From Comfort Food to Pretty Weird in Just a Few Blocks
Fassoulia in Hamtramck
Hamtramck is best known for a few things: Loud music, alcohol consumption, foreign foods, and a call to prayer controversy.
It’s late morning on a weekday, a time when most of Hamtramck’s rock ‘n’ roll set is still sleeping off the night before. This city of more than 22,000 is a two-square-mile enclave nestled within the crumbling concrete infrastructure of Detroit. Once consisting of mostly Polish immigrants, the city retains a populace that’s more than 40 percent foreign born, the majority of which are now Yemeni and Bangladeshi immigrants.
An artist girlfriend of mine and I walk into Sheeba Restaurant, a Yemeni diner with a solid reputation around town. The space is sparsely decorated, with booths lining either side. A few lone men sit opposite a TV that’s been set to Al Jazeera’s round-the-clock news.
Living in metro Detroit, it’s easy to become a connoisseur of Middle Eastern foods, as the population from that region makes up one of our largest minority communities. Hummus, tabbouli, falafel, kibbeh, shawarma: it’s all in my belly at least twice per week. But I’ve not specifically tasted Yemeni cuisine yet.
We are greeted by a friendly young waiter who blushes when we smile at him and ask how he’s doing. When I tell him it’s my first time eating Yemeni cuisine, he suggests a traditional breakfast of fassoulia (white beans) with eggs, pointing to a picture of an indefinable orange-and-brown pile on the laminated menu. I order it well done, with the eggs; my friend orders the foul (fava beans), also with eggs.
After roughly 10 minutes, the waiter brings out a steaming cauldron of foul and the plate of fassoulia. Both are topped with garlic and minced hot green peppers as garnish and served alongside a red salsa-looking sauce. “The red sauce is hot,” our waiter says, laughing a bit. “The green one is really, really hot. Be careful.”
Two giant, pizza-sized fresh tandoori bread slices follow the dishes. With no silverware in sight, we gauge the best plan of attack, using the bread to dig into the sturdy layers of beans and sauce.
The fassoulia with eggs is similar to a frittata, with hard-scrambled eggs holding together the smoky-flavored beans. I use the bread to swirl around the garlic and spicy peppers, which make the rustic, hearty flavors of the dish pop with a quick punch to my sinus cavity. The tandoori bread is crisp on the outside, giving way to hot, malleable inner layers.
Looking out the diner’s window, we take in “Little Yemen.” Women covered head-to-toe in black, shapeless veils and dresses walk across the rutted main street with small children bobbing along at their sides. Men wearing white linens and hats made of folded cloth lean on buildings and chat with each other as glimmers of sunshine peak through the thick clouds.
The waiter brings us a spiced black tea after a peaceful meal. With hints of cardamom and clove, the aroma adds warmth to the November day.
As we saunter back into the activity of the street following a thoroughly filling and inexpensive meal ($10 for both of us), we draw a few looks with our brightly colored clothing and free-flowing hair. We hop back into my truck and leave behind the elegant squiggles of Arabic script that line the awnings along Joseph Campau Street.
Albeit culturally vibrant, Hamtramck is a bit bruised and scuzzy, like a sturdy old bureau in a room that hasn’t been swept in a decade. The streets are bumpy and flat tires are as ubiquitous as layoff notices. We cruise past Polish markets, liquor stores, and a countless number of neighborhood watering holes.
With hefty leftovers in tow, I stop at a light and offer them to a man holding a sign advertising his need of tobacco and beer.
“What kind of food is it?” he asks reluctantly.
“It’s Yemeni,” I respond with a smile and hold it out as far as I can reach from my window.
He gives me a bewildered look, grabs it from my hands and returns to his pink Tweetie Bird comforter and milk crate. He opens the Styrofoam container, uses the tandoori bread to pinch a bite of fassoulia and then shoots me an even more puzzled expression.
“That’s pretty weird,” he says with an eyebrow raised.
“Yeah, but it’s good for you.”
He nods, sets it aside and I shift into first as the light changes.