Typically, I try to spend time in the countries I write about, preferring to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of a place before sitting down at my computer. This time, though, my research for Lethal Agent—book #18 in the Mitch Rapp series—would have taken me to Yemen. It’s just the type of place I’d normally love to visit. Despite being one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, it has stunning landscapes, a fascinating culture, and some of the most beautiful stone villages on the planet.
Unfortunately, Yemen isn’t an ideal destination right now. It’s in the midst of a civil crisis that has drawn in Saudi Arabia and Iran, spreading famine and disease throughout the country.
Because I couldn’t do an exploratory trip, I resorted to poring over news reports, historical narratives, photos, and recordings. Not the same as experiencing the place firsthand, but combined with my experience traveling and living in places like Turkey, Israel, and Africa, it worked.
In the end, though, all this research left me wanting more: I still hadn’t experienced the taste and scent of life in Yemen. I needed to add a basic understanding of Yemeni cuisine to my arsenal, particularly since Mitch spends some time in his friend’s restaurant there. Because I couldn’t sit down at a table in Al Hudaydah myself, I decided to try out a couple of traditional recipes in my own kitchen. Not surprisingly, they’re delicious.
The following soup is my favorite and, along with way too much coffee, it fuels Mitch for a few chapters. Give it a shot yourself while you wait for the release of Lethal Agent!
* Known as marak temani to everyone else. Adapted from the 196 Flavors blog.
2 lbs lamb, trimmed of fat and cut into large cubes, keep bones
4 tablespoons hawaij (spice blend, recipe below)
Olive oil for browning the lamb
2 onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
Beef stock to cover meat and potatoes
3-4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
Hawaij Spice Blend
2.5 tablespoons coriander seeds
2.5 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns or use coarse ground pepper, approximately 1.5 tsp
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg (ground)
1 tablespoon turmeric (ground)
*I used a pressure cooker but you could easily make this in a Dutch oven.
Sprinkle the lamb with the spice mixture (hawaij). Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot on medium heat and add a portion of the lamb chunks to the hot oil. Periodically turn the lamb so it cooks on a few sides and develops a nice brown exterior. Continue with the remaining lamb, then set the meat aside. If you crowd the meat in the pot, it will steam and won’t brown properly.
Add more olive oil to the pot and sauté the chopped onions and garlic over medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Stir often and scrape up bits from the bottom of the pot so they don’t burn.
Add the browned lamb, several lamb bones, and the cilantro to the pot. Cut a large X into each tomato and add them to the pot as well. Pour in enough beef stock to cover everything completely, including the potatoes that you’ll be adding later.
If you’re using a pressure cooker, cook the meat for approximately 30-45 minutes. I usually check the meat after that time to make sure it’s tender. If not, I fire up the pot for a little longer. You can also simmer the lamb for approximately 2.5 hours in a Dutch oven or until it’s tender.
When the lamb is nearly done, add the chunks of potatoes. If you’re using a pressure cooker, you’ll need to cook the soup for an additional 15 minutes or so. If you’re simmering in a Dutch oven, check the potatoes periodically until they’re cooked the way you like them.
Once it’s done, remove any large pieces of tomato skin that didn’t break down and season with additional salt and pepper, if needed.
To serve, scoop the lamb, potatoes, and broth into warm bowls. Sprinkle with fresh cilantro. If you’d like a little heat, harissa (a fiery condiment you can buy or make) can be swirled into the broth. A flat bread, like pita, and tomato slices drizzled with peppery olive oil and sea salt make nice companions for this dish.
Hawaij Spice Blend
Put the whole spices as well as the ground spices together in a heavy skillet and toast the mixture for a few minutes. Be careful not to cook it too long or too hot. Spices burn quickly.
I grind the mixture in a small food processor and then remove any hulls from the cardamom seeds that didn’t break down. A mortar and pestle will work just as well for grinding all the spices together.