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When Fatima Awad Ali Salem, a Sydney-based college student, was a child living in Sana’a, Yemen, she loved the dish of Mandi (pronounced mendy), who hails from Hadhramaut Governorate.
Mandi is made of rice, lamb or chicken. It contains spices such as paprika, cumin, pepper, salt and chili powder. Awad Ali Salem remembers eating it with zahaweq, a green pepper dip made with a mixture of garlic, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and coriander.
This hot kick wasn’t the only thing that appealed to her. “It was interesting to see the process of wrapping meat, onions, potatoes and spices in tin foil, before cooking them in an underground oven made of clay,” says Awad Ali Salem. “It was fun to watch as a kid.”
Mandi can take hours to cook. The meat should be soft and smoked. Her family usually used whole sheep, which would feed 13 to 17 family members and friends.
Because the cooking process was time consuming, mandi was saved for special occasions such as Eid, weddings and birthday celebrations.
“Whenever we had Mandi, because it is a large part of the food that was prepared, everyone in the family would gather in one circle and catch each other while eating together,” says Awad Ali Salem.
“Everyone in the family would gather in one circle and catch up while eating together.”
Now she and her family are in Sydney, eating this dish evokes memories of partying with the family. However, her family uses lamb shoulder instead of a whole lamb here, as she does not feed many people.
Yemeni food is not the only cuisine that carries the meanings of Awad Ali Salem.
“When I was about 10 or 11 years old, my family moved from Yemen to Indonesia for about two years,” says Awad Ali Salem.
During her time in Bogor and Jakarta in Java Province, she tested flavors from a different cuisine for the first time. She liked the spicy and sweet flavor of the dishes. “Back in Yemen, spicy food didn’t really have sweetness.”
This spicy and sweet mixture features nasi goreng, which has become one of her favorite dishes. Awad Ali Salem says she couldn’t put the spoon on the floor once she tried it.
Besides the complex savory flavor of nasi goreng, she likes to use it for short-grain rice, unlike the basmati rice used in Yemen. She also loved how the eggs were in it.
These days, eating nasi goreng takes her back to that time. “After my friends and I ate nasi goreng, we often played at waterfalls all over Indonesia,” says Awad Ali Salem. “Whenever I eat nasi goreng, it reminds me of the friends I made in Indonesia and all the memories we had together.”
Awad Ali Salem credits her time in Indonesia with sparking her adventurous taste. After the first bite of nasi goreng, she made it her goal to try more uncommon food.
“Even in Sydney now, I still try all kinds of different cuisines,” she says. “Whether it’s in food or in life, I don’t want to limit myself, I like to keep my options open.”
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