Yemenite Soup

by Tori Avey January 3, 2017


img_1254Nobody knows exactly how a group of several thousand Jews settled in Yemen. Oral Yemenite tradition suggests that a group of Jews left Jerusalem after hearing Jeremiah predict the destruction of the first Temple. Archaeological evidence shows that Jews have lived in Yemen since at least the 3rd century CE. Though it’s not exactly clear how or when they arrived in Yemen, the history of Yemenite Jews distinguishes them from all other Jewish populations. Because of their remote location and relative isolation, Yemenite Jewish tradition has remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries. They preserved many ancient Jewish religious customs that might otherwise have been lost to the passage of time. In fact, some researchers believe that the Yemenite Hebrew dialect is more closely related to Biblical Hebrew than any other dialect. In the late 1800s, the first in a series of mass migrations to Israel began. Facing increased persecution from Muslim communities in Yemen, most Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel before 1962.

The Yemenite Jews are known for their complex spices and rich, flavorful dishes. I was introduced to Yemenite cuisine for the first time at a Los Angeles restaurant called Shula and Esther, owned by two Yemenite women. Their soup was my favorite; it was spicy, rich and delicious. Some days they featured lamb or beef Yemenite soup and some days chicken. Since then I’ve tasted many versions of Yemenite soup, including several in Israel where the majority of Yemenite Jews now live. When Shula and Esther closed (a tragic day for us), I had to figure out how to make the soup on my own. I learned the basic method and ingredients from my friend whose mother has Yemenite ancestry. Over time I’ve looked at various recipes and adjusted the seasonings until I honed in on the distinct flavor that we remember from Shula and Esther.

Yemenite soup is traditionally served as the entree of the Shabbat meal on Friday evening. The Jews of Yemen typically used chicken in their soup because meat was expensive and difficult to come by. The broth of this soup is spiced with hawayej, a Yemenite spice blend that can be purchased at most Jewish markets.

Every Yemenite family has a different recipe for this soup, but the basics remain the same – a meat or chicken broth, marrow bones, onions, potatoes and hawayej. This soup is generally served with two Yemenite condiments, hilbeh and schug. Hilbeh is a gelatinous sauce made with fenugreek seeds; it takes 2-3 days to make and the process is quite involved. Schug is a sort of Yemenite salsa made from peppers, garlic, and spices. A recipe for schug can be found on my blog, as well as a beef version of this soup. Enjoy!


1 whole 3-4 lb. chicken cut into pieces

4-5 chicken drumsticks

2 beef marrow bones

2 tsp turmeric

3 garlic cloves

1 bunch of cilantro – cleaned, rinsed, and tied in a bundle, plus more cilantro to garnish soup

1 large onion, rinsed and halved, skin on

2 tsp hawayej spice blend

1 ¼ lb. russet or Yukon gold potatoes (about 4 medium russets), peeled and cut into large 2-inch chunks

Additional vegetables, if desired – you can add zucchini, yellow squash, or carrots if you wish (it is more traditional without the vegetables)

Salt and pepper

You will also need:
You will also need: 6-8 quart stock
pot, kitchen twine

Yield: About 8 servings         

Total Time: 3 hours 30 minutes         

Kosher Key: Meat


Place chicken pieces and marrow bones on the bottom of a 6-8 quart stock pot. Add 12 cups of water to the pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes, skimming the foam that rises to the top.

Stir 2 tsp turmeric, ½ tbsp salt, ¼ tsp black pepper and garlic cloves into the pot. Add the cilantro bundle and onion, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer. Let the soup cook for 90 minutes, keeping an eye periodically to make sure the simmer is low and bubbling but not boiling too rapidly. Stir gently a few times during cooking.

After 90 minutes, use a pair of tongs to pull out the onion, the cilantro bundle and the two chicken breasts on the bone. Place the chicken breasts on a cutting board. Pull the meat from the bones and shred it. Discard the bones and skin.

Add the chicken breast meat back to the soup pot. Stir 2 tsp hawayej spice blend into the broth along with additional salt and black pepper to taste. I usually add about 1 tsp more of salt, it really makes the spices pop. Add the potato chunks to the broth. At this point, you can also add other vegetables if you wish, including small slices of carrot, celery, zucchini, etc. Bring back to a low simmer and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes more, or until the largest potato chunks are tender (and the other veggies, if you decide to add them).

Scrape the marrow out of the bones and add it to the broth, if desired, or serve the marrow bones with soup to anybody who enjoys them. Serve each bowl with a few potato chunks, a chicken leg, and some of the shredded chicken meat. I usually remove the skin and cartilage from the chicken pieces prior to serving for a nicer presentation. Garnish each bowl with fresh chopped cilantro. This soup is usually served with schug alongside; it can be stirred into the broth to add more spicy flavor.


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