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A little taste of Yemeni hospitality in York

A little taste of Yemeni hospitality in York
6 min read
02 May, 2024
We went to North Yorkshire to try Yemen Heaven, where chef Muna Al-Maflehi says the secret to her delicious food is the love between a father and daughter.

There is something very comforting about Yemeni cuisine; a good plate of mandi or bowl of saltah served with freshly baked Yemeni bread leaves you feeling loved-up and content as if the chef’s hospitality has infused itself into the food. 

Such a feeling can be found at Yemen Heaven, a family-owned and run restaurant, which opened in February 2022 and serves up authentic and traditional Yemeni dishes.

At its helm is Yemeni owner and chef Muna Al-Maflehi and her five children who assist her.

The Grade II listed building was formerly The Spread Eagle British pub, and the interiors retain much of that rustic charm mixed with a distinct Middle Eastern ambience, created by the gold finjaans decorating the bar, dangling Moroccan lamps, hanging artwork of scenes from Yemen and my favourite part of the restaurant, the exquisite U-shaped soft seating area that resembles a traditional majlis. 

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When I met Muna and congratulated her on the success of her restaurant, she thanked me and told me that the path to opening her restaurant had been a difficult one, with many obstacles. 

Muna says she had a very happy childhood in Yemen with extremely supportive parents. They all shared one passion in life: cooking. 

During the week her mother would cook traditional Yemeni dishes, and was a culinary artist, cooking Yemeni food with a twist to the point that she became famous locally. 

Muna says her father was also a wizard in the kitchen. He would be busy working during the week, but during weekends, he would tell her mother to rest while he kicked up a storm in the kitchen, experimenting with different cuisines from other cultures. 

Muna would stand alongside her father and cook with him, saying that these were the best days of her life. She reveals that it was her father who planted the idea of opening a family restaurant in her head. 

He promised that when she was old enough, he would send her to culinary school in Britain and that when they opened their family restaurant, he would cook and manage the restaurant alongside her. 

Decades later that dream came true for Muna, but sadly without her father. 

With the help of her English friend, they finally found a location – the old Spread Eagle pub. 

The day Muna’s lease contract was approved, and she received her keys, she says she screamed from happiness and shock that it was finally happening.

But her happiness was short-lived.

Mere days before Yemen Heaven’s official opening, Muna and her children went to the restaurant to find it had been broken into and completely ransacked overnight. The attack went viral.

“My son opened the door and it looked as if a bomb had gone off in the place. I felt destroyed. I went out into the street and screamed. I cried, ‘Why? Why me? What have I done?’” 

Something amazing happened after that. The entire local community came together to help Muna replace everything, and finally, at the end of February 2022, the restaurant opened. 

Since then, the restaurant has been extremely successful, winning Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Award in 2022.

The day I visit for lunch, it is just an hour after the restaurant has opened and it is already busy.

I decided that after not having had Yemeni food in a long time, I wanted to try their most traditional Yemeni dishes. 

Asking Muna how she came up with her menu she said, “My first goal was for the menu to target the most ancient and important traditional dishes from Yemen, especially those I inherited from my ancestors, to give my customers the impression of a very special and distinctive taste they will only find at Yemen Heaven.”

My husband and I opt for the fahsa and chicken mandi.

The mandi is a mixture of chicken and yellow rice cooked in traditional Yemeni spices, called hawaij. 

Muna explains that she orders her spices directly from Yemen as they are crucial to her cooking, but it hasn’t been easy recently, given the current political situation in Yemen. 

I have never tasted such soft and succulent chicken in my life. The chicken meat had a pleasant saffron flavour which came through nicely and just like a good mandi, the rice was fluffy, not dry or clumpy.

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The real star of the show was the fahsa. I was drawn to it because the menu mentions that it is Muna’s family’s secret recipe.

“Fahsa is an ancient dish in Yemen, and what distinguishes our dish is that it is a dish that has been passed down through generations. There is a secret mixture of spices that is special to my family and we are the only ones who cook it in this special way,” says Muna.

“I learned from my grandparents the origins and secrets of the distinctive Yemeni dish of the village to which my family belongs.”

The fahsa was an aromatic spiced lamb stew; you can really taste the fenugreek in the broth but it is not overpowering. 

I ate it with Muna’s freshly baked Yemeni bread, which tasted like a softer version of naan. 

For dessert, I had their areeka, a traditional Yemeni pudding consisting of mashed dates, honey, bread, cream, condensed milk and spices. It was like a cross between bread-and-butter pudding and date pudding. 

I ask Muna what her favourite dish on her menu is. She said it has to be Yemen’s national dish, Saltah, a vegetarian version of fahsa, that her father taught her to make.

“People tell me there has to be a secret in your food and I said the secret is love, the love between a father and daughter,” explains Muna.

I went away that day finally feeling the warmth, contentment and loved-up feeling I had longed for after eating good Arabic food. 

And it is the love and memory of a dearly beloved father that has infused itself into Yemen Heaven’s food, proving that good food really is made with love.

Yemen Heaven is located at 98 Walmgate in York, YO1 9TL. Visit their website for their menu and booking details.

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA