Yemenite Soup

Yemenite Immigrants

A family of Yemenite immigrants, 1948 or 49. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nobody knows just how a group of several thousand Jews found their way to settle in Yemen. Oral Yemenite tradition suggests that a group of Jews left Jerusalem after hearing Jeremiah predict the destruction of the first Temple. Archeaological evidence shows that Jews have lived in Yemen since at least the 3rd century CE. Though it’s not exactly clear how or when they arrived in Yemen, the history of Yemenite Jews distinguishes them from all other Jewish populations. Because of their remote location and relative isolation, Yemenite Jewish tradition remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries. They preserved many ancient Jewish religious customs that might otherwise have been lost to the passage of time. In fact, some researchers believe that the Yemenite Hebrew dialect is more closely related to the Biblical Hebrew than any other dialect.

In the late 1800’s, the first in a series of mass migrations to Israel began. Facing increased persecution from Muslim communities in Yemen, most Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel before 1962. Today, it is estimated that there are only about 300 Jews still living in Yemen.

Yemenites emigrate to Israel during “Operation Magic Carpet,” a secret operation conducted by the Israeli government to bring Yemenite Jews to safety. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is a LOT more to Yemenite history that I hope to explore in future blogs. For now, let’s get to the good stuff– the food! The Yemenite Jews are known for their complex spices and rich, flavorful dishes. I was introduced to Yemenite cuisine for the first time at a Los Angeles restaurant called Shula and Esther. Our family used to go there frequently to enjoy their authentic and delicious Jewish cuisine. Their Yemenite Soup was my favorite; it was spicy, rich and delicious. Some days they featured lamb or beef Yemenite soup and some days chicken. Since then, I’ve tasted many versions of Yemenite soup, including several in Israel where the majority of Yemenite Jews now live. When Shula and Esther closed (a tragic day for us), I had to figure out how to make the soup on my own. I learned the basic method and ingredients from my friend Bracha whose mother has Yemenite ancestry. Over time I’ve adjusted the seasonings till I honed in on the distinct flavor that we remember from Shula and Esther.

Yemenite soup is traditionally served as the entree of the Erev Shabbat meal on Friday evening. The Jews of Yemen typically used chicken in their soup because meat was expensive and difficult to come by. The meat version has gained popularity throughout Israel. I’ve provided a recipe for each version in this blog. The broth of this soup is spiced with hawayej, a Yemenite spice blend that can be purchased at most Jewish markets. If you don’t have a market like that nearby, you can check out my recipe for hawayej by clicking here. Every Yemenite family has a different recipe for this soup, but the basics remain the same– a meat or chicken broth, onions, potatoes, and lots of hawayej.

My Yemenite soup is full of spice; it’s the perfect way to clear out your sinuses on a cold winter day. If you’re fighting a winter flu, try this as a spicy alternative to matzo ball soup. The spice might seem heavy-handed to somebody unfamiliar with Yemenite cuisine, so if you’re not a spicy person start with 1 tbsp of hawayej spice blend and work up from there.

This soup is generally served with two Yemenite condiments, hilbeh and s’chug. Hilbeh is a gelatinous sauce made with fenugreek seeds; it takes 2-3 days to make and the process is quite involved. S’chug is like a Yemenite salsa made from jalapenos, garlic, and spices. I plan to cover these condiments in a future blog. For now, if you’ve never tasted Yemenite food before, the soup recipes should provide plenty of spice on their own without the addition of hilbeh and s’chug.

These soups are both gluten free (for the meat version, make sure you’re using a certified GF broth). If you’re using a pre-packaged hawayej blend, double check to make sure it’s GF, too. Enjoy!

