The Yemenite Jewish community is a very old one, and many of their foods are largely unique among Jewish cuisine. Among the many special Yemenite Jewish foods, perhaps their most distinctive are their baked goods. But due to the only passing familiarity that many Jews have with this community, a number of similar pastries and breads are often confused for each other. In this post, I want to briefly highlight four special baked goods that are among the cornerstones of Yemenite Jewish food.
But first, a drop of history. Jews have lived on the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years, long predating the advent of Islam there. In fact, the southern part of the peninsula, where Yemen now sits, once had a Jewish king during the 6th century. The Jewish way of life in Yemen was largely rural and their cuisine often reflected the simplicity of their lives. However, like Jews around the world, they would reserve their best foods for Shabbat, and a few of the pastries I list below were either reserved for that day, or were made in a more special version for Sabbath.
Jachnun is one such Shabbat food. Typically, it is left to bake in a low-heat oven overnight on Friday night, many of them layered inside a single closed pot. Saturday morning, after synagogue, the jachnun is eaten alongside eggs that also cook through the night, fresh-grated tomato, and schug — a spicy but flavorsome paste typically made with chilis, garlic and cilantro. While Yemenites also have a meaty Shabbat stew that they eat in the afternoon, this breakfast pastry also features the classic all-night cooking method that most Jewish communities use to have a hot lunch on Saturday.
Jachnun is connected with the Jews of Aden, the southern port city region of Yemen that was, at certain points, under different rule than the other Yemenite Jews. Under the British, their standard of living was somewhat higher, and perhaps this accounts for the richness of the buttered dough (using samneh, a special clarified butter) that is used for jachnun. The relative newness of jachnun is also underscored by the grated tomato accompaniment; tomato did not even exist in the Middle East until the early 1800s. Jachnun also takes around three days to prepare, showing the honor provided for a food that is special for the Sabbath.
Made from the same basic dough as jachnun, malawach is everyday fare that is easier to prepare (though still not without any effort required). It is a laminated puff pastry dough, including layers of dough with butter in between. Once the dough is prepared, however, it is rolled out flat and fried up as is, rather than baking all night for Shabbat as a dense cylinder. Not only because it is made from the same dough as jachnun, but there is something else which suggests the relative modernity of this pastry as well. One common step in preparation nowadays is to freeze the rolled out dough before frying it up, allowing the butter to stay more solid as it begins frying, creating a flaky consistency.
My favorite way to eat malawach is as a fatoot. This Yemenite dish (not unique to the Jews) is a way of using up leftover bread, though one can use fresh as well. The cooked malawach is shredded or sliced into pieces and mixed with beaten egg, then fried up together. You can add vegetables such as onion or tomato, or even cheese if you like. Essentially, I see it as a malawach take on matzoh brei!
Sticking with the flatbread style, lahuh (pronounced with a guttural “h,” something like lachuch) is a type of crepe made from a fermented batter, thus creating the bubbles that fill the dough. The slight sour taste of lahuh, and its bubbly appearance probably remind some of you of injera, that classic flat bread of Ethiopia. This is not coincidental. Yemen is situated just across the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa, home to Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia, all of whose people eat a similar type of flatbread. Yemenite Jews were always among those who would be engaged with international trade, something we see from (among other things) documents found in the Cairo Geniza. So eating a food that comes from a foreign, though near neighbor and trading partner makes the most sense for the traders themselves.
One of the better known places to eat lahuh in Israel is at a well-known tourist destination eatery in the northern city of Tzefat. There it is made fresh and served up with grated cheeses and vegetables sprinkled on top.
Almost as beloved a Shabbat food as jachnun is kubaneh. Of the four baked goods I’m featuring here, this is the only one that can really be called a bread. It is made from an enriched and slightly sweetened dough, but is baked inside a covered pot. (In fact, the same type of pot is used for both kubaneh and jachnun, at least here in Israel.)
One of the interesting things about kubaneh is that is might be made either for weekdays or shabbat, but when it is the latter, it is of a higher quality. During the week, a common grain such as sorghum might be used, but for Shabbat, white wheat flour would be sought out. This is similar to what Ashkenazi Jews did in Europe. They ate dark rye or wheat breads during the week, but preferred white flour for their Sabbath challah.
Whichever of these baked goods one looks at, the interesting thing is that they were all largely eaten by Jews in Yemen and not by other Yemenis. There is no obvious reason for this, as many other foods are eaten by both communities. But perhaps the different social, economic, business, and religious elements of Yemenite Jewry led to their featuring a few special dishes within their community alone. I’ve tried to highlight a few of those possible reasons.
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