The Jewish Palate: A Yemenite delicacy

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the culinary tradition of the ancient Jews of Yemen and introduces a simple, rustic yet delicious stew: Chouia.

Spices 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Spices 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The history of the Yemenite Jews is as illustrious as it is tragic.  Yemen was once a place where Jewish religion and culture flourished.  Jews were welcomed into Yemen and many of the native population converted to Judaism.  In the 5th century CE the ruler of Yemen converted to Judaism thus turning Yemen into a Jewish Kingdom.  Jewish prosperity continued until 525 CE when the Jewish kingdom was overthrown by Christian Ethiopians.  The rise of Islam in the 7th century changed the face of Jewish Yemenite culture, as the Jews were relegated to 2nd class citizenship.
It remains unknown exactly when Jews came to settle in Yemen, but Yemenite tradition holds that Jewish soldiers were sent to Yemen by King Solomon to defend the spice routes against marauding nomadic tribes.  Another version of this story has the soldiers searching for silver and gold to be used for adorning the Temple in Jerusalem. Whether or not these stories are true, it is evident that Jews have called Yemen home for at least two thousand years. Scholars believe that the majority of Jewish immigration began at the beginning of the 2nd Century CE.
The Jewish community grew to great prominence and many of the native inhabitants embraced Judaism.  At the end of the 5th century, the Himyarite King Abu-Karib Asad Toban converted to Judaism ushering in a golden age for the Jews as Yemen became a Jewish Kingdom.  The Jewish King was able to unite the various Jewish communities of the Arabian Peninsula together to defeat the Ethiopian Aksumites who attempted to control Yemen for a hundred years.  Their victory was short-lived however, as the Christian Aksumites finally defeated the Jewish King and took control of Yemen in 525 C.E.  Though ruled by Christians, Yemen remained predominantly Jewish.
Then in the middle of the 7th century CE the world changed.  Islam was introduced into the region in 630 CE.  Almost overnight, Islam became the dominant religion and the Jews of Yemen found themselves reduced to 2nd class, dhimmi status.  Though they were protected “People of the Scripture”, the Jews were only able to freely practice their religion in exchange for the payment of the jizya tax, which was imposed upon all non- Muslims.  Persecution worsened in the 10th century CE and the Jews were treated as pariahs because they were perceived as outsiders, though their residency in Yemen predated Islam.
The situation became so bad for the Jews of Yemen that Maimonides wrote his Epistle to Yemen to comfort the persecuted community and give first hand advice on how to deal with forced conversion to Islam.  He also warned them against the influence of a number of false messiahs who were appearing within the Yemenite community.
Through all of this hardship the Jewish community of Yemen struggled on and their numbers continued to remain strong.  In the early 20th century the community numbered over 50,000 people.  While many had already immigrated to pre-state Israel in the late 19th century, the majority of the population remained in Yemen.  As the 20th century continued, life for the Jews became progressively worse. 
With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the Yemenite Jews found themselves in a desperately unsafe situation.  They lost all of their civil rights and were not allowed to leave the country.  In 1949 and 1950 the new Jewish State initiated Operation Magic Carpet to bring the Jews of Yemen to Israel.  Fifty thousand Yemenite Jews were illegally rescued and brought safely to the Jewish State.  Today they constitute one of the largest immigrant populations in Israel.
Yemenite Cuisine is very simple and rustic.  Stews and soups abound, as well as many different types of bread.  Dishes are heavily spiced and flavorful.  The cuisine is heavily based on grains and vegetables.  Meat is eaten in very small amounts and dairy products are practically unknown.  Most desserts consist of fresh fruit.  This is a cuisine born in of necessity in a hostile environment. 
The following recipe is for one of the many stews that are a mainstay of Yemenite Cuisine.  Try it served with some fresh flatbread or rice.
Chouia (Yemenite Lamb Stew)
(Serves 4 to 6)
-Olive oil
-2 pounds boneless lamb chuck, cut into 3 inch cubes
-2 whole tomatoes (in season) chopped, or 1 15-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped
-1 medium onion, chopped
-6 large garlic cloves, sliced
-3 baby eggplants, quartered lengthwise or 1 large eggplant 
-2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
-½ cup chopped fresh coriander leaves
-½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
-1 ½ tablespoons Hawaish* spice blend, recipe follows
-Salt and pepper to taste
1.  Place a Dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot over medium high heat, and add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom.  Add lamb in a single layer and brown well on all sides, being careful not to overcrowd the pan.  Remove browned lamb and set aside.
2.  Add the chopped onion and sauté until the onion begins to brown.  Be sure to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pot.  Add the garlic and sauté for another minute, just until it turns translucent.
3.  Return the lamb to the pot and add all of the other ingredients.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and mix thoroughly.
4.  Bring the pot to a strong simmer, then cover and reduce heat to low.  Allow to simmer gently for 3 hours.
5.  After 3 hours, season to taste and serve.
*Hawaish (Yemenite Spice Blend)
-2 tablespoons ground cumin
-1 tablespoon black pepper
-1 teaspoon ground coriander
-1 teaspoon ground turmeric
-¼ teaspoon ground cloves
-½ teaspoon ground cardamom
-¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Blend together and store in a tightly sealed jar. Store away from light and heat for up to three months.
Dennis Wasko has been a Professional Chef for 12 years and is the author of New Israeli Cuisine,, and Beyond The Kitchen Wall