The flavors, aroma, color, and texture of our traditional fare become part of our cultural or communal DNA. In honor of Jewish Heritage Month in May, as well as the holiday of Shavuot this month, I offer you a lesser-known dish from my Yemenite heritage.
Growing up in Israel in a Yemenite family, some of my most joyous moments involved mealtime. Happiness, they say, is in the small things, and food was a multi- sensory experience of smaller parts—the aroma of the spices permeating the air; the visual feast of yellow turmeric and bright red chili; and the touch of scooping of food with one’s hand. The finale was a crescendo of bursts of textures and flavors.
Like anything else in life, grouping can elevate basic elements into something greater than its parts. Take, for example, the hawage, a spice mixture made from cumin, turmeric, clove, black pepper, and cardamom. It’s at once earthy and sultry, warm and intense, sweet and pungent, lemony and nutty.
The Yemenite spices are not the only reason why some describe Yemenite food as exotic. Over the centuries, when dark clouds of locust descended from the sky, they devoured any visible greenery on earth. Rather than go famished, Yemenites exacted their revenge by roasting the protein-rich pesky hoppers and calling it a delicacy. Lucky for them the creatures are kosher. This exotic preparation, though, is by no means a staple of the Yemenite diet, as I know it.
Others may say that our food is simple. This may be a fair statement, but it does not do it complete justice.
The traditional Yemenite kitchen is both basic and sophisticated. It incorporates simple, wholesome ingredients with herbs and spices that lend complexity to the flavor and aroma of dishes that do not require fancy cooking technique.
In its authentic form, Yemenite food is also considered quite healthy. Spices and herbs were used for their nourishing as much as for their medicinal properties.
Some dishes came around only once a year, others were served on special occasions, and there were those we ate weekly or even daily. I bet there are quite a few of you familiar with s’hug, melawah or jahnoun, which are now readily available in many kosher markets.
I would be surprised if you heard about harrise, a traditional dish that makes use of wheat, butter and honey, abundant during Shavuot, the time of Israel’s wheat harvest and the season of animal birthing.
From the looks of harrise, you would doubt my claim that Yemenite food is a celebration of flavor and color. A hot cereal dish, harrise combines hot cooked bulgur (cracked wheat), samna (clarified butter, or ghee), honey and a bit of salt, but, surprisingly, no spices. Its color definitely can’t be described as vibrant.
Yet the flavor and aroma resulting from these ingredients are unexpectedly heavenly. The honey and clarified butter are a perfect complement to the subtle nuttiness of the cracked wheat, lending it a smoky, sweet caramel aroma and flavor.
My mother made this dish for Shavuot, but also at other times as a special treat. Tasting the recipe for this post, I also substituted roasted buckwheat, or kasha, as a gluten-free alternative to bulgur. My American-born friend thought both were good tasting, but she preferred the bulgur. She said it was similar to cream of wheat.
Easy to prepare, this simple dish would satisfy a sophisticated palate. For me, harrise is where simplicity meets the sublime, where happiness resides.