of dips, including my personal favourite, Sahaweg – a fusion of chilli and cheese.
Mere seconds into sitting down, the waiter swishes in, holding two plates of large sea bass cut open and ready to be devoured by three hungry Yemenis, who for so long, have been prevented from the real-deal by years of war.
"Is this grilled?" I question.
"No," my uncle replies, "it is cooked in a mofa," the Yemeni version of a tanoor – an oven made entirely of clay, used heavily by chefs and bakers in the Middle East and Asia.
|Feather-like bread beautifully accompanies the fish and dips|
Sprinkled with red chilli, a popular flavour used in almost all dishes to come out of kitchens in the southern parts of Yemen, the tender sea bass effortlessly pulls apart to reveal a snow white, flavoursome interior.
I take the first bite, and quite literally let out a sigh. Despite a lack of words, my two accomplices give me a look of agreement and we naturally fall into a session of reminiscing.
"This is almost as good as Aden's Mukhbaza," I declare.
"No, this isn't authentic enough," my mother replies. "They need to bring in some cats for the true experience."
In Aden, most Mukhbaza restaurants are outdoors and located within metres from the sea. The strong smell attracts the city's furry feline community to dine between the feet of customers.
My uncle, absent from Yemen for some 15 years, bows his head and smiles. "I remember those days," he says with a heavy heart. "So do you want anything else?" he quickly adds, snapping out of his nostalgic mood back to the delicious menu on offer.
|The meal hits its peak with the cold, sweet Lime juice|
"Obviously leem," I reply, without much thought. He calls out the waiter by name, in true Yemeni fashion, and moments later, he reappears with three glasses of sweet lime drinks.
Another Yemeni icon, lime juice is available on every corner. Unlike our Levantine brothers who prefer a sour, minty taste, Yemen's version is fresh, cold and super sweet.
"I feel like I'm in an Aden souq right now," I say, where in the centre of the city's main and largest market, two men would be shouting from large, street-level windows: "Leem, leem, leem!" they would chant, as they pour cups of cold lime juice shots for shoppers in midst of the heat. "The usual for the Briton?" one seller would ask. "Of course, give me two bottles please!" I would respond, in what has become a scripted conversation.
The waiter returns. "That's £19," he says.
"What? For the whole Mukhbaza?" I ask, dumbfounded by the low cost.
“We really are in Yemen," my mother jokes.
However, the meal does not end there. Short for time, we order our Adeni tea to go. A rich blend of loose tea, brewed in evaporated milk, cardamom and nutmeg. He hands back the change and enquires about the family back home.
"All praise be to God, living," my mother responds.
"Inshallah they'll solve this war soon and we'll all go visit," he adds – a line I've heard countless times and on several occasions since the conflict began more than two years ago.
"Yeah, hopefully soon, inshallah".
Alcohol served: No