A Yemenite stew to tickle the tastebuds

Another of chef Dennis Wasko’s Jerusalem Post forays into Middle Eastern cooking – this time, the cuisine of the Yemenite Jews. His recipe for Chouia, a traditional lamb stew, is prefaced by a useful history of this 3,000 year-old community.

The history of the Yemenite Jews is as illustrious as it is tragic. Yemen was once a place where Jewish religion and culture flourished. Jews were welcomed into Yemen and many of the native population converted to Judaism. In the 5th century CE the ruler of Yemen converted to Judaism thus turning Yemen into a Jewish Kingdom. Jewish prosperity continued until 525 CE when the Jewish kingdom was overthrown by Christian Ethiopians. The rise of Islam in the 7th century changed the face of Jewish Yemenite culture, as the Jews were relegated to 2nd class citizenship.

It remains unknown exactly when Jews came to settle in Yemen, but Yemenite tradition holds that Jewish soldiers were sent to Yemen by King Solomon to defend the spice routes against marauding nomadic tribes. Another version of this story has the soldiers searching for silver and gold to be used for adorning the Temple in Jerusalem. Whether or not these stories are true, it is evident that Jews have called Yemen home for at least two thousand years. Scholars believe that the majority of Jewish immigration began at the beginning of the 2nd Century CE.

The Jewish community grew to great prominence and many of the native inhabitants embraced Judaism. At the end of the 5th century, the Himyarite King Abu-Karib Asad Toban converted to Judaism ushering in a golden age for the Jews as Yemen became a Jewish Kingdom. The Jewish King was able to unite the various Jewish communities of the Arabian Peninsula together to defeat the Ethiopian Aksumites who attempted to control Yemen for a hundred years. Their victory was short-lived however, as the Christian Aksumites finally defeated the Jewish King and took control of Yemen in 525 C.E. Though ruled by Christians, Yemen remained predominantly Jewish.

Then in the middle of the 7th century CE the world changed. Islam was introduced into the region in 630 CE. Almost overnight, Islam became the dominant religion and the Jews of Yemen found themselves reduced to 2nd class, dhimmi status. Though they were protected “People of the Scripture”, the Jews were only able to freely practice their religion in exchange for the payment of the jizya tax, which was imposed upon all non- Muslims. Persecution worsened in the 10th century CE and the Jews were treated as pariahs because they were perceived as outsiders, though their residency in Yemen predated Islam.

The situation became so bad for the Jews of Yemen that Maimonides wrote his Epistle to Yemen to comfort the persecuted community and give first hand advice on how to deal with forced conversion to Islam. He also warned them against the influence of a number of false messiahs who were appearing within the Yemenite community.

Through all of this hardship the Jewish community of Yemen struggled on and their numbers continued to remain strong. In the early 20th century the community numbered over 50,000 people. While many had already immigrated to pre-state Israel in the late 19th century, the majority of the population remained in Yemen. As the 20th century continued, life for the Jews became progressively worse.

With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the Yemenite Jews found themselves in a desperately unsafe situation. They lost all of their civil rights and were not allowed to leave the country. In 1949 and 1950 the new Jewish State initiated Operation Magic Carpet to bring the Jews of Yemen to Israel. Fifty thousand Yemenite Jews were illegally rescued and brought safely to the Jewish State. Today they constitute one of the largest immigrant populations in Israel.

Yemenite Cuisine is very simple and rustic. Stews and soups abound, as well as many different types of bread. Dishes are heavily spiced and flavorful. The cuisine is heavily based on grains and vegetables. Meat is eaten in very small amounts and dairy products are practically unknown.

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