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Yemenite Chicken Soup

Yemenite Chicken Soup Ingredients

  • 6 large chicken legs (leg and thigh attached)
  • 2 whole tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of cilantro—cleaned, rinsed, and tied in a bundle
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1-2 tbsp hawayej spice blend
  • 4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Minced fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)

Yemenite Beef Soup Ingredients

  • 2 lbs lamb or beef stew meat, cubed
  • 2-3 tbsp hawayej spice blend
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and minced
  • 4 whole cloves of garlic
  • 1-2 marrow bones
  • 4 whole tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of cilantro—cleaned, rinsed, and tied in a bundle
  • 2-3 qts. beef broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • Minced fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)
Servings: 6-8 servings
Kosher Key: Meat
  • TO MAKE YEMENITE CHICKEN SOUP: Place rinsed and cleaned chicken pieces on the bottom of a large stock pot. Cover the chicken with water by about 3 inches.
  • Add 2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper to the pot. Bring to a boil for about 10 minutes. Skim the foam that rises to the top of the water. Make three deep slices in the tomatoes (while keeping them whole/intact) so that they can release flavor in the broth.
  • Add the tomatoes, cilantro, carrots and onion to the pot and stir till nearly all ingredients are completely covered with liquid (the cilantro will float). Add 1 tbsp of hawayej spice blend to the pot and stir. Bring to a boil again, then reduce heat to medium low. Simmer for 1 hour.
  • Taste the broth; add more hawayej, salt, and/or pepper to taste. Add the potato chunks to the pot. Simmer for another 30 minutes until the meat is very tender. Discard the cilantro bundle and tomatoes prior to serving.
  • Traditionally, the meat and vegetables are served separately from the broth of this soup; the broth is often ladled over freshly baked bread like malawach or lakhukh. In our family, we serve the soup as is with the meat and veggies mixed in. I usually remove the skin from the chicken pieces prior to serving to cut down on fat.
  • TO MAKE YEMENITE BEEF SOUP: In a large soup pot, place the stew meat in an even layer on the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle the meat with 1-2 tbsp hawayej seasoning (the more seasoning you use, the spicier and more flavorful the soup will be). Sauté the meat over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until the meat is evenly seasoned and browned on all sides.
  • Turn off the heat, pour meat into a bowl and reserve. There should be a thin layer of seasoning on the bottom of the pot. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil and pour in the minced onions and garlic cloves. Turn heat to medium and sauté the onions and garlic while you scrape up the seasoning and brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Stir and scrape constantly until the onions and garlic are softened and seasoned.
  • Turn off heat. Add meat chunks back to the pot along with the marrow bones.
  • Make three deep slices in the tomatoes (while keeping them whole/intact) so that they can release flavor into the broth. Add tomatoes and cilantro bundle to the pot. Cover ingredients with 2 to 3 quarts of broth until the ingredients are almost completely covered.
  • Bring soup to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until a yellow froth forms on the surface. Skim the froth and discard.
  • Season broth with salt and pepper to taste. Turn heat to medium low and cover pot, leaving a small gap on the edge of the lid to vent. Simmer the soup for 2 ½ hours. Add the potato chunks to the broth. Simmer for an additional 30-45 minutes until the broth thickens and the meat is tender. Towards the end of cooking, taste the broth and add more salt, pepper, or hawayej, if desired. Before serving, remove tomatoes, marrow bone, cilantro bundle and whole garlic cloves. Scrape the marrow out of the bone and add it to the broth, if desired. Garnish each bowl with fresh minced cilantro (optional).
  • I sometimes make this soup with a mixture of both beef and chicken (1 pound of beef stew meat, 6 chicken leg and/or thigh pieces). It's not Yemenite tradition to do this, but many Israeli cooks have adopted the custom of mixing the two meats. If you want to try it this way, cook recipe as directed for beef and add the chicken pieces after the first 1 ½ hours of cooking time. When using a mixture of chicken and beef, I remove the skin from the chicken pieces to cut down on fat. The beef meat and marrow bone provide plenty of oil and flavor in the broth.

