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.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - By SUZANNE LAZAROO star2@thes­tar.com.my

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.

— Pho­tos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

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).

Khushka.

Shafout.

Khaliat Na­hel (Bee­hives).

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