From simple dishes to multicultural cuisine

Omar Hamdani, owner of Chez Hamdani – one of Djibouti’s oldest restaurants – serves Yemeni split fish seasoned and seared in a traditional clay oven with an open flame. AFP

It’s lunchtime in the Djiboutian capital and “Chez Hamdani” is buzzing. Local celebrities, visiting diaspora and nomadic herders: everyone flock to this decades-old establishment to sample Yemeni fish, the only dish on the menu.

Cut in half, coated with a red pepper paste and then baked in a traditional oven: its spicy flavor evokes the complex and multicultural history of this small coastal nation nestled between Africa and Arabia.

“It is a recipe imported from Yemen that we have adopted and which is part of our eating habits,” said Abubakar Moussa, a former television presenter, while waiting for his order to be prepared.

“All Djiboutians, whether young or old, consume it,” adds the 63-year-old man, a regular at the establishment.

“Chili is the most important”

The strong Djiboutian heat – which ceiling fans try in vain to dispel – hardly dampens the enthusiasm of Moussa or his visiting Belgian grandchildren.

“Every time I come to Djibouti, he takes me here and I’m so happy,” says Sohane, 16, who discovered the dish with his grandfather.

“When we do it at home in Brussels, it doesn’t taste the same, but it reminds me of Djibouti, it’s a little memory.”

Several times a day, fishermen deliver sea bream, red mullet and other offerings to the many Yemeni fish restaurants or “moukbasa” that dot the port city, separated from Yemen by the Gulf of Aden.

Then it’s time for the chefs to get down to business.

The fish is cut lengthwise and salted, before applying a paste made from sweet red peppers – imported from Ethiopia – using a brush.

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Oumalkheir Ali Mohamed, 85, a long-time customer and family friend of the successive owners of one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Chez Hamdani. AFP

“The most important is the chili”, explains one of the cooks, pearled with sweat, securing the fish to a long metal rod, before plunging it into a traditional terracotta oven, which looks like a tandoor. Indian.

The finished dish – recovered 15 minutes later – owes both its gentle heat and its intense red color to the peppers.

Throughout Djibouti city, Yemeni fish is eaten with pancakes and “fata,” a paste made from bananas or dates, and typically sold for around 1,000 Djiboutian francs ($ 5.60).

Restaurateur Omar Hamdani credits his grandfather’s “world-famous” recipe for the enduring popularity of his establishment, nearly a century after emigrating from Yemen to Djibouti.

Not much has changed at “Chez Hamdani” since then, other than adding a second floor.

Its walls are still adorned with earthenware and traditional moldings. A small dining room at the back is reserved for women who wish to dine alone. And the recipe remains the same.

“My grandfather brought him back from Yemen, he opened this restaurant, then my father took over from him, and now it’s my turn to take the lead,” said the bearded entrepreneur, in his late thirties.

Taste of the house

Yemenis are the third largest ethnic community in Djibouti, behind the Issa and Afar.

Migration and trade between the two countries have existed for millennia.

But in recent years, their shared history has taken a tragic turn, with thousands of Yemenis crossing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to seek refuge in Djibouti and escape the war that has ravaged their country since 2014.

After fleeing Sanaa for Djibouti, the former civil servant Amin Maqtal created a moukbasa called “Le Kaaboul” with two other immigrants, reflecting their desire to start afresh and taste at home.

“As long as I am in this restaurant, I eat here, I am surrounded by my compatriots, I feel good. Because everything I had in Yemen, I have it here, ”the soft-spoken 45-year-old said.

He is both moved and amused by the local craze for Yemeni fish, which is just one of dozens of delicacies from his home country.

In the end, “demand is stronger in Djibouti than in Yemen,” he said with a smile.

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