How Yemeni food found home on a South Korean resort island
It is mid-March, and things are quiet in Jeju, an island one hour away by plane from South Korea’s capital city of Seoul. The season for the island’s famed tangerines is over, and the cherry blossoms are stiff buds yet to full bloom. A wind working hard to cast winter aside rattles the fronds of palm trees dotted around the island and repels tourists more cautious than my friend and I.
In Jeju City, we take seats at a Yemeni restaurant, the first of its kind on this island. It is the lull between lunch and dinner, but at the table in front of us, three men – a Bangladeshi, an Uzbek, and a Tajik – polish off their meal, leaving only crumpled tissues and Coke cans behind.
They study in Jeju, and are regulars at this restaurant; they tell us that the food has yet to disappoint. They hand Jeju native and restaurant owner Ye Su a bank note to add to the currency from all over the world taped to the main counter.
The restaurant, Wardah, opened in 2018, the year of an extraordinary movement of Yemeni refugees to an island used to hosting foreigners for only temporary respite.
A Korean resort island may seem an unlikely destination for a people seeking refuge from what at that point had been a four-year-long war in Yemen, and for many, it was not their first choice.
Many of these Yemenis had originally sought sanctuary in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority like their home country and one of the few nations on earth offering them visa-free entry, but they were granted only a very temporary stay, and were soon forced to find a new destination. Jeju – a six-hour flight from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur – also offered visa-free entry for Yemenis. Word quickly spread through Facebook and other channels of a potential new refuge, and by August 2018, some 600 Yemenis had arrived in Jeju. Yemenis on the island now number around a thousand, according to official estimates.
While Korean media and some politicians warned of conquest by 'fake refugees', many Jeju residents did what they could to provide sanctuary for the new arrivals, Ye Su tells us. Her friend, Ha Min, owned a traditional Korean dance studio that she opened up as a shelter for the refugees, one of what she said was about a dozen spaces that had been repurposed to put a roof over their heads.
At the shelter, Ye Su and Ha Min befriended the refugees, who affectionately gave Ye Su the Arabic name Issa, and Ha Min the name Wardah. "They asked us, 'Why don’t you open a Yemeni restaurant, a halal restaurant?'," Ye Su tells The New Arab. After a scrupulous search by the two women for a Yemeni chef eventually bore success, Wardah opened its doors to curious locals and tourists alike.
Classic Yemeni fare including fragrant rice-and-meat dishes like kabsa and mandi are on offer here, as are more pan-Arab staples – falafel, hummus, fasooliya. Sourcing halal produce is no mean feat on a Korean island renowned for its rearing of black pig, so Wardah gets its chicken from a mixture of mainland Korea and Brazil, and its lamb from Australasia. The restaurant also caters to a growing vegan clientele, using mushroom as a substitute for meat in plant-based versions of Yemeni classics, Ye Su says.
When Ha Min first met Mohammed, Wardah’s Taiz-born, Sanaa-raised Yemeni chef, she thought he would not be up to scratch. "I thought he was too young," she said. "But I tasted the food he made and it was delicious." The two married in 2019 and broke away from Wardah to establish another Yemeni restaurant, As-Salam, early in 2020, just as Covid began making its presence known on the island. Mohammed "wanted to open a halal restaurant - no beer, no alcohol, a prayer room, and to make another menu," Ha Min said, one that would let him flex his culinary muscles after two decades in the business.
A 20-minute walk away from Wardah, As-Salam is a markedly different space. Wardah’s walls host images of Che Guevara and others, and our visit was scored by an eclectic soundtrack that includes bossa nova and jazz; at As-Salam, a tapestry of Sanaa’s iconic architecture and pictures of the distinctive flora, fauna and faces of Yemen grace the walls. In the time we are at As-Salam, the score is exclusively Yemeni, save for one, understandable blip - 'Ah w Noss', by Nancy Ajram.
We first drop in at As-Salam at lunchtime, to a hectic scene. Tables are full, conversation is loud, and a three-legged dog adopted by the owners darts through the expansive restaurant and out the door, so we return during the mid-afternoon lull.
As-Salam is an unmistakeably Muslim space. As you enter, signs point to prayer rooms and a space for ablution, and a large, framed halal certification sign sits pride of place on the counter.
Ha Min had initially been hesitant to speak to us. Press coverage has garnered not just praise and footfall, but also criticism and even "trauma" in the form of racism and Islamophobia, she says tearfully. At Wardah, Ye Su told us hostility towards refugees in Jeju and across South Korea has grown, spearheaded by some churches.
Visa-free entry to Jeju for Yemeni refugees was quickly cut off after the summer 2018 influx, and a petition, part of a 'Nationals First' campaign led by right-wing groups including churches to get rid of the refugee convention South Korea had signed more than 25 years prior, garnered almost a million signatures.
Some of these churches "are extremely exclusive and phobic against others… they are extremely powerful. Their main targets are LGBTQIA+ and migrants and refugees," Dr. Pillkyu Hwang, executive director of the GongGam Human Rights Law Foundation told The New Arab via Zoom.
The Korean government has been turning a blind eye to the Yemenis. Most of the refugees who arrived in Jeju five years ago – and a few of them even earlier – still await the humanitarian status that would grant them some basic rights.
"Before this Yemeni refugee incident in Jeju, most Koreans didn’t know that there are refugees in Korea. But now almost all Koreans know that there are refugees here," Dr Hwang said.
Attitudes towards refugees – particularly those who are Muslim – were already taking a dramatic turn in 2015, somewhere between the Alan Kurdi tragedy of September 2015 and the Bataclan terror attack in Paris blamed on Muslim extremists two months later. That hostility could be seen in the turn in rhetoric applied to Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and persecution in their home country.
"The whole world was kind of saying we are very sorry about this boy [Alan Kurdi]… that was the same situation in Korea, and at the time the Ministry of Justice was saying well we are doing a job protecting Syrian refugees in Korea," Hwang said.
"Then there was a terrorist attack in Paris, and suddenly the [South Korean] government is saying we shouldn’t know that there are Syrian refugees in Korea… that they are potential terrorists, they are not safe anymore, so we should get rid of Syrian refugees."
Though hurt by the hostility they face, As-Salam’s owners push forward. Business is booming, even between seasons. Mohammed spent months training staff for his restaurant in the fine art of Yemeni cuisine, and the fruits of his labour are now ripe. We order the lamb kabsa – a fragrant, biryani-like dish – and a warm ful (fava bean) salad, and they are, sure enough, delicious.
Korean customers are particular fans of the mandi, Wardah said. Among her more frequent guests is celebrity singer and actress Lee Hyori, who loves the hummus and the kabsa. "She’s the Beyonce of Korea," Wardah says of her famed customer, her smile returning.
With translation from Korean by Tara Mariwany
Shahla Omar is a journalist and news editor at The New Arab. She holds a BA in French and an MSc in International History. She worked for two years as a news and features writer and editor in Iraqi Kurdistan, before joining The New Arab in 2021.
Follow her on Twitter: @shahlasomar