The day the New York Times published an article about kubaneh — traditional Jewish-Yemenite Shabbat bread — I was flooded with texts from friends who were so eager to share it with me. But in the early hours of the morning, I had already read the article by Tejal Rao in the “Eat” section of the paper titled “Before Croissant there was kubaneh, a Jewish Yemenite Delight.” Psst, seriously? Okay, it’s just about food history but my mind was still trying to make sense of such an inaccurate article, because the kubaneh feast happens to be an essential component of my childhood memories, and it does not resemble the food described by Mr. Rao — not at all — even though there are a few different variations to this bread. For some of us, depending on which region of Yemen our families had inhabited, this bread is also known as kubana rather than kubaneh.
But kubana is nothing like French croissant; it has a completely different texture and flavor, and the baking method differs too, albeit Meir Adoni, the Moroccan-Israeli chef at Nur had managed to turn a night-long baking process into a half-hour requirement at best.
Adoni was quoted as saying that “. . . the key to its texture hadn’t changed: the hand-shaping process of the yeasted buns, and a nice long proof.” What buns? Traditionally, once the dough is ready for the pan, one splits it into about 4-5 blobs but this does not result in “pull-apart” rolls or croissants, because Kubana is nothing other than rustic bread.
To be fair, I can understand how both writer and chef would think that kubana is similar to croissant, because so many Israelis, including modern-day Yemenites, believe so too. But proper investigation into this recipe and its origins would have easily prevented this oversight and exposed a different food completely, and enlightened readers rather than continued to promote a recipe blunder. Even the Yemenite Facebook pages that I belong to continuously post photos of this croissant-like invention, and YouTube tutorials about kubana have left me scratching my head. What happened to that beautiful, brown, spongy kubana bread we were served every Saturday morning, not only at my grandmother’s home but pretty much in every other Yemenite home we visited? And it made no difference whether those Yemenites had hailed from Sanaa or Northern Yemen etc., their kubana may have varied in color but it was the same texture everywhere.
When my French friend Solange said to me, with such pride, that Yemenite Jews have something in common with the French—namely, the likeness of kubana to the French croissant—I realized it was time to go public and attempt to resurrect the real recipe, the true tradition. I owe it to my grandparents.
I fear that the recipe for kubana is just another item to add to a long list of traditions that had slowly changed or disappeared once Yemenites immigrated to Palestine. Once they left Yemen, there was no choice but to assimilate and adapt to their new environment, which meant new cooking methods, the incorporation of new types of produce and ingredients, and ovens that eventually replaced tabuns. This process is sometimes to blame for robbing immigrants of their identity, and it’s a heated topic that raises many different points of view, but it’s also inevitable and explains why the original kubana recipe had suffered as a direct result of so much modification, a reality that is felt in so many other aspects of Yemenite culture. It’s a shame that one cannot even find Yemenite women who teach proper Yemenite-style weaving and embroidery; however, the Israeli clothing brand Maskit, which was launched by Ruth Dayan in the 1950s had tried to revive Yemenite-inspired clothing by hiring immigrants to infuse their brand with Yemenite motifs, but since then what we have is a slow demise of these ancient, Yemenite designs. It’s such a pity, especially when you learn of the Yemenites’ specific mark in these areas of work, and skills that were passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.
Although Jews were a marginalized community in Yemen, culturally and economically they still had an impact on their Islamic neighbors who grew dependent on their contributions. Within the Islamic hierarchical social order there was a permanent place for Jews, this was the dhimma system, and together with strictly followed regulations prescribed by the Pact of Umar, Jews had a number of freedoms in Yemen that allowed a degree of cooperation between Muslims and Jews.
In the marketplace, you’d find that Jews had a prominent stake in the textile industry and coffee export, but the majority of them were craftsmen and artisans; they dominated the field since Muslims had frowned upon craftsmanship. Jews worked as blacksmiths, silversmiths, workers of precious metals, ceramicists, minters of money, tanners, spinners, painters, stone masons, shoe makers, stone hewers, manufacturers of gun-powder, and jewelers. Women were very skilled weavers and embroiderers. They thrived in these occupations until the imam decreed higher taxes and nationalized many industries, but this was only a precursor to more oppressive edicts. By the 1940s the Jews’ economic position had dramatically declined. A few decades after the Turks had reconquered Yemen, they tried to restrict the Jews’ dominance in those areas of work by opening a central school for the teaching of these crafts for Muslims only.
