Of all the dips and sauces in the Middle East, this is one that’s a hidden gem. Many mezze that most people know about, like hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, are from Lebanese and Syrian traditions. Lesser known is the cuisine of Yemen, which has a very distinct identity due to its history and location.
In the Quran Bilqis or Balqees, the Queen of Sheba, is said to have ruled the kingdom of Marib in Yemen about 1,000BC and that the land was blessed with a variety of spices which the queen bestowed as gifts to other kings.
As an important trade route, there are many influences ranging from India and Iran to the Mediterranean, but the food is also rich in the ingredients that Yemen is still famous for – honey and coffee.
Stews simmered in clay pots in the ground, slow roasted meats, fragrant rice and heat from spices are at the heart of Yemeni cuisine. Each family has its own special mix of spices called hawaayij which they grind and blend themselves.
Yemenis tuck into hearty breakfasts and have their main meal at lunchtimes.
Zhoug is a sauce that makes use of fresh ingredients and is drizzled over many things from bread to grilled vegetables. You could think of it as having similarities to a spicy pesto but the flavours are more intense so it’s used more sparingly. The bright, fresh green colour also livens up the look of the food (many Yemeni dishes are brown) as well as the taste buds.
It’s simple to make in a food processor for a fine and smooth sauce. Traditionally it would have been chopped by hand or ground in a pestle and mortar so the texture is coarser. Whichever method you make is personal preference.
There are slight variations on the recipe from family to family with some incorporating a drizzle of honey. This one is adapted from our founder Riath’s Mum. No surprise that she stirs in a good dollop of raw honey when making her version.
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1.2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2 cardamom pods (green)
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 or 2 cloves of garlic
- 3 fresh green chillies (or to taste)
- a small bunch of coriander (cilantro)*
- ½ teaspoon raw Yemeni honey
- Extra virgin olive oil (about 100-200 ml)
- Lightly toast the dry spices in a non-stick saucepan until the coriander seeds start to colour. Add the salt and pound in a pestle and mortar until fine (or use a spice blender).
- Put the spice mix, garlic, chillies, coriander and honey into a food processor or blender. You can use the stalks of the fresh herbs in as well as the leaves. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until the ingredients are chopped finely and it all turns into a green emulsion. Alternatively, if using a mortar and pestle for the whole process, chop the garlic, chillies and coriander roughly, add to the spices and continue pounding, drizzle in the olive oil a little at a time then stir in the honey.
- Store in a jar with a layer of olive oil on top in the fridge.
*You can also use 2 parts fresh coriander to 1 part fresh parsley.