For Salem Omar, a New York cabbie-to-be who grew up in a Bedouin family in Yemen, Hadramout Restaurant has been a culinary and cultural refuge since he arrived in the US in 2006.
Almost every week, my taxi schoolmate descends the stairs to this Atlantic Avenue haven in Cobble Hill, where exposed sandstone climbs walls painted with desert scenes below Hockney-colored skies.
At Hadramout, which is named after a southeastern Yemeni province that was once a hotbed of Arabic scholarship and is still known for its coffee-producing valleys, Al Jazeera broadcasts at high volume. Customers – primarily men – yell at each other in Arabic, drowning out the noise of the news from the restaurant’s 12 tables.
In Yemen, “the louder you are, the tougher you are,” and tribal tendencies still play a large role in the way people relate to each other and to the outside world, according to Salem. By the time they’re 12, boys are treated as men and most start carrying knives.
“We’re a peaceful people, and we love our communities,” he said, “But it’s easy to convert us to ideas about fighting. Most people [in Yemen] aren’t well-educated. We are insulated, we don’t communicate with other cultures. It’s a poor country, and people can’t afford things to change their lives.”
In this environment, according to a recent report on Slate.com, Al-Qaida thrives, aided by a crumbling economy, civil war, and a secessionist movement. People in the U.S. think we’re all terrorists, Salem told me, but it’s not true.
In contrast to many of Hadramout’s patrons, Salem’s decision to leave his homeland was more about curiosity than socio-economic turmoil. He has big dreams: to get his MBA, to open a Yemeni coffeehouse on Atlantic Avenue, to see more of the world. In New York, he can explore these possibilities in a way that he can’t in Yemen – while driving a cab, of course.
Meanwhile, he misses his family – all of whom live in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a – and he misses his food. The lamb at Hadramout is the closest thing he can find to the flavor of mom (although he admits that it doesn’t quite measure up to the food from her kitchen).
On Friday, I traveled to Atlantic Avenue to try the Haneeth lamb he’d recommended, along with house-made Hadramout flatbread, a cumin-laden bowl of lamb soup that went overboard on salt, and a ‘Greek’ salad sprinkled with astonishing feta cheese.
Haneeth lamb, butchered halal-style and baked for what must have been hours, practically disintegrated when I separated it from the bone. The texture (rich, tender, fatty) was unbelievable, although they’d seasoned it with more restraint than I was expecting.
A little green chili and cilantro relish brought more dimension to the dish, as did the stewed okra and carrots on the side. If this lamb was merely a shadow of what Salem remembered from home, what would his mother’s taste like?
I sipped a cup of sweet tea with cloves and cinnamon while two men took a break from their Al Jazeera-inspired shouts and dug into a sizzling crock of Selta (a.k.a Salta), a traditional Yemeni mixture of ground beef, eggs, okra and fenugreek.
Selta is, I later learned, the national dish of Yemen and another Hadramout specialty – a stew that’s worth a second visit to a restaurant that comforts homesick Yemenis like Salem – and invites outsiders like me to taste some of a country about which most of us know too little.
172 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Open 24 hours, 7 days (Delivery until 3am)
Appetizers: $5.95-9.95; Mains: $7.95-16.95
Credit cards accepted