Jewish Foods of the World
by Daniel Rogov
More than three thousand years ago, in order to safeguard the rich spice caravans that were making their way through the Land of Sheba, King Solomon sent soldiers from Jerusalem to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Knowing that they would probably never return to the Promised Land, the soldiers set off with their wives and children. Once there, in the land today known as Yemen, the families settled in for a prolonged stay, and for nearly three thousand years the Jews of Yemen were cut off, not only from their Jewish brothers and sisters, but for all practical purposes, from the rest of the world as well.
Despite the its isolation, the community guarded its religious and cultural traditions zealously. There was occasional contact with the Holy Land, but this was so limited that until the 17th century, scribes continued to copy the holy books by hand. The printing press was introduced into Yemen only in the 18th century.
In 1950 a huge airlift, now known as "Operation Magic Carpet" brought tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. Unfortunately, not all who wanted to come to Israel were allowed to leave Yemen, and until recently several thousand families remained there. Then some years ago, in a very secret operation of military precision called "Operation Magic Carpet 2," nearly all of the remaining Jews of Yemen were brought to Israel.
When the Jews of Yemen arrived in Israel, they brought with them an ancient and sophisticated culinary tradition. And much of what they brought has become part of the everyday fare that can now be found throughout Israel. On an overall basis, many Europeans have ignored Yemeni cuisine, claiming that it is "too exotic" for the Western palate. It is true that traditional fare from Yemen includes such dishes as roasted locusts, but the truth is that these are no more "exotic" than the passion the French have for snails or the Italians have for sea urchins.
The most representative dishes of the Jewish-Yemeni kitchen are delicious but not at all exotic, and rely heavily on lamb, mutton and beef. Honey is used frequently in recipes as are tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms. Several especially tasty homemade breads are also important to this cookery. And, because this is the cuisine of a people that were not ordinarily wealthy, nearly all of the foods used are easily and inexpensively available. What makes the cuisine unique is the subtle use of herbs and spices along with a few unique but easily mastered cooking methods.
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Daniel Rogov is the restaurant and wine critic for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He is also the senior writer for Wine and Gourmet Magazine and contributes culinary and wine articles to newspapers in Europe and the United States.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry and Rogov's Ramblings. Reprinted with permission.