Fahsa, sometimes spelled fahsah, is a nice reminder that good food can come from the places we don’t often hear of. In this case, it’s Yemen.
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Digging up a dish from more commonly discussed Asian cuisines like China, Japan, or India might be more familiar to the palate. However, since there’s enough room in our kitchens to reach out to Yemen, let’s enjoy their dishes too. Besides, it’s quite easy to reach out to Yemeni cuisine. And that’s all thanks to the internet, and perhaps, movies and TV shows for letting food cross borders easily.
Oh, if you haven’t heard of fahsa before, don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re not alone, and trust me—you won’t regret knowing about it; I’m certainly not regretting knowing about it. Well, unless you have an allergy (I don’t, luckily). Since there aren’t many Yemeni restaurants around in America, the best bet is to stick to making this one at home, right there in your kitchen.
Fahsa Yemeni Dish
So far so good! We already know that fahsa is from Yemen, and that it’s a stew. Not just any type of stew, though—it is made with lamb meat. The fahsa Yemeni dish has 3 basic components: the meat along with the broth, spices, and dip made with fenugreek, which is known as hilbah.
In Yemen, the dish is made in restaurants and homes with large cooking pots. An average Yemeni restaurant probably looks like the workshop for a blacksmith, because the “pot” used in restaurants are really huge. That’s not an exaggeration.
Most restaurants actually make use of a vat to make the stew and then serve it onto stoneware or into a clay pot. If you’re planning to make this meal for your family, use a pot large enough to accommodate everyone. Preferably, use a stone or clay pot.
This meal is almost always eaten in a family-style manner. You set the pot down after cooking and everyone sits around to just dig in. Quite simple, right? Even better is when there’s another Yemeni dish available, and of course, tea (Yemeni tea). The family-style manner of eating also helps in creating some really good quality family time. It’s a win-win scenario.
Delicious food and family time, what can beat that?!
And once you get the basics of making fahsa, you can always tweak it a bit. Even in its home country, there are variations, so tweaking is allowed.
The origin of this meal isn’t really known. It’s as though the dish’s origin went into extinction. The dish has, however, been a part of the Yemeni cuisine way longer than you’ve been on earth…more like hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years. It’s a closely related dish to Yemen’s national dish—Saltah.
The origin of fahsa is sometimes linked to that of Saltah. Saltah is said to have a Turkish origin. Fahsa is a lunchtime staple but you can eat it any other time of the day, too. The dish has a rich balance of saltiness and sweetness. Both dishes are family-style foods and can be eaten with bread. The bread serves as a scooping tool. So don’t be surprised if you see someone scooping up the stew with bread. It’s normal.
What’s The Difference Between Fahsa And Saltah?
Some people are of the opinion that both foods are the same and that they’re only variations, and these variations depend upon the region or the preference of the cook. Others do not quite agree.
Both meals are sometimes addressed interchangeably as saltah-fahsa or fahsa-saltah. Since these meals have regional and household variations, asking for a distinction depends on who you ask. For example, some see saltah as the vegetarian dish and fahsa as the one with meat. But in some regions, fahsa is regarded as the vegetarian option, so it kind of gets really confusing.
I see both dishes as variations of Yemen lamb stew, just the same as I see crimson and scarlet as shades of the color red. Get it?
On the topic of one being vegetarian or not, I am of the opinion that both can be vegetarian. Think of fahsa or saltah (or fahsa-saltah, depending how you see it) as a dish that you can make with or without meat. If used, the meat here is primarily lamb, but of course chicken, beef, and fish are routinely used, and then there’s the meat broth, known as Yemeni maraq.
The meat broth is a dish of its own. It can be eaten on its own or also serve as a broth base for fahsa. Fahsa can be made without the meat broth, and water can be used in its stead. Most people add more meat to their fahsa in addition to what is present in the maraq. Generally, saltah contains more vegetables than fahsa, while fahsa contains more meat.
Just think of saltah as a stew made of lamb soup with spices, herbs, vegetables, and a whipped-up, greenish fenugreek-based dip. Consider fahsa a stew made of small pieces of lamb that’s incorporated into a lamb soup with fenugreek-based dip. The saltah will generally hold more ingredients.
