What’s in a soup? We often identify the origin of a soup by the ingredient in its name. Minestrone? Italy. Borscht? Russia. French onion soup? France. Matzah ball? Well, you know. Yemenite soup? Hmm… That’s the name of a country, not an ingredient.
Soup is a daily item on the menu in the traditional Yemenite Jewish home. What makes it uniquely Yemenite is hawaij, a Yemenite spice mixture dominated by turmeric. Over the years, I have come to think of hawaij as my happy spice. It lifts my spirits. Literally. If you like Indian curry, you just may understand that slight rush of high that washes over you at the end of the meal, when you feel almost giddy.
My experience of this soup is multisensory—the golden hue from the hawaij, the unmistakable aroma of the hawaij combined with onions, garlic, cilantro and the specific meat cooking in the pot, whether chicken, beef, lamb or goat. Then, once in the bowl, the added spicy, pungent hilba (also known as hilbeh), a fenugreek relish spiced with s’houg (a hot sauce made of chili, garlic, spices and cilantro). The complex aroma would make the saliva glands respond in anticipation of the flavors that were about to hit the palate.
These memories form the sense of longing I still have for this soup. It’s a longing that has been a bit more challenging to satisfy since I became a pescatarian. Nevertheless, I continue to cook Yemenite chicken soup for my family.
The soup is usually served with bread or pita, which we like to soak in the soup, a small piece at a time. On Passover, however, we turn it into a special gruel reminiscent of the mortar the Israelite slaves used in Egypt by mixing in pieces of matzah. It is still the most popular dish on my Israeli family’s seder menu, even among the rich spread of dishes.
My parents called the soup maraq, pronouncing the “q” somewhere between “k” and hard “g.” I always believed it was their “funny” immigrant accented pronunciation of marak, the Hebrew word for soup. Years later, I was surprised to learn that maraq is the word used for soup in Yemen and other places in the region, such as Somalia. I am not sure about the origin of the word, but marak appears in the Hebrew bible’s Book of Judges when Gideon the Judge prepared goat soup and matzot as an offering to God’s angel. It turns out that the Yemenite Passover gruel may have its roots in a Biblical tradition.
After finishing a bowl of Yemenite chicken soup recently, my son, smiling and shaking his head, said he really didn’t understand how I make chicken so tasty. I replied that chicken soup is in my DNA. As for satisfying my craving, I’ve found that all the other parts—the hawaij, hilba, onion and garlic—more than make up when you take the meat out because what makes me happy are the ingredients that give the soup its unique flavor, and they are still there in the vegetarian version.