A taste of home
For Yemeni grad student Shada Bokir, her kitchen holds the magic to tie her to her homeland during Ramadan – and to share some of its specialities with her friends in Malaysia.
FOR Yemeni grad student Shada Bokir, the month of Ramadan is fraught with meaning and memory.
Shada – who has not returned to her home country for four years now – remembers it as a time celebrated with the warmth and generosity which are hallmarks of its people.
“There are many special practices observed during Ramadan,” she says. She is now in the fourth year of her PhD in Literature at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“Beginning on the tenth day of Ramadan, every mosque will complete the reading of the Quran on a particular day, and all the houses around that mosque will invite their families over for a celebration at iftar.
“There’s also a sweet tradition for the kids who aren’t old enough to fast yet – they are given little baskets woven from palm leaves, filled with food, drinks and sweets. Then they take their baskets and gather in one place in the neighbourhood, and together they sing traditional songs all about Ramadan – until their mothers call them home for iftar.”
The iftar table also bears many delicacies that are unique to the time, only found at Ramadan.
As revered as Ramadan is in Yemen, its celebration in recent years has been muted due to the armed conflict that broke out in 2015, and soon grew to engulf the whole country.
“Because of the conflict, even those not physically caught in it are economically affected,” says Shada. Nonetheless, Ramadan is important to her people and so celebrations are still being held, albeit very scaled down versions.
“People try to gather the little they have, and families still gather to celebrate however they can.”
A time to eat together
“Ramadan is an occasion for the family, so I get extra homesick at this time,” says Shada, the youngest of four siblings. She comes from Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest governorate.
“I miss both my family and my mother’s cooking. And the more homesick I get, the more I cook.”
Shada’s answer is to step into her small home kitchen and weave together a tableful of the sights, smells and tastes of home. “My mother taught me to cook when I was 20,” she says. “I was so intimidated at first, because Yemeni cooking can have a lot of steps, and it can take a long time to make a dish. But I had to learn, because in my culhow ture, all the women know to cook. My friends would have made fun of me if I didn’t!”
Shada’s elder sister and two brothers also learnt their way around the kitchen, especially once they left home.
Her cooking lessons expanded beyond the food of Yemen, and grew to include dishes from other Middle Eastern countries – like dolma, the stuffed vegetables popregion, ular all over the or the pasta with white sauce and cheese which is widely-eaten in Egypt. Shafout is one of Shada’s favourite dishes on the iftar table. “It’s so unique, it’s good for you, and it’s really delicious, especially on a hot day – perfect for iftar,” she says. Shafout is basically an appealingly tangy, herbed yoghurt in which floats pieces of spongy lahoh, a type of Yemeni bread which seems closer to a pancake.
There’s also khushka, one of the seemingly ubiquitous dishes which combine rice and meat, chicken or fish – like kabsa, mandy or briyani.
“This recipe for khushka has been in my family for generations, and is one of my favourite dishes,” says Shada. “I found out that khushka has South Asian origins – it comes mainly from southern India. This was very interesting to me, but was not a surprise, taking into consideration the history of Yemeni-Indian trading relations in the old times. There are many Indian dishes that we have adopted to our Yemeni menu, especially in the south.”
Shada finds that most of what she needs for an authentic Yemeni meal is easily obtainable in the Klang Valley, at one of the many Arabic grocers that have sprung up due to the sizeable population of students and visitors. There are a few things though, that must be sent from home – like the delicate Arabic coffee she loves, roasted very gently and spiced with cardamom and ginger.
“We also have a special spice mixture that we used called baharat – and while this is easily available at most Middle Eastern grocers, you can also make your own. It’s a seven-spice blend including cinnamon, paprika, cumin, coriander and cloves,” she says.
Finally, Shada says that the bint al-sahn – which she translates as “the daughter of the dish” is always a show-stopper. It’s a layered wonder, a cake-like bread – or bread-like cake! – of thin dough layers stacked in a dish. “It’s served in the baking dish, and cut so you can see all the layers – then it’s drizzled with honey. The number of layers is up to you – some people just put five, but I make it with up to 15,” she says.
Other wonderful things you might expect on a Yemeni iftar table: the ever-popular sambousik, which are filled with ground meat or cheese – and found on the menus of most Yemeni restaurants here in KL – qamir, a type of fried bread from Hadramawt and shorba,
or soup, which can be made with corn or buckwheat, that gives the dish texture.
At the end of the day though, the iftar table is as much about the people around it as it is the dishes laid out on it.
“I have wonderful friends here – when I am homesick, they just come flying over!” says Shada. This month especially, they will be spending much time together – like the family that they have become.
In Yemen, the iftar table is a combination of everyday favourites and seasonal specialities, with family and friends gathering to enjoy the feast.
Bint al-sahn in a claypot.
For post-grad student Shada Bokir, cooking is a way to connect to her homeland, especially during Ramadan.
Catlix (stuffed potato balls).
Khaliat Nahel (Beehives).