It is lunchtime in Djibouti’s capital and Chez Hamdani is buzzing. Local celebrities, visiting diaspora and nomadic herders: Everyone flocks to this decades-old establishment for a taste of Yemeni fish, the only dish on the menu.
Split in two, coated with a red pepper paste and then baked in a traditional oven: Its spicy flavor evokes the complex, multicultural history of the tiny coastal nation nestled between Africa and Arabia.
“It’s a recipe imported from Yemen that we have adopted and which is part of our eating habits,” former TV anchor Abubakar Moussa said as he waited for his order to be prepared.
“All Djiboutians, whether they are young or old, consume it,” said the 63-year-old, a regular at the establishment.
The heavy Djibouti heat — which the ceiling fans vainly tried to dispel — did little to dampen the enthusiasm of Moussa or his visiting Belgian grandchildren.
“Every time I come to Djibouti, he takes me here, and I’m so happy,” said Sohane, 16, who discovered the dish with her grandfather. “When we make 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, fishers deliver sea bream, mullet and other offerings to the many Yemeni fish restaurants, or moukbasa, dotting the port city, which is separated from Yemen by the Gulf of Aden.
Then, it is time for the chefs to get to work.
The fish is cut lengthwise and salted, before a paste made from mild red peppers — imported from Ethiopia — is applied using a paintbrush.
“The most important thing is the chilli,” said one of the cooks, beaded with sweat, as he secured the fish to a long metal rod, before plunging it into a traditional terracotta oven, which resembles an Indian tandoor.
The finished dish — retrieved 15 minutes later — owes its gentle heat and its intense red color to the peppers.
Across Djibouti City, Yemeni fish is eaten with pancakes and fata, a paste made from bananas or dates, and usually sold for about 1,000 Djiboutian francs (US$5.60).
Restaurateur Omar Hamdani credits his grandfather’s “world-famous” recipe for his establishment’s enduring popularity, nearly a century after he emigrated to Djibouti from Yemen.
Not much has changed at Chez Hamdani since then, but for the addition of a second floor.
The restaurant’s walls are still adorned with earthenware and traditional moldings. A small room in the back is reserved for women who wish to dine alone.
However, the recipe remains the same.
“My grandfather brought it 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, who is in his late 30s.
Yemenis are the third largest ethnic community in Djibouti, behind Issa and Afar.
Migration and trade between the two countries have existed for millennia.
However, their shared history in 2014 took a tragic turn, when thousands of Yemenis began crossing the Bab el-Mandeb strait to seek refuge in Djibouti and escape the war that has since ravaged their country.
After fleeing Sana’a for Djibouti, former Yemeni civil servant Amin Maqtal set up a moukbasa called Le Kaaboul with two other immigrants — a reflection of their desire for a fresh start and their longing for a taste of 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 moved and amused by the local craze for Yemeni fish, which is only one among dozens of delicacies in his home country.
In the end, “demand is stronger in Djibouti than in Yemen,” he said with a smile.
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