The geography of this part of the world is utopian. Yemen lies by Afghanistan, which lies by Dubai. There is no Arabian Sea or Red Sea, only puddles from New Delhi’s monsoon rains. We take a dark but wide flight of stairs up to Yemen; not the country, but the Yemen Café and Restaurant. It is situated on the first floor, above the Afghan Pharmacy and by the Kabul Dubai Restaurant in Hauzrani, opposite Max Hospital. At the landing, someone whiling away a power-cut break asks us: “Afghani or Yemeni?”
We’re at Ard Alyaman - as its board proclaims to the Perso-Arabic reader - the land of Yemen, this evening. It is a little late for tea-time, and a little early for dinner, but our appetite begins roaring from the moment food aromas seize us on the stairs. Saqr Hatem, the 20-something man in charge of the place, greets and seats us. We take our place at a dining table by the open door of the balcony.
On his phone, Hatem shows an enticing picture of the restaurant’s bestseller: Mandi, a biryani-like preparation (incidentally, the inspiration for a runaway hit in Kerala). We settle for fasolia, a flavourful mash of red kidney beans - rajma, as Hatem helpfully translates – with tomato and onions and eaten with khobz, an elephantine version of the tandoori roti. Hatem, who otherwise speaks in Arabic-lilted English, knows some Hindustani: he’s been in India on scholarship for four years while training to be a civil engineer at Aligarh Muslim University.
“Delhi is a bigger city so there’s lots to do,” he says. It’s big, like his hometown, the Yemeni city of Taiz, he says. But, unlike Delhi, “the weather there is always nice and rainy – no need for sweaters, nor for fans,” he points out. At the restaurant, he’s standing in – like he often does after his IELETS coaching classes - for his computer-engineer cousin who started the restaurant. He’s helped by another student, Saad, their UP-born cashier, who’s studying for an MA in Arabic from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Hatem’s currently manning the fort because the cousin is away, helping Yemeni medical tourists with his “very good Hindi” in the hospital across the road. It’s this cousin, who’s already been in India for seven years, who convinced Hatem to pick India against Malaysia for college. He’s not sure if it was the right decision. “I came in August. Oh, I remember each of those days so clearly,” he says, absently. “I spoke English, yet it was tough,” because “my teachers and classmates usually spoke Hindi”. Now, he plans to study “civil engineering management in New Zealand, and then, a Ph.D, in sha allah”.
His own parents are professors: Hatem’s mother teaches Islamic studies and father, chemical engineering. “My father did his Ph.D from California!” All of Hatem’s six siblings are currently in Sana’a, the capital city, where his parents’ jobs are. “Things were difficult in my city,” Hatem says of Taiz. In 2014, before he left for India, the latest round of the war had already begun.
The food arrives, steaming hot, and we head to one of two elevated cabins with floor seating. The size of the khobz gives us hiccups. “You must finish it all!” Hatem jokes, checking in in between running around for other orders. The fasolia’s flavours are immersive, “not like the rajma you get here,” as he had promised. In Aligarh, unable to enjoy the spiciness of local food, he made his own, “rice and chicken and everything.”
In Delhi, his favourite dish of haneedh – lamb or chicken cooked in a tandoor – is easily available at his cousin’s restaurant (it’s also the second bestseller after mandi, he says). These flavours and mildly spiced food are inviting for medical tourists from West Asian and African countries, like the dishdasha-wearing Omani man in the next cabin, and the elderly Somalian and his son who have just walked in, wearing their own ankle-length shirts, called khameez.
We have to admit defeat and ask for our khobz to be packed up. Just then, the power comes on, the indoor light turning brighter than the faint dusk light outside. The air-conditioning floods the restaurant in a rush of relief. In no time, Hatem is back with a bowl of dessert, masoob: a thick blend of mashed banana and pieces of flatbread in honey-sweetened milk. It’s also impossible to finish alone. Indeed, except for tea, everything at this restaurant seems meant to be eaten in a communal fashion.
When Hatem offers us “suleimani chai,” he means the cinnamon-flavoured ‘shahee ahmar,’ literally, Arabic for red tea. (“But it’s chai for us too.”) Two glasses down, we set out to leave this warm, hospitable little place. But Hatem suddenly turns to one of his four Yemeni cooks walking in with a bowl of light meat broth called maraq. “You can’t leave without tasting this,” he says. Next time, we say, when we return for bint al sahn, the restaurant’s honey and sesame-topped patty. Hatem squeezes his eyes and sways his head: we leave with a longing, and he stays with a memory, for this “best dessert” of all.
Getting there: Opposite Max Hospital, Saket, above Afghan Pharmacy. Call 9911499349 or 9650917029.
Accessibility: Staircase - no ramp or elevator.
Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Delhi.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city