Culinary foams weren’t invented by El Bulli’s Ferran Adria, the groundbreaking Spanish chef most associated with the modernist cuisine movement. White bean foam, chocolate air, and granadilla clouds may have gobsmacked diners on the Costa Brava coast 18 years ago—and there are carrot, smoke, and potato foams on the menu at Next Restaurant’s El Bulli tribute. But cooks have aerated food for centuries (see whipped cream, meringue, etc), and maybe no one’s been doing it longer than the Yemenis.
Hulba (also known as hilbeh and hulbah) is an ethereal fenugreek froth used most often to top simmering stone bowls of salta, a tomato-based vegetable stew (fahsa when it’s cooked with lamb or tuna). It’s the national dish of the southernmost country on the Arabian peninsula, possibly originating with Yemeni Jews.
Unlike some of the more gratuitous and silly applications of foam that proliferated in the wake of Adria, hulba contributes flavor and texture to the dish, merging with the tomatoey broth and giving it a buoyancy that endures to the bottom of the bowl. Add a dollop of zhug, a salsalike tomato condiment ground with chile, garlic, and cilantro, and its flavor will resonate with anyone who loves Indian or Pakistani food (or the Three Arrows manhattan at Yusho). Or just imagine a tomato wave breaking over your tongue.
At Bridgeview’s Sheeba Restaurant, brothers Anees and Ismael “Smiley” Aljahmi soak fenugreek in water overnight until it forms a jellylike paste. In the morning they whip it in a mixer until it builds in billowing volume with just a whisper of bitterness, enough to top the day’s orders of salta, fahsa, and fattah. The last is a lamb gravy-soaked savory pudding made from torn-up pieces of naanlike bread, the dough spread into an even circle and slapped on the interior wall of a $3,000 gas-powered tanoor clay oven imported from India. Inside, it blisters and rises into a toasty, charred disc of bread. You’ll order that with anything you eat here at a buck apiece, using it as your primary utensil. You’ll order more to take home.
Yemeni food has a lot in common with Indian and Ethiopian food, more so than it does the common Middle Eastern kebabs, hummus, baba ghanouj, and tabouli most of us are familiar with. In Chicago that’s partly because there are only two dedicated Yemeni restaurants in the area. Yemen Restaurant in Albany Park is more of a cafe, with only a few specifically Yemeni dishes on a relatively short menu—namely roasted and boiled lamb—haneeth and masloog, respectively. But Sheeba has a full complement of “cultural platters” prepared in this southwestern suburb, which has eclipsed Albany Park as home to the area’s best Arabic food. It’s the only place that serves salta, fahsa, and fattah.
Anees, 30, and Ismael, 28, hail from Brooklyn Heights, New York. Their father, Ali, landed there in the late 70s from Yemen’s capital Sanaa, via Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Djibouti, where he worked a series of hotel jobs. In New York he opened the city’s first Yemeni restaurant, at first catering mostly to his countrymen and eventually a wider demographic of curious eaters.
He’s still running Yemen Cuisine today, and his boys grew up in the kitchen learning to cook the dishes that define the food of their ancestral homeland. You can hear traces of their Brooklyn accents when they talk about it.
In the early 2000s Anees, Ismael, and a third brother opened the first two Sheebas in Hamtramck and Dearborn, Michigan, home of the country’s largest proportion of Arab-Americans. Anees decamped for Chicago five years ago and ran a fast-food restaurant in South Shore until Ismael joined him to open Sheeba last November in a strip mall corner space that previously housed another Yemeni restaurant, which lasted only a few months before a kitchen fire claimed it.
They do a lot with lamb. You can get marinated and broiled chops; sauteed liver or kidney; segar, minced lamb sauteed with tomatoes, onions, cumin, turmeric, cilantro, and garlic; chunky gallaba cooked in a currylike sauce; shredded lamb stewed in fahsa or mixed with fattah; and heaping platters of rice with lamb on the bone roasted (masloog) or slow simmered (haneeth), which also yields the savory gravy that dresses the fattah. Order in advance and they’ll roast you a whole baby lamb stuffed with rice.
They also do a few typical Middle Eastern sides—hummus, fasolia, ful mudamas—but the Yemeni dishes predominate, including a whole butterflied bass or tilapia rubbed with a seven-spice mix, lowered in the tanoor in a basket, and blasted for 15 minutes; or mushakal, a spicy stew of potato, celery, zucchini, and okra that simmers from open to close; or a sweet version of fattah mixed with honey, dates, bananas, and custard apple.
Sheeba is still in its infancy. Dinner is busy with families, but lunchtime can be slow. Yet Anees is already thinking ahead to opening another place in D.C., which has its own population of Yemenis, and—who knows?—maybe LA.