Silta, Yemen’s National Dish
Work begins early at Jabar’s restaurant. At six o’clock AM, six young men arrive to prepare the day’s food. The doors open to the public at 11, and the five hours in between are spent cleaning, preparing, and cooking a massive vat of meat over roaring gas flames. Only two dishes are served here, fahsa and silta, Yemen’s national dishes.
Restaurants like this exist by the hundred across the capital and beyond, and at any crowded market around noon one can invariably observe many small groups of men, all squatting around a sizzling bowl of silta, bread in hands. Jabar’s central location next to the bustling Bab al-Sabah market ensures many eat-in and take-out customers, many of whom have their lunch delivered to them by one of Jabar’s runners.
Silta and fahsa are two variations on a theme: pressure-cooked beef stew in a tomato-based sauce, served sizzling hot in a stone bowl. The only difference between the two is the presence of a variety of cooked vegetables and often rice in silta, whereas fahsa contains just chunks of tender beef in a tomato-onion broth, which often boils off before your eyes. They are both served with hilba, ground fenugreek that has expanded in water until frothy, which is then mixed with salt and finely chopped peppers.
The restaurant is a simple set-up: a raised platform with four massive propane burners alongside the wall leads customers into a small space packed with tables and benches. There is no storeroom, so all ingredients are bought daily. There is no bathroom, just a sink in the corner for customers to wash their hands before and after eating. 20lb propane tanks line the wall by the door, and the constant fires under the vats of meat consume two to four tanks per day.
At six, the crew arrives and starts the work of the day. One employee, Majid, comes from the nearby street market laden with groceries, among them three kilos of potatoes and a kilo of green onions. He squats on the floor with two plastic basins filled with water, scrubbing potatoes in one basin, then dumping them in the second. Nearby, Muhammad chops the scallions, and Saleh fills one of the huge pots with water, and puts it onto the fire. Meanwhile, a kilo of ground fenugreek is sifted into a vat of water until it covers the surface. It is then left to sit undisturbed. By this time it is 7:10.
Once the onions are chopped, they are added to a medium-sized pot and sautéed in oil for fifteen minutes. A large can of tomato paste is added, and then a half-kilo of chopped garlic. The smell of sizzling garlic and onion fills the room, while a boy carrying an alagiya, a glass-carrier, arrives at the door with eight cups of tea. After the onions, garlic, and tomato paste have cooked for ten minutes, they are dumped into the water. Along with hawaj, a Yemeni spice medley, this forms the broth. Silta contains potatoes, peppers, okra, and zucchini, so Muhammad is busy chopping those at one of the tables. When ready, the vegetable mixture, called mushakkal, is put on a burner and cooked with some broth for another fifteen to twenty minutes.
Meanwhile, Majid and Abd al-Aziz wash down the walls, the prep area, the tables, and the benches. Abd al-Aziz throws water on the soapy surfaces, and squeegees the floor with the runoff. By that time, Saleh has returned from the meat market with seven kilos of beef. It is put in a pressure cooker with some broth and left on low heat for more than an hour. By eight o’clock, all the elements are in place: the meat is cooking in the broth, the vegetables are cooking, and the hilba is frothing in the corner. The meat cooks for another hour and a half, and is added to the broth, which has cooked down some.
At 11, the doors open and people start filing in. If it seems like it will be a busy day, Saleh will return to the meat market for more beef, but today it seemed the seven kilos would suffice, so the employees assume their places: Jabar on top of the platform preparing the dishes, Saleh directing the floor staff, Muhammad and Abd al-Aziz serving the sizzling dishes to the customers, and Majid washing up. Voices are raised, as the roar of the gas creates a din inside the dimly-lit restaurant. From time to time, Muhammad or Abd al-Aziz will leave to deliver a large pot to a customer in the market. Sometimes customers will ask for customizations: eggs or tuna in their silta, no hilba, etc. and Jabar has a small stockpile of supplies for such requests. A hole is cut in the wall behind his platform to provide a way to pass drinks between the restaurant and the adjacent juice stand.
By two, the lunch rush is over. The crew starts breaking down the day’s work: cleaning the vats, the stone pots, the tables. This crew wakes early and works hard in a fast-paced, hot environment, and by three they are ready to go home. Qat may be chewed or naps taken, for in the morning, it all starts again.
There is no set recipe for silta or fahsa. It is not an exact science. However, it is a well known fact in Yemen that, though silta is available at catch-all restaurants with long menus, only a sucker would order it there. Silta is best at restaurants that serve nothing but silta. Jabar has been in the game for more than 30 years, and his 11-year-old son Ali now works as a runner at his father’s joint.
If you are abroad and would like to try this, a rough recipe follows. If you are in Yemen, just visit Jabar and let the experts take care of it.
All photos are by Rachael Strecher.
Silta contains 4 distinct parts, which come together at the end. This recipe is a scaled-down version of Jabar’s, and should serve between 4-8 people.
|First, the broth.
8 cups hot water
Oil (olive or otherwise.)
5 green onions
6 large cloves of garlic
1 small can tomato paste
Second, the mushakkal.
3 medium potatoes
|Third is the meat.
1 kilo of good quality beef
3 cups of broth from above
Fourth is the hilba
Ground, powdered fenugreek
1 Bell pepper, very finely chopped in a food processor.
Finally, the assembly: