“It Gives Flavor, It’s Good!” – Samneh, Diaspora, and the Memory of Yemeni Tel Aviv  

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Etzel Nekhama” – “At Nekhama’s” – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Photo mine, April 2016.

It’s my last evening in Israel, and my friend Tom and I are walking through the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem ha-Teimanim, the Yemenite Quarter. The district was founded in 1906 by Yemenite immigrants to the Holy Land, who chose to settle in an area near Jaffa. Founded before the “original” start of the (European, Ashkenazi) city of Tel Aviv in 1906, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the center for a growing Yemenite immigrant community in the Holy Land. The Yemenite Jews who came were and still are excluded from the state-sponsored history of Zionism and Israel: they spoke Arabic, brought traditions from Yemen rather than Europe, and integrated and cooperated with Jaffa’s Palestinian population. The migration was not under the auspices of European organization, but rather as residents of the Ottoman Empire’s farthest-flung province moving to the major centers of Jaffa and Jerusalem. This, if it was Zionism, was a very different kind of Zionism. Later, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the poorer dumping ground for some of the thousands of Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. Even today, the neighborhood has a strong Yemenite population; streets and public art commemorate both the area’s Yemenites and the communities of the homeland, like Aden, Sana’a, and Ta’izz. However, gentrification – and the occupation of the neighborhood by Ashkenazim with money – is changing the character of Kerem ha-Teimanim. It is still, however, a center of Yemenite-Jewish culture in a Tel Aviv known for erasing all that is not secular and Ashkenazi.

But back to the walk Tom and I were taking. We had walked from Tom’s home in the north of Tel Aviv all the way down to Kerem ha-Teimanim. It was a quiet Shabbat afternoon, and the neighborhood was mostly silent. We saw the public art scattered throughout Kerem ha-Teimanim that commemorates the Yemenite Jewish people of Tel Aviv and the balad – homeland – of Yemen. On this walk, we passed by a homespun sign for an eatery that sold traditional Yemenite Jewish foods. These include the breads lakhukh, jakhnun, and malawwakh, soups, and other savory goods. The eatery itself was closed for Pesach and Shabbat, but Tom – whose ancestry is Syrian and Sephardic – and I, the consummate Litvak, busied ourselves with discussing the foods on the menu. Our eyes then turned to the bottom of the sign, which read – and here is my annotated translation:

To take away:

Lakhukh – a spongey flatbread made from a yeasted, fermented batter. It is not unlike the injera consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and has the same soft, bouncy texture. Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia, the same recipe is called canjeero. When my mother was a teenager in Israel in the 1970’s, this was one of her favorite foods, along with another Yemenite bread – the fried, oily malawwakh.

Skhug or sahawiq – a deliciously spicy hot sauce made from fresh red or green chilies, augmented with cilantro, garlic, and cumin. Sometimes tomatoes are added too. Skhug is delicious and is also pretty easily found in Israel.

Hilbeh – this is a spread or a dip made from the raw seeds of the fenugreek plant. Those of you familiar with South Asian, Turkish, or Ethiopian cooking are probably familiar with this pungent spice. The spread is made by grinding the seeds and adding water and spices, which creates a thick sauce. If you have access to fenugreek seeds, it is quite easy to make at home – here is a good recipe.

Samneh

Here, Tom and I were a bit confused. What was “samneh?” Tom and I scratched our heads. Clearly, it was something that went on the lakhukh, but what was it? “I haven’t heard this word before,” Tom offered. Then, we heard a voice with behind us. “What are you wondering about?”

An older lady, conservatively dressed, stood behind us. We responded:

“Oh we were just wondering what samneh was.” She smiled.

“You know ghee? It’s like ghee, and it gives flavor.” And then she began to explain how she made it, by melting and straining the butter, and then adding fenugreek (hilbeh) for a smokier, tangier flavor. She was visibly happy as she explained it. “I eat it with the lakhukh and the hilbeh and the skhug, and I use it to cook sometimes too!” We thanked her for her explanation, and then she asked us a few questions before wishing us a shabbat shalom. Later, we figured out that she may well have been the Nekhama whose name is mentioned in the eatery’s name.

From later research, I learned that samneh is a clarified, fermented butter common across the Arab world – where it is also known as smen. The butter is sometimes salted after it is melted, boiled, and strained, and thyme is often added to provide a type of yeast. The result? A smoky, flavorful, fatty samneh. It seems that our passerby prepared a version that is particularly traditional to the Jews of Yemen (link in Hebrew). It sounds pretty good.

This type of encounter renews my interest in Jewish food cultures. It is all well and good to make the broad statements of who likes what, what “Yiddish” or “Sephardi” food mean, or that the younger generations “aren’t” eating your definition of traditional Jewish food. It is all well and good to buy expensive cookbooks and go to restaurants that make expensive reinventions of Jewish food. But the food ultimately comes from the people, and the way they engage with it and remember it. It is this – not any notion of authenticity or tradition – that makes Jewish food worth writing about, and I am grateful to this passerby that took the time to tell us about her samneh.

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