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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Yemen

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in Yemen, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Yemeni Food - Dates
Dates

Much of the land Yemen occupies is desert although there are areas in which the rains fall more regularly. Due to this desert, much of the country is limited in the foods it can grow and the animals that are present. The desert and seas also isolated the people from those around them so their historic diet remained relatively stable for years.

The traditional diet in Yemen was simply dates, camel milk, and occasionally camel meat. There were a few fruits and vegetables in some areas, which made their diets more diversified, but for most of the people the dietary base was just dates and camel milk. Among the other foods that were grown include wheat, rice, beans, and dates. Animals were also present, including camel, sheep, goat, and chicken. Along the coasts were a wide variety of sea animals, including grouper, mackerel, nagroor, shrimp, crab, and lobster among others.

Culinary Influences

For most of history there were few alterations to the diet of Yemen, as the people lived off the land and many of the people, especially in the desert, were nearly isolated so no outside influences could penetrate the desert borders. Even later in history, the diet was changed little as few of the traditional Levantine foods are common in Yemen today.

Oddly, the Ethiopians had a substantial impact on the food of the Yemenis. While they didn't vastly alter the cuisine, they did introduce new spices and vegetables along with cooking techniques. From the north the Arabs arrived bring Levantine foods, but again only small additions from this wider cuisine were adopted to a point that the diet was significantly altered. This influx from the north brought hummus, tabbouleh, and spices that are now common in the Middle East, but still limited in their use in Yemen.

As the Ottoman Turks took power in the region they actually influenced the diet of the Yemenis more than most previous tenants on the land. Turkish foods arrived as lamb became more prevalent in the diet and the Turkish kebab became a favorite among the people. However, even the Ottomans didn't change the cuisine to any great degree as traditional cooking techniques, like making soups and stews remains the dominant form of cooking. For the most part the outside influences that have altered Yemen's cuisine come in the form of adding ingredients and spices, not truly altering full dishes or incorporating an outside food into the daily diet.

Today the food in Yemen continues to change, but as in the past, few outside influences are really altering the historic base diet. Some foreign foods are now in the country, but they are not popular and are limited in Sana'a and other major cities.

Staple Foods

Bread: bread is fairly common, but there are numerous varieties, primarily flat breads

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Kebab: numerous styles exist, but usually with a base of roasted lamb or chicken and vegetables in pita bread
Ogdat: stew made with lamb, chicken, or fish and vegetables
Saltah: the national dish is meat stew with vegetables, rice, potatoes, and more

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Yemen there are a couple etiquette rules related to Islam you must know and follow. The most important things you must know are that you must dress conservatively and you should know that you may be seated with only same sex guests. As Muslims, it is considered rude and offensive to show too much skin; this includes any part of the legs and the arms from the elbows up, although you should be safe and wear long sleeve shirts. For women, their hair should also be covered. Next, for many conservative Muslims, women and men should not eat together unless they are married. Due to this, often times men dine only with men and women only with women so don't bring a guest of the opposite sex to any meal unless you are specifically invited to do so.

Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first then follow your host's lead or invitation. Prior to sitting down everyone will wash their hands and you should follow them as you will likely be using your hand to eat. Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive. If your host doesn't show you a seat avoid the corner seats as they are reserved for honored guests and, while you may be asked to sit in these seats, don't assume you're an honored guest until invited to take one of these seats.

Once the food is served, again follow your host's lead as either you or the elders will likely be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude. Eat as the locals eat; in most settings this means eating with your right hand (and your right hand only!), but in more formal settings you may be offered dining utensils (cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left). As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough then place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position. After everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and wash your hands once more. After this you may be asked to stay for coffee or tea, an invitation you should accept to avoid offending your host.

If dining in a restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Many hotel restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included and you're in a nice restaurant or a hotel restaurant, leave a tip of 5-10%.

Celebrations & Events

There are only two major food celebrations in Yemen and both are centered around the religion of their majority, Islam. Eid al Fitr is an event filled with numerous foods, which differ from family to family, but always includes dates and generally also consists of various meats or fish, grains, and vegetables. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days.

The second major food celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

Yemen's drinks must begin with tea and coffee. Both are seemingly always on hand and quickly offered to guests. Teas come in numerous styles, including plain, mint, and with milk, while coffee has nearly as many varieties, although Arabian and Turkish coffees are the most popular. International favorites, including soft drinks, milk, and juices are also available; mango and guava juices are especially popular.

As a primarily Muslim country, Yemen has no alcohol available and it is illegal to consume or transport alcohol in the country.

The tap water in Yemen should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013