Growing up in Los Angeles' Studio City, Josh Berer was always close to the Sephardi community.
One of his family’s favorite dining places was a local Yemeni restaurant, where they would eat Jachnoon (flaky overnight-cooked rolls), Kubaneh (overnight cooked bread) and Melawach (yet another dough - this time fried). All were served with tomato sauce mixed with zchug, a very spicy Yemeni sauce.
Josh was looking forward to reliving this culinary background again when he first moved to Yemen in 2007 (over the course of that year, and again in 2009, Josh spent a few months in Sana’a and in a small village named Raida to strengthen his Arabic, after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in Near Eastern languages).
Shortly after arriving in Yemen, he sat down at a local chicken-and-rice restaurant.
“Can I please have some jachnoon,” Josh said happily to the waiter.
“We don’t have jachnoon,” replied the waiter.
“So, can I please have kubaneh,” he asked.
“No,” said the waiter.
“Look,” said the waiter. “I don’t even understand what you’re saying. We have chicken. And rice.”
And so Josh became aware of two Yemeni culinary facts - one is that the food he knew from L.A. was Jewish-Yemenite food, and the other is that if you’re in a chicken-and-rice restaurant in Yemen, expect them to serve only chicken and rice.
You could also try a meat stew at the meat-stew restaurants, or fish at the fish restaurants. And that’s about it.
While studying Arabic and teaching English in Sana’a he decided to explore the Jewish community in Yemen. He moved on to Raida, a small village about 30 miles north of the capital, home to a small community of about 200 Yemeni Jews (the rest of Yemen’s Jews, 67 people, live within Sana’a proper).
Photo by Rachael Strecher
The Jewish men in the village grow long peyot (side-locks) and are easily recognizable on the street. Josh was surprised to hear many of them speaking Hebrew. He later learned that some of the men were sent to Israel to study in Yemenite yeshivas (seminaries) for a year, and that when they returned home to Raida, they taught Hebrew to members of their community.
“So do they eat jachnoon?” I asked Josh over the phone earlier this week.
No, that would be too time-consuming to prepare, he explained. But they do eat kubaneh all the time. Their diet is very simple, and pretty much the same every day. Jewish families in Yemen make a pot of chicken soup to last for the week and eat the broth every day, with fresh vegetables, kubaneh and lachuch (which is similar to the Ethiopiani bread). They sometimes eat popcorn. The chicken from the weekly soup is eaten only on Shabbat. There is only one shochet (the person who performs the kosher slaughtering) in the village, and he wouldn’t be able to supply the demand, if everybody in the community ate chicken all week long.
Josh spent six months at the home of one local Jew, Sa'adia Ben Israel, and experienced first-hand the customs of this ancient community first hand. Josh's girlfriend, photographer Rachel Strecher, got permission to document the Jewish life through pictures. The village has a synagogue and a Jewish school, both funded by the Yemeni government, and Josh and Rachel were able to compile a portrait of the community life.
Photo by Rachael Strecher
But things are not as peaceful as they once were for the Jewish community in Yemen.
In 2009, Saadia’s friend, Moshe Nahari, was murdered on the streets of Raida. A man approached him, pointed a gun at him and ordered him to convert to Islam. When Moshe refused, the man shot and killed him on the spot.
The incident shook the community. Saadia and his family ended up moving to Israel, where they live to this day in Bet Shemesh.
The murder was also the reason Josh returned to Yemen for the second time “I realized they are not going to stay there forever,” he said, “This might be the last chance to document this ancient community. There are only a few people left, a tiny remnant of what used to be there.”
Photo by Rachael Strecher
“I think that we, the American Ashkenazi Jews, don’t realize the diversity of the Jewish World,” Josh told me and I couldn’t agree more. The diversity of the Sephardi food could be a good place to start.
Back to our series of Shabbat overnight dishes, which definitely includes the Yemeni jachnoon and kubaneh. Both are eaten for Shabbat breakfast, after being baked in the oven all night. Both are cooked with hard boiled eggs, called chaminados. After spending all night in the oven, the eggs whites turn brown and the yolk gets a creamy texture.
The jachnoon and kubaneh are served with the eggs, alongside a spicy salsa of tomatoes and a Yemeni condiment called zchug. The zchug is made of minced cilantro, hot peppers, garlic, cumin and oil. You can buy a ready-made zchug in most kosher grocery stored, imported from Israel.
I got the recipe for kubaneh from my family’s dear friend, Drora Nadav. Drora, whose mother was of Yemeni origin (and her father from Romania), is a talented cook who makes the most delicious salads, stuffed vegetables, meatballs and kubaneh. Every time we visit Israel, I insist on stopping by and tasting the delicacies.
And as could happen only in a melting pot like Israel, my Polish mother makes the best Yemenite jachnoon I’ve ever eaten. I've included her recipe here, together with the recipe for the salsa that is served next to it. My mother uses a combination of oil and butter to make the dough, though in the original Yemeni version, samneh (a clarified butter like the Indian ghee) was used.
You can read more about Josh Berer’s experience in Yemen in his blog. Rachel Strecher and Josh Berer’s “The Last Jews Of Yemen” Exhibition will run until the end of February at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, MD. Call the congregation for hours of visit.