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In the hyperdense Hauz Rani, home to migrants from several parts of the world, the newbie, Yemen Cafe and Restaurant, only furthers the neighbourhood’s diversity. In place of the Arabian and the Red seas that skirt the country, the restaurant has puddles caused by Delhi’s rains. A careful sail across to the building, opposite Max Hospital, leads one to the three-week-old Yemen Cafe, nestled right next to the Kabul Dubai restaurant, where a steady stream of customers gorge on the restaurant’s limited but fulfilling offerings.
The few preparations on the menu — mandy, haneedh, zorbian, kabsa, madmas — avail any of chicken, goat, sheep or fish. Of course, one can pick one’s meat of choice. But if you find the co-owner, Saqr Hatem, in a good mood, he doesn’t quite wait for you to place an order nor is he, as we realised at our own peril, orthodox about service. So, dishes are brought to the table in no particular order. In my case, the main course preceded the soup and lal-chai. They often call the dishes by different names too, so you can never quite be sure of what you’re served. In the tea’s case, someone referred to it as red tea or lal-chai, another as black tea and yet another as suleimani chai. Either way, the clove-infused, saccharine tea is a great way to end the meal. Mine was punctuated by it.
There is a particular keenness in Hatem, who recently graduated from Aligarh Muslim University as a civil engineer, and has now spent five years in India. He doesn’t plan to stay back, though. The civil war that devastated Yemen, that led him to flee his country, has asserted the need for him to “find a better place”. And, “I am now waiting for my scholarship to come through so that I can pursue an M. Tech in New Zealand and stay there,” he says.
His fondness for all that he left behind half a decade ago is easy to read. Hatem’s face lights up when asked about the food. There are no concrete answers because he cannot cook, so a “my mother does that well” or “we would eat that a lot” is all you hear. But he tries to get you to taste as much possible, including a lie. Hatem plonked a mash of kidney beans called Fosalia with what was meant to be the long, tan bread, Khobz, but turned out to be Naan Afghani. When asked, Hatem smiled sheepishly, “we’re not making Khobz today”. The naan was too thick to be enjoyed with the mash, so I paired the two with the maraq — a Yemenite beef clear soup made with lamb here, that wears a slight turmeric-tinge and is the most spice-laden dish at the restaurant.
It was time to turn to the first of the lot, the mild Haneedh. The pile of rice, flavoured with peppercorns and cloves, with a generous drizzle of food colouring, was holding the slow-cooked, tender thighs and legs of a chicken. Served with a kuchumbar, the flavours are reminiscent of the cuisine of Yemen’s neighbour, Afghanistan. It is mellow, rarely startles the tongue and allows for a minimal yet rewarding tasting.
The Yemen Cafe and Restaurant, opens doors to an unpretentious exploration of the country’s cuisine, make sure to walk in with a big appetite and a taste for adventure.