Yemeni American recreates his youth through food

FAIRFAX, Va.—Taha Alhoraibi craved his mother’s Yemeni cooking upon arriving to the United States on a student visa 18 years ago.

As a young college student in New York City, Alhoraibi knew nothing about cooking. He spent months on eggs, bread and cheese until his mother reluctantly taught him some recipes on a trip back home to Yemen.

“I felt homesick from the first week and it took me a while to adjust to the new system [in the United States],” said Alhoraibi. “One of the main issues for me was finding halal food or at least not worrying about any pork ingredients.”

Getting Alhoraibi’s mother to teach him how to cook was another story. Growing up in Sana’a, the kitchen was a sanctuary for women, and women alone.

After years of torturous experimenting with flavorful Yemeni recipes, Alhoraibi finally opened Saba’. The former Pizza Boli’s manager and recent master’s in business administration graduate was ready to set out on a journey to recreate his youth in Yemen through food.

“I realized I was just working paycheck to paycheck so I thought about opening a business,” said Alhoraibi. “The first idea I thought about was a business that would have no competition in the market and something I like to do so I can succeed.”

Saba’ was a flourishing ancient kingdom during the eighth century in what is now the modern-day Sana’a, or the capital of Yemen. Located in a hard-to-find strip mall in Fairfax, Virginia, Saba’ is decorated with traditional black, red and gold printed textiles.

There are long cafeteria-style tables on one side of the restaurant, and ornately draped couches with space for people to sit on the floor and eat on the other. The majles, or floor seating is customary in many Gulf countries.

An ode to Yemeni culture, the majles was a perfect addition to Saba’, attracting customers from countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

It’s also a place where tourists come to take selfies as they sit on the floor, eating rice and lamb with their hands.

Although utensils are available, those coming to enjoy an immersive Yemeni culinary experience use the the palms of their hands to scoop up food, as they do in many Gulf countries.

With an unmistakable Yemeni accent, Alhoraibi greets people with a large smile as they enter for lunch time.

His signature dish? A slow cooked lamb dish served over spiced rice called haneeth. In Yemeni folklore, haneeth is cooked in a taboon, or a cylindrical clay oven usually dug under the ground to generate heat. This method, according to Alhoraibi, is what makes the lamb so tender.

Alhoraibi recently installed his own taboon at Saba, allowing him to cook dishes like mandhi and haneeth authentically.

Decorated with photos of Yemen’s lush mountains and portraits of everyday Yemenis, Saba’ transforms your dining experience into one that’s more attuned to a restaurant in Sana’a than Fairfax.

“Going into Saba gives me a nostalgic feeling,” Saluan Sharif, a 24-year-old Yemeni American from Falls Church, Virginia said. “From the authentic food to the Yemeni hospitality, going there makes me feel like I am back home.”

In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order, temporarily banning travelers from eight countries, including Yemen.

Alhoraibi says that although the ban doesn’t directly affect his business, it has affected him personally.

“It makes it difficult for my family to visit us from time to time,” said Alhoraibi.

The 38-year-old also mentioned the immense contribution immigrants make to this country, “working hard to support themselves and their families.”

Historically, Yemenis have been in the United States for more than century, first arriving here in 1869. Yemeni Americans have long had a lasting effect on the fabric of American society, especially as they fought in the movement for union worker rights in California in the 1970s.

From the bread pudding and Yemeni coffee to the fahsa, or beef stew everyone raves about, Saba’ tells Alhoraibi’s story through food.

He continues to incorporate Yemeni culture into Saba’, as he opens a second location in Falls Church, “by serving traditional food and delight my guests with authentic Yemeni cuisine.”

Photos via Scott Suchman

Rawan Elbaba