July 10, 2008
Shopping and Food in Yemen.
There is something special to walking around in a town that appears to have remained in biblical times. If it were not for the enormous heaps of colorful plastic items sold in countries such as Yemen, and the plastic shopping bags strewn all over the countryside in areas, then yes, it all looks biblical: old testament. The vendors with their wares sitting in front of the shops and the scribes with a line of clients waiting for their letter to be read or written makes it all quite amazing.
For lunch we probably often had Saltah, although I sometimes could not recognize it as such outside of Sana'a. Saltah is really quite good. It is a concoction of onions, tomatoes, some eggs and some meat, potatoes and fenugreek in a Madr (a special bowl). I remember enjoying it a lot in Sana'a but later while traveling around some peculiar ingredients seemed to have found their way into the Madr. Perhaps it was regional, but it sometimes looked like freshly mowed grass and it was just as difficult to digest. Come to think of it, it probably was grass. In a country where there is no grass it must be considered quite a delicacy.
Of course we didn't live on digestives, hard boiled eggs and sweet pastries alone. There was rice and lamb, minced meat dishes (highly likely lamb), roast lamb, grilled lamb, lamb chops, and lamb regular, medium or large. I like lamb and even mutton. But it was just that walking by the butcher shop fronts managed to put me off lamb. The flies, the eyes and especially the smell was slightly off-putting. But when hungry, really hungry, then lamb is a welcome guest on one's plate, so I ate a fair portion of the cute woolly creatures while in Yemen, Jordan, Syria and other countries in the Middle East.
I only had problems once in Yemen and that was once again, not from the food, but from tea. In all my travels I have only been really miserable three times. Portugal, at a hair stylist (English, you would think it was safe) where they served a complimentary cup of tea. Egypt: on a French ship, where I thought it would be fine to drink tea. Yemen: in a hotel (a reasonably civilized one) where I had a cup of tea. The water was not sufficiently boiled. It's not that the water is bad, just that foreigners are not used to the types of creepy crawlies in any water but their own and so the foreigner is out of luck for a couple of days after something as innocent as a cup of tea. This is where the hard boiled eggs and the digestives come in very handy.
I browsed many markets over the weeks and besides the Birthday Cake Mosque Clock, I returned home with myrrh and a wooden burner, which everyone always turns upside down because you can't make head or tail of it, if you don't know what it is. I bought kohl from the salesman in the picture above, in a very utilitarian container, some silver trinkets and sweet water pearls not from Yemen, I would think and a window. Yes, a window.