When Yemenite Jews started to immigrate to Palestine (first Aliya 1881-1882), their skills and talents were completely dismissed—they were expected to farm instead, and women were hired as domestic workers. I can’t help but think how much Israel would have benefited had the leading organizations at that time cultivated the Yemenites’ aptitude for these occupations instead of viewing them as the “natural workers of the land.”
Yemenites used to enjoy many different types of bread-like foods and kubana is one of five staples that survived their transition from Yemen to Israel, the others are: lachuch, salufa, jichnun and malawach. However, this bread is such an important item in the Yemenite culinary tradition that every single Yemenite knows that on Saturday mornings, one has not adhered to the proper practice of Shabbat if they have not eaten kubana. Although the flavor and color of kubana varied in different villages across Yemen, depending on whether one added more sugar, or honey, or spice, or even sheep’s tail—still, the basic recipe and baking technique remained the same.
At my grandparents’ place in Shaaraim, an old Yemenite neighborhood in Rehovot, the delicate aroma of kubana would saturate the entire neighborhood, and when my family and I would arrive on a Saturday morning to join my grandparents for breakfast, it was this very smell that steered us inside. We usually parked our car quite a distance away from the house because their street was blocked to traffic by a steel barrier. It was a long-standing tradition that started decades earlier by my great-grandfather Chaim who was the community leader of that particular Yemenite enclave, not without my great-grandmother Saida’s involvement of course.
We would head towards my grandparents’ veranda where a large table was set, a white tablecloth draped over with nothing more than a sparkling silver tray in the middle, and a soup bowl and spoon for each of the diners. Eating these traditional foods under the grapevine always felt as though we were temporarily removed in time and place to a scene reminiscent of the Bible; the grapevines interweaved to create a natural shelter from the sun or rain. My Anglo-Saxon father looked completely out of place, so much taller than the average Yemenite who looked diminutive in size; the religious ones had long, curly simonim (sidelocks), and long goatee-like beards. The Yemenites that I recall from my youth were people who possessed a lot of rhythm, and their walk was no different to their singing, full of energy and cadence. They spoke with a prominent Yemenite intonation that was simultaneously musical and amusing.
Just before serving the kubana, my grandmother would distribute chicken soup prepared with hawaidge spice. A cumin and turmeric blend infused the soup with a very rich, yellow color, and a fragrant zing to the tongue. A blob of light-green hilbeh was carefully placed in the middle of the soup bowl; hilbeh was made from a blend of fenugreek seeds and coriander leaves that added a spicy bite. The hilbeh had the consistency of a finely ground relish, and an extra lemony flavor unlike the other, more familiar, traditional Yemenite spicy condiment, zchug. My grandmother would already begin preparations for our Shabbat meal on Thursday mornings—there were no shortcuts or store-bought food, and every single dish involved masterful planning and labor-intensive preparation. The hilbeh alone required repetitive stirring until the right consistency was formed, and my grandmother would grasp a knife or mortar and pestle with the same mastery and ease an artist would handle a paintbrush. Her food was art, a pure expression of genius that roused our taste buds and set the tone for our entire Shabbat experience.*
The minute my grandmother approached the table with the kubana, all chatter would stop; the look on my grandfather’s face said it all, for this was the pièce de résistance–the king of all dishes that required the utmost reverence as it was set in the middle of the table. She would use two towels to pry open the lid, which was a task that only my grandmother would undertake as the steam escaping the pan needed an expert’s maneuvering in order to prevent burning. I remember looking at my grandmother’s hands and forearms—there was nothing delicate about them—they looked prematurely old from years of cooking traditional Yemenite foods that required a more “primitive” cooking method that exposed her to fire. The scars on her forearm symbolized her devotion to us, and a particular need to always appease our bellies.
Once the lid was off, our necks would automatically stretch out for a proper view of the kubana, just to check that it was indeed dark, but my grandfather would not budge as he waited for the ultimate reveal: the flipping of the kubana onto the silver tray. My grandmother Judith would direct her eyes to my grandfather Zchariah, and he would nod—giving her his seal of approval. A twinkle in her eye was our telltale sign of how those two had always respected and loved each other. This little performance never got old, but I didn’t realize its significance until years later when a weekly ritual had turned into a memory of tastes that have disappeared forever–nobody makes a kubana as good as savta’s.
