By day, Londoner Fatma Al-Baiti is employed as a civil servant in Westminster. Outside of working hours, she takes on a very different role. A food blogger and entrepreneur, Al-Baiti recently founded Meet Me at Fatma’s, a pop-up borne out of a love for food and her desire to introduce others to Yemeni culture.
“This is how I contribute to Yemen. I just want to tell people about the cuisine because all they hear about is the negative things, like the war, so that’s why I’m so attached to the idea of the pop-up,” Al-Baiti tells me. “It’s my baby!”
After moving to London in 2014 to study for her Masters degree at Goldsmiths, Al-Baiti is now unable to return to Yemen due to the ongoing war that broke out in 2015. Tragically, Yemen’s war has been branded “The Forgotten War” by organisations such as Amnesty International, in reference to how the media has often ignored the raging conflict and its civilian suffering.
“When I tell people I’m from Yemen, I get two main reactions from people,” Al-Baiti says. “The first is people who have no idea about the country, and then you have people who are aware of the war and what’s going on there but nothing else.”
In an attempt to change these simplistic and negative perceptions of her country, Al-Baiti tries to turn conversation towards food, and to the wonders of Yemeni cuisine.
“I feel like there’s something missing in the sense that people from the outside either know nothing about the country or they only focus on the negatives, so food is a way to change this perception.”
Meet Me at Fatma’s is a way to take this conversation further. Al-Baiti held her first event in November, a two-course brunch featuring dishes she grew up sharing with family and friends. I come along to her second event, held at Lost Boys Pizza in North London on a chilly Sunday morning in January. Stepping in from the cold, I’m greeted by the sounds of Middle Eastern oud and friendly chatter. Traditional Yemeni music plays throughout the morning, as well as more modern titles from Abu Bakr Salem and Faisal Alawi.
I’m led from the door to my table, the seating plan for which has been carefully curated by Al-Baiti. I find out later that she intentionally arranges the tables to ensure that each guest gets the opportunity to mix with new faces.
“My favourite memory of Yemeni food is sitting with family and sharing a meal together, so I wanted to replicate that amongst curious Londoners.”
First to arrive on my table, I shuffle into the corner and take a look around. Brightly patterned shawls and the traditional Yemeni attire for women known as the sitara are used as tablecloths. Placed atop them is our first course, two bowls of sahawiq, referred to as “chutney” on the menu. Surprisingly, they are wonderfully fresh rather than preserved as you might expect of a more traditional pickle. The base ingredients for both consist of coriander, garlic, and cumin, but one has a tomato base while the other is more herb-heavy, lending it a fresh green look.
I get to know my fellow diners over a bowl of vegetable crisps and finely sliced vegetables, which we dip into our sahawiq chutney. I’m on a table with a married couple in their early thirties, who moved to London from Romania a few years ago to work in the banking sector.
I have to say, I’m not a total stranger to Yemeni cuisine, having tried it a couple of times while I was living in the Middle East, and my Iranian heritage has also accustomed my palate to the aromas and flavours of food from the region, but Al-Baiti’s menu is far from anything I have tried before.
She tells me that Yemeni cuisine is a fusion between Indian, Turkish, and East African influences, coming together through a rich history of migration and trade.
“It shares the base of rice and bread with its neighbouring countries in the Gulf and beyond, but also has its own quirks,” she explains. “Unfortunately, despite the depth of flavours and inviting aromas, it is almost unheard of.”
Her statement rings largely true among the guests here today—it is the first time most people are trying Yemeni food, curious to the fact it seems to be largely difficult to get hold of. I’m told that there is only one Yemeni restaurant in the city and even here, you won’t find anything like Al-Baiti’s home flavours and creative menu.
On the other end of the spectrum, sat at the table next to me is Tasneem, a physiotherapist from Grimsby who has travelled four hours to be here for the 10 AM sitting on a Sunday morning.
“We don’t get a lot of events like this from Yemen, I have a lot of friends who are not Yemeni and they have no idea about the culture or the food, anything at all,” she tells me.
Our main course arrives: ful served in a steaming hot stone bowl as is traditional in the North of Yemen. Ful is a common dish served throughout the Arab world, made with fava beans spiced with cumin and garlic. Accompanying it is what Al-Baiti has branded a “Yemeni dough-not.” Traditionally known as khameer, it is a sweet dough with hint of cardamom. We dip the khameer into our shared bowl of ful, delighted with how well the subtle sweetness of the dough goes with the spiced fava beans.
“Ful and khameer are very traditional individually but not mixed together, khameer is usually dunked in tea in the region I’m from [Hadramaut] and ful is typically paired with regular savoury bread,” Al-Baiti explains. “It’s my take on two very traditional dishes in a non-traditional way.”
The experience of eating together and sharing from the same bowl is a novelty for many of the guests. Our table's conversations centre on food in London, the dreaded January blues, and inevitably, the dark cloud of Brexit looming over the city. I’m entering into a slight food coma (too much khameer) and it dawns on me how poignant this dining experience might be in our current political climate. Sharing food with strangers you would otherwise never meet feels like an antidote to the misunderstanding and division gripping the country.
Al-Baiti is conscious of this too.
“I’m a strong believer that food can bring people together which is why I ensured that food being served is also shared, eating from the same bowl can encourage conversation, at the end of the day we are one big world, influencing each other.”