Cairo boasts a population of as many as a million Yemenis and, while much of this population is from recent war-related relocations, the community dates back decades. In many regards, this stems from Cairo’s historic status within the Arab world. Many Yemenis come here to study; an astounding percentage of Yemeni ministers have degrees from Cairo University. Others come here for business related reasons; many of Yemen’s wealthier families have long maintained apartments in the city. Still others came here to plot revolution — or went into exile here after falling on the wrong end of political machinations.
The upshot of this is one of the world’s most matured Yemeni diaspora communities. In contrast to, say, Istanbul, the concentrations long predate the war; Doqqi and Manial have had a noticeable Yemeni presence, I’m told, for decades.
What does this mean on the culinary front? On the one hand, a lot of uneven restaurants. My purpose with this space isn’t to name and shame, but I’ll note that I’ve had a number of distinctly subpar meals at Yemeni restaurants in Cairo, with faux pas ranging from poor spicing to confusingly fishy tasting meat to overly fatty fahsa. That being said there are undeniably clear standouts.
This time around, I joined my friend Jamila at Bab al-Yemen (no relation to last week’s Bab al-Yemen). A post-2014 addition to Cairo’s Yemeni restaurant scene, Bab al-Yemen quickly established a reputation as one of city’s best, thankfully managing to overcome a brief blip in quality last year that was so notable that I heard about it all the way in Beirut. As things stand, its undeniably regained its status as one of Cairo’s best. The meat — both burma and haneed — was of high quality and well-spiced. The key standout here, however, is the salta. Its remarkably hard to get good salta out of Yemen; something is always off (the worst example of this being a certain otherwise excellent Yemeni restaurant in the Gulf that serves a salta that’s eggy to the point of resembling soup covered scrambled eggs). Bab al-Yemen’s is the closest to perfection that I’ve had outside so far, both with regards to spicing and components. Bab al-Yemen also makes Yemeni sweets on site; I always take a few boxes of their nutty harissa to go.
Following lunch I went to run some errands in a nearby Yemeni grocery with Jamila (beyond being one of the world’s most astute observers of Yemeni politics, she’s also an excellent cook). I’ve seen groceries stocking some Yemeni products before, but our destination, Arabeeska, stands out. In a lot of ways, it was the Yemeni equivalent of the Italian stores I grew up going to in Baltimore’s Highlandtown with my family: a near encyclopedic collection of the tastes and smells of the homeland. The spice collection is extensive, as are their honey stocks. Beyond that, they carry an odd mix of uniquely Yemeni products that I didn’t realize I missed until I saw them: betook gum, qamariya coffee and, most importantly, Abu Waled Sandwich biscuits, Yemen’s iconic oreo analogue. Staff is friendly and, even for those less familiar with Yemeni food, it makes for interesting browsing; for those aiming to cook Yemeni food at home, Arabeeska is an essential stop if passing through Cairo.
Bab al-Yemen is located off Doqqi street, under the bridge, a few minutes walk north from the Doqqi metro station. Arabeeska is located a short walk away off Iran street
Crossposted at my website