The eating etiquette was Middle Eastern; everyone tore off a piece of kubana to dip into the chicken soup, then straight to the mouth. The surge of flavors was indescribable, the aroma tantalizing, and the result of overnight baking was a soft, sponge-like textured bread in the center, a velvety finish on top, and a crunchy, crispy bottom. The crispy bit was the coveted part of the bread, the part that we were quick to tear off first; the part we’d fight to grab, and in many respects resembling a melee at a high school cafeteria. It was so special in flavor and texture that it had gained a special name—ka-eh. My grandfather took pride in my grandmother’s ability to always produce the darkest kubana, and thus the most flavorful.
In addition to the kubana and soup, my grandmother served eggs that were cooked all night long in her hamin (cholent) dish. The process of cooking the eggs for hours resulted in their brown color, which bathed them in a smoky, almost meat-like flavor. They tasted great when combined with kubana bread. We’d spend the rest of the day digesting food and visiting relatives who lived in close proximity to each other or by entertaining them on my grandparents’ veranda.
They always discussed politics, which often turned into impassioned arguments, and the pitch and timbre of their voices blended with the rest of the Sabbath hum. They spent a few hours engaged in study, and my grandfather would refer to a Talmud book in order to discuss a legal issue that someone had introduced. Through this form of intellectual activity they were able to broach their queries with scrutiny and analysis, similar to the way Jews had convened hundreds of years earlier when trying to explain the Bible or understand the order of their lives. They could only be disrupted when it was time to pray or eat. My grandfather was a religious man; he was intelligent, and had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved to reminisce about the British Mandate period, but especially about his youth in Yemen. He had a keen ability to remember details from a very young age, and I can assure you that if my grandmother would have altered a dish that he was accustomed to eating in Yemen, he would let her know about it. As such, we were privy to the most authentic recipes and a fixed menu that generations of Yemenite Jews before us had enjoyed.
Those Jews had yearned for the day they would finally return to Eretz Hakodesh, and we were the new generation of Yemenites eager to hear about those bygone days. The traditional Yemenite foods that we were accustomed to eating at my grandparents’ home transmitted a sense of belonging, and helped define and reinforce our identity as proud descendants of Yemenite Jews in a mosaic of differing ethnic groups that defined Israel.
In Yemen, olive and sesame oils as well as samneh—a purified butter—were used for cooking. For the purpose of baking kubana, they would use both samneh and olive oil. They used flour made out of dura or corn for an everyday kubana, the type they would bake to celebrate a birth, but for the Sabbath or a holiday they used wheat flour. My grandmother Judith would place the kubana in her special slow-cooking oven on Shabbat eve, and the next morning by the time her grandchildren crowded the table outside it had baked into a brown, moist, crispy and perfect rustic bread.
I think it was about ten years ago when I first realized what happened to my beloved kubana. I was visiting my grandmother in Shaariam, and as soon as I set foot in her home, after an exceptionally long journey from Las Vegas, including delays at LAX, I gave her a hug and a kiss and dashed out the door in search of a kubana. Beforehand, I didn’t have to bother to do so because there would be a kubana waiting for me on the kitchen table, but granny had aged dramatically and her splendid cooking relegated to memory alone. I found a little bakery just down the street from granny’s home. The line was long, but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on kubana, even though it wasn’t my grandmother’s. Food tastes so different in Israel, so much better, even when you follow the same recipe to a T. After standing in line for about ten minutes, and enjoying the buzz of ebullient chatter—the type of thing I missed in the States—one of the bakers announced they only had 10 kubaniot left for sale. Kubaniot? That didn’t sound right. But there was no way that I was returning to my grandmother’s empty handed, so of course I asked for kubaniot. They looked like mini cinnamon buns placed in an aluminum bread pan. They didn’t even smell like kubana. I was so disappointed, but it didn’t even occur to me that I was about to eat croissant. I wasn’t about to embarrass the bakers or anger the people in line, but it frustrated me that this is what they presented to the public as kubana, and they continue to do so.
When I brought it back to granny’s place, she looked at it suspiciously and said: “Mah zeh? (What’s this?)” When I explained that this was what the Yemenites down the street were selling as kubana, she giggled like a little girl. “Be-e-met? (really?)” I nodded, and her response was “she-yit-bay-shu la-hem, ma, hem lo yod-im ma zot kubana? (They should be ashamed of themselves, what, they don’t know what kubana is?)”
I guess not, and neither do a lot of people I’d say.
For the purpose of writing this piece, I contacted many relatives in order to hear about their kubana memories as well as learn their recipes. Strangely, almost every one of them admitted to never producing the same kubana as their mother’s because they never bothered to prepare it while their parents were alive. The older generation of Yemenite women took such pride in preparing the family meal that they did a disservice to all by not including anyone else in the process.