How To Make Hilba
To avoid the fahsa recipe being too wordy, I’ve decided to show you how to make the hilba, or dip, first. The hilba is a paste condiment made from the green herb fenugreek with the addition of a few spices.
Ingredients for making hilba:
- 2 tbsp ground fenugreek or fenugreek powder
- 1 teaspoon of garlic, minced
- Salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon of green chilies, chopped finely
- 1 cup of water
- 1 medium-sized tomato, pureed
- Dash of cumin powder (optional)
- Dash of coriander powder (optional)
- 1 tbsp of lemon juice
You can totally skip out on the cumin and coriander powder if you ain’t a fan. The goal is to spice the hilba to your own taste.
- In a small bowl, soak the fenugreek in 1 cup of water for 1 to 2 hours.
- Drain off the excess water to yield a paste-like consistency.
- While soaking the fenugreek, or if you feel the other ingredients aren’t “smooth” enough, blend them all in a food processor.
- Then, mix the blended ingredients into the drained fenugreek and use a whisk to whip it all together. Whisk properly.
- Skip 3 & 4 if you’re using an electric mixer. With an electric mixer, add the ingredients to the drained fenugreek and beat on low. Whip for about 2 minutes.
- Your condiment is ready; set it aside.
The recipe has 3 components, as I earlier mentioned. The meat broth, spices and herbs, and fenugreek dip. The preparation of the meat broth and fenugreek can happen in succession. But, it will be easier and better if you have already prepared hilbah dip and lamb broth. Just scroll up and use the recipe above to make the hilbah. See notes below for any questions you might have in regards to the recipe.
- 1 tbsp cooking oil, like canola oil
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 lb of lamb cubes
- 5 cups of lamb broth or water
- ½ tsp coriander
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp cumin
- 1 green chilli pepper, chopped
- Half a medium-sized onion, finely chopped
- 3 tbsp of hilba, or to taste
- Salt, to taste
- Add the oil in a pressure cooker over medium heat, then sauté the onions, garlic, and chili pepper.
- Once the garlic browns and the onions go translucent, add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, salt, and lamb cubes, which should be washed thoroughly.
- Let the meat cook for about 5 minutes before adding the broth or water, then seal the pressure cooker and leave it for 30 minutes more. Heat should still be on medium.
- Remove from heat when the meat is fully tender (30 minutes or more duration). Release pressure and allow the cooker to cool before opening.
- Use a wooden ladle to break up the meat into smaller pieces. This should be easy if your meat is truly tender.
- Pour the stew into a stoneware pot or clay pot and heat it up until it bubbles.
- Add the already-prepared hilba. Then serve hot with bread.
Instead of using a pressure cooker for 30 minutes, you can cook the meat over a stovetop for about 2 hours or until it is tender. If the stew is too thick, add a little bit of water (just a little). And in place of using lamb broth or Yemeni maraq as a base, you can actually use water.
The downside is that it won’t turn out as flavorful as using lamb broth. The base broth doesn’t necessarily have to be made with lamb. Make and season your meat broth according to how you like it. Or, you could save yourself the stress and just use water, all the while seasoning the fahsa appropriately to make up for this.
Yemeni bread can include kidem or kudem, khobz, and even storebought pita bread if no other option is available. The bread is supposed to serve as a dipping utensil to help you scoop out the lamb stew. Kudem has an outer crust that’s hard. The inside, however, is not hard. Optional ingredients include scrambled eggs, potatoes, vegetables, and even rice. If you so desire, you can garnish the stew with chives and tomato concassè.
Lastly on this, if you do not have the madara—that’s the stoneware pot—you can use a large bowl instead.
Lest I forget, if you happen to be in a Yemeni restaurant, it’s perfectly okay to ask for more broth in your fahsa if the broth runs out. Fahsa, though a lamb-based Yemeni stew, can be made with other types of meat. There are so many add-ins that can go into your homemade fahsa.
It is not just tasty and filling, but it is also enriching to the body, and more so if you add a good helping of fresh vegetables to it. A table of authentic and well prepared Yemeni dishes is really appetizing and satisfying. It’s not just the stew—the bread itself can get you hooked on the dish. Though fahsa isn’t much of a looker, it’s definitely an amazing “taster”. As such, it is worth trying out as soon as possible. Remember, the secret is all in the spices!