“I Went to Yemen for the Food. Yes, the Food” by Charles Perry
Probably not many people feel like visiting Yemen these days, what with the State Department alternately saying you shouldn’t go and well, maybe it would be OK, maybe. When Charles Perry went there in the Nineties, things were better — no Houthi insurgency or Saudi air strikes — but Yemen literally ranked 99th among the world’s tourist destinations, and there were a fairish number of men on the street sporting Kalashnikov rifles. (Nice enough guys, though, when you got to know them.)
Yemeni food was the limit of the obscure at that time, so of course he wanted to try it. It proved to fit a bit uneasily in the general culinary picture of the Arabian Peninsula. Instead of rice or wheat, Yemenis have their own staple grain, white sorghum; they use so much of the spice fenugreek that it contributes measurably to their protein intake; they make a tea out of coffee bean husks because most of them can’t afford to drink coffee itself; and they do all their cooking in utensils carved out of stone. And lunch is basically about getting ready for an afternoon of chewing qat, the local pleasure drug.
Charles Perry majored in Middle East Studies at Princeton and UC Berkeley. A year of study in Lebanon got him interested in food, so after an eight-year detour as a staff writer at Rolling Stone in the Seventies, he became a food writer, culminating in 18 years at the LA Times food section. He is the president and co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Southern California.