It’s so sad to write about this in the past tense but those days are no more, even when we prepare kubana—it’s just not the same experience—there’s no anticipation and no magic without my grandparents’ involvement. I think there are two factors to consider when discussing kubana, and the multitude of recipes that have failed to capture the original taste and texture: the new generation of Yemenite women, born in Israel, were not relegated to kitchen duty any longer—certainly not in the same way it was expected of them back in Yemen. In Israel, they had no choice but to work outside the home, and it’s therefore natural to assume that less time and less exposure to specific cooking methods and recipes would eventually alienate them from their very own traditions. It’s the reason that they have passed on a watered-down version of the recipe to their children who in turn believe that they know what a real kubana is all about. Also, not one Yemenite woman that I have known over the years, specifically from my grandmother’s generation, had any concept of exact measurements. If you’ve ever listened to a Yemenite explaining a recipe, you’ll see how accurate this is. All of this reasoning stands in complete contrast to the way they were raised in Yemen, when parents would pass down their knowledge to their children. I’m guessing that this too has something to do with assimilation, and the younger generations’ need to distinguish themselves from their parents and blend with everyone else.
But for those of us who desire to keep our Yemenite culture alive, why have we not taken the time to experiment and work out the proper measurements for once and for all? I can only speak for myself when I say that kubana is tied in with so many emotions, and it’s a symbol that helps identify me, I believe. The weekly kubana ritual at granny’s denotes such wonderful years, but it involved both grandparents, something that could never happen again. Perhaps subconsciously I’m afraid of desecrating that memory, I’m reluctant to tamper with it, because it’s perfect just the way it is.
I phoned my savta today to ask for her recipe, and of course there was no mention of quantities, and when I insisted she said: about half a kilo of flour, a bit of yeast, not too much sugar, some salt and enough water so the dough is soft, a little oil or margarine, and don’t forget to wet your hands when kneading the dough she repeated. When I reminded her that she would first dissolve the yeast in water and sugar with a bit of flour, the phone fell silent and as if jolting her memory by the mere mention of this, she said: “Nu, betach (of course) mat-chi-lim im chamira! (you start with chamira).” She said this as if it were a given. To date, I’ve tried her “recipe” multiple times and I have failed to duplicate the same exact kubana, but it’s close and it’s definitely not like those unfamiliar croissant-like kubaniot. I contacted my Yemenite relative Ilana who’s in her 60s, but she admitted that she has never made kubana herself because she would take her family to grandma’s for Shabbat breakfast instead. Then I contacted cousins Michal and Meirav in order to review exact measurements, something that I have now discovered also evades younger Yemenites, and I am happy to say that after a few back and forth texts and conversations, I can finally share a more authentic recipe, albeit I have still not perfected mine and I fear that it’s also a case of a variation in the quality of the ingredients.
You will need a special kubana pan, and the sizing does not adhere to traditional western measurements. My cousins said they always use a medium-sized pan–I assumed they meant a 5qt. kubana pan, which is what I own. When I asked whether the cups were traditional western measuring cups, they said they were standard disposable coffee cups.
Ingredients for kubana:
About 5 cups flour
¾ tbsp. dry yeast
3-4 tbsp. sugar
1 flat tsp. table salt
2 ½ cups lukewarm water
4 tbsp. melted margarine
10 vine-ripened tomatoes
A pinch of salt
In a medium bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, some of the water and about five tbsp. flour, mix and let it rest for 10 minutes. In a large bowl, add the rest of the dry ingredients and slowly add the rest of the water and chamira—the yeast mixture. No need to knead the dough at this stage, but cover it and let it rest for fifteen minutes. Second round, knead the dough, cover, and let it rest for half an hour. Third round, drizzle 3 tbsp. margarine inside the pan and rub it evenly on all sides. Knead the dough, divide into four pieces and place them side by side inside the pan. Pour the remaining margarine on top of the kubana pan. Let it rest in the pan until it rises, filling up ¾ of the pan. Preheat oven to 215°F and place kubana with secure lid on top on lower rack, and bake for about 12 hours.
When ready to serve the kubana, grate tomatoes and add zchug with a pinch of salt, mix and serve in small individual bowls together with a piece of kubana.
*Parts of my descriptions are borrowed directly from my novel The Diary of a Wrinkle, where I have expounded on my childhood foods extensively.