Yemenite Wedding Soup

By Danielle Crittenden Frum

On one of my first visits to Israel, I was taken to a very modest restaurant in a Yemenite neighborhood of Tel Aviv. There I was introduced to jachun, a slow-cooked bread traditionally served on Sabbath mornings as it bakes in the oven overnight. I’d soon learn that Yemenite Jews don’t wait for Saturday morning to eat jachun. In their Israeli cafes it is a permanent item on the menu, enjoyed at all hours of the day — the Yemenite answer to a croissant. It’s served with a hard boiled egg, chopped tomato and “zhoug,” a spicy, Cilantro-based condiment used with everything — the Yemenite answer to ketchup.

The jachun was delicious and flaky (if much heavier than a croissant). We moved on to more traditional dishes, including a beefy, stew-like soup, with a side dish of boiled potatoes. This, I was told, was a “Wedding Soup” — or a fancier version of a regular soup, because it included meat and marrow bones. While the broth was thin, it was rich in flavor. Like so much of Middle Eastern cuisine, you could tell little about a dish just from looking at it. You had to taste it to discern the unique medley of spices distinct from region to region and to experience cuts of meat that had been simmered for hours and even days in big iron pots versus our quicker, modern methods of cooking. The Wedding Soup did not disappoint: moist chunks of beef that melted into a puddle of scented broth, which we mopped up with boiled potato.

When looking for a recipe to pair with our feature about the hot, new Israeli band A-WA and its Yemenite connections, I came across the following for Wedding Soup from Claudia Rosen’s superb “Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York.

Yemenite cuisine, Rosen writes, derives from “a frugal diet based on bread — different kinds of bread — and very little meat. Cracked wheat (bulgar), called ‘haris,’ is a staple, eaten hot with clarified butter and honey for breakfast or cooked with meat, bones, tomatoes, onion, and spices for a main meal. The party food of celebration is a meat-and-tomato soup.” This version is flavored with “hawayij — a spice mixture that contains black pepper, caraway seed, turmeric, and cardamom — which every Yemeni family keeps in a jar for constant use.”

While the recipe calls for the soup to be simmered for less than 2 hours, I’d be tempted to make it in a slow cooker and let it burble for a day or longer, then reheat before serving. You can add the potato (and vegetables) towards the end of the cooking, or omit the potato and offer a plate of boiled ones alongside instead. Serve with a simple green salad to appease Western tastes, and you’ll have a perfect, wintery weekend meal.

1 lb slightly fatty beef, cut in 2-inch pieces (Note: I’d recommend chuck)
2 marrow bones
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp ground caraway seed
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1 large potato, cubed
2 medium zucchini, cut in cubes
1 tomato, peeled
2 scallions sliced

Put the meat and marrow bones in a pot with 7-1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and remove the scum. Add salt, pepper, and spices and simmer for one hour, or until the meat is tender. Add the vegetables and cook 1/2 hour more. Extract the bones and discard, but first scrape the marrow out and add it to the soup.