In the United Arab Emirates, fresh hot sauce can be hard to find. Unless, of course, you’re headed to Happy Yemen restaurant in Abu Dhabi, which proudly serves mouth-watering, Arabian-style spicy salsa.
Not that finding Happy Yemen itself is easy (see map below).
Happy Yemen is no-nonsense and utilitarian, and at first glance it seems like a take-away joint. But squeeze past the refrigerator and the cash register, and the space opens into two small rooms, with additional family-style floor seating up a narrow flight of stairs.
The tables on the ground floor tend to be occupied mostly by men dining alone, who eat quickly and don’t linger long after the food disappears. Service is quick but friendly. There are sinks at the edge of the dining area for hand-washing, a little mint plant by the tea station, and boxes of tissues on the tables – Happy Yemen provides what’s needed, where it’s needed, without pretension.
The menu is only a single-sided laminated sheet of paper. Though the choices are somewhat limited, the Arabian fare that is on offer at Happy Yemen is just plain good.
Overall, the food is delicious and quite inexpensive. It’s not 5 stars, but it also doesn’t try to be. Each main dish comes with the same array of extras: a meat-broth soup, a chicken-potato stew, and a plate of raw sliced cucumbers, onions, and salad greens. There’s also a choice of either seasoned rice or sheets of chewy Yemeni flat bread, freshly-baked on site. The chicken mandi (a tandoor-fired half-chicken with red crispy skin) and the grilled meat (falling-off-the-bone lamb pieces) are both seasoned simply and served over rice on huge metal trays.
If asked for hot sauce or spice, the server will provide a small bowl of a fresh red sauce made from chilies ground with pureed tomatoes. It’s got a bit of kick, but the tomato base makes the overall effect pretty mild. When pressed for something hotter, the servers will bring whole green chilies.
But if you’re looking for something even spicier, ask for restaurant manager Hussein Mohamed. He will pause for a moment, disappear into the kitchen, and return a few minutes later with a specially-made dark green chili paste. It’s called zhug (or sahawek) – a Yemeni style hot salsa made of blended cilantro, mint leaves, green chilies and a bit of tomato.
Zhug provides a slow burn that is only slightly softened by the cool effect of the mint leaves. It is perhaps the most pleasant agony possible.
“We give people the red sauce when they ask for spicy,” says Mohamed. “That’s usually enough for most of them.”
They don’t keep zhug prepared in the kitchen. But Mohamed will gladly have a batch whipped up for someone who asks for it.
So be sure to ask for zhug, because it is definitely is worth the burn in every bite.
Happy Yemen: see the menu
Address: Airport Road (2nd St.), near SW corner of Al Jazeera Sports Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Telephone: +971 2 445 2412