Comments (28)Post a Comment

  1. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    I love it how you combine the history w/the food so we know more about what we’re eating and why. This looks like a great idea for winter. We have a Jewish market downtown, I will try to find the spice blend and make it soon.

  2. I’ve always been curious about Yememnite food! Leave it to the shiksa to give me step-by-step instructions! Thanx love!

  3. Tori I will do it in a vegan way, but knowing the history behind this, give the soup a very special taste. I love it!

  4. For more info on Yemenite cooking, you might want to check out some of the Copeland Marks books. Also, the Jews of Kerala, in southern India, are thought to have come from Yemenite Jews coming there to trade in the second century AD. The spice mix sounds rather Indian in origin to me!

  5. Hi!

    Do tell- where on Earth have you found Ta’am Vareach spices? I have to get them shipped form Israel about once a year or so. What a hassle!

    Your site is my new curiosity- I like it.



    1. Larry, I wish that was a real Kramer! I’ve been on the waiting list for over a year. It’s a Shun, and it’s great… but it’s not a Kramer. Sigh. Knifethrower, I get the spices at Cambridge Farms market in North Hollywood CA.

  6. Carrot?? that make it ashkenazi, we did not have carrot in yemen, but we had garlic, just a couple, try it.

    1. Yes, Michael, it’s true that carrots were not typically used in Yemen, but many Yemenite Jewish immigrants to Israel (like my friend Bracha’s family) have adopted this modification because carrots are easier to come by there. I’ve had so many different versions of this soup over the years in Yemenite homes and restaurants– some add celery, some parsley, others mix meat and chicken. This is why I mentioned that every Yemenite family has a different recipe for this soup, but the basics remain the same– a meat or chicken broth, onions, potatoes, and lots of hawayej. I do add garlic to the meat soup, and occasionally will throw a few cloves into the chicken one as well. ;)

    1. Hi Scott, thanks for the heads up! I’ve corrected the instructions. You add the meat back to the pot when you finish sauteing the onions and garlic, just before you add the tomatoes and cilantro bundle.

  7. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    I just discovered your blog, and the recipes are wonderful! Do you have any more Yemenite recipes? I first tasted their food in Israel and have craved it ever since.

  8. I’m SO happy to have found this here!! I grew up on marak temani and have been making it on my own since my newlywed Ashkenazi hubby LOVES it!

    Now I have something to follow instead of guessing what my mom means when she says ‘a little bit of this’, ‘some of that’, etc.

    Thank you!!! Shabbat shalom :)

  9. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Thank you for this – love this soup! I haven’t made it in so many years and was happy to stumble across this again today – bought the Hawiij, chicken, vegetables and it’s already simmering away, just in time for a really cold Shabbat here in Jerusalem

  10. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    I always order this when craving a warming soup on a cold winter day. Recently, I made this version at home and my kids love it and asked me to make it again. Thanks, it’s really simple and filling.

  11. hello dear! do you happen to have a recipe for the jemenite bean soup served with something called “chilbe”.. ?? i’d love to make it but i have no idea what is in the soup stock (white beans yes, but what else??) and the “Chilbe”. i love the structure of it but when i used to it it in a small restaurantout of tel aviv, there was never anyone who could have spoken enough english to be able to explain what was in it and how it was made.. loved “schrugg” also.. your shackshucka recipe convinced me !!! that’s why I am asking from you.. greetings from Finland, Kaisa

  12. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Just back from a week in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter, where we rented a modest apartment. Many blocks had several family owned kosher yemenite restaurants. The food was delicious, flavourful, exotic and modestly priced. Highly recommended experience. Its a real walking vacation, near the beach, Carmel market. Area felt safe and people were friendly!

  13. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Hi Tori,
    Great Beef soup recipe! My family loved it.
    Lucky me I bought lots of hawayej on my last trip to Israel.
    One comment though – couldn’t find anywhere in the instruction when the marrow bones should be added (unless I missed it), only when to remove them.
    Next – the Chicken version :)
    ~ Doobie

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