Long Distance Love
A restaurant far away from home that I love, some art, a salady menu and recipes and eating notes.
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is about a restaurant in Birmingham I have visited three times in the past year and some art that I saw there, a salady menu with recipes, and my eating notes from the week.
This week I wrote the newsletter in part on a ferry from Oban to the island of Colonsay in the Hebrides in Scotland, though I had to abandon my desk when the waves grew bigger and I felt a little seasick! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Next week’s letter is loosely themed around one of my favourite films I Know Where I’m Going, with plentiful eating notes from Glasgow, Oban, and Colonsay.
Long Distance Love
In Birmingham there is a restaurant that I have eaten in three times in the last year, almost more than any other. The first time was when I travelled for five hours by train from Essex to see the exhibition Recipes for Resistance at Ort Gallery in 2021, curated by artist Raju Rage. The work of the artists that Rage brought together – Sabba Khan, Jasleen Kaur, Navi Kaur, Yas Lime, and Rage themselves – led to transformative thinking about my relationship with cooking/feeding, and about contradictions sustained in the act of cooking. Some of this is documented in my forthcoming book, Small Fires. My visit was during the tail end of a period of fatigue, so I slept on the train and took a taxi to the exhibition. I was grateful for the pieces by Jasleen Kaur made with carpet from her ongoing project The Five Ks that I could sit on cross-legged as I looked at Sabba Khan’s work of prints made using a rolling pin, with text, called If My Rolling Pin Could Talk / Roti, Resilience, Reparenting. The interaction between these works was so exciting. Afterwards I had an iced tea with someone I know from the internet who also happened to be at the exhibition, then went and ate alone at a Yemeni restaurant a few doors down that someone on Twitter told me about.
At Bayt Al-Yemeni I sat on an outside table and enjoyed the busyness of Moseley after lockdown – sociable double parking that reminded me of Rome, chatting out of car windows, people dressed up for parties, excited kids. It was hot and I had a cool salty ayran to drink and ordered fahsa and rashoosh bread and an unnecessary salad that I did not finish. Their fahsa is a lamb soup with strands of meat, spices, finely diced peppers, and fresh herbs cooked in a stone bowl that it is also served in, keeping its warmth throughout eating. The soup came with a spoon of hulba, a dressing of fenugreek, coriander, chilli and lemon that floated on the surface due to its airy, whisked-up texture. The fahsa at Bayt Al-Yemeni was and remains one of the best dishes I have eaten. Its seasoning was exquisitely balanced, sour and fresh and with great depth from the lamb without overwhelming my palate. The circular rashoosh bread was almost two foot in diameter, with fine layers of dough that was at turns flaky and elastic, and nigella seeds on top. I tore pieces of bread to eat with the fahsa which never grew less compelling, as some soups and stews can. The bread enabled me to take everything from the bowl. Afterwards I had mint tea and a 1-inch square of cardamom flavoured pink sweet. I drifted out of the restaurant on a dizzy high, feeling better than I had for weeks.
From there I went to Grand Union gallery on the canal to see more work by Navi Kaur: Mērā Ghar a video installation that ‘replicate[d] notions of Navi’s grandparent’s family home, their allotment and the Gurdwara’, housed in a structure made by Kaur that expressed elements of both a Gurdwara and an allotment shed. I sat on the seat that was part of the space Kaur had made, with shoes off and my feet on the carpet, and watched the allotment rituals of her grandparents that gathered sacred potency through Kaur’s attention. Returning on the train I was euphoric from the art I had seen and the fahsa and bread I had eaten. It felt urgent that my partner Sam should eat fahsa at Bayt Al-Yemeni too, and two months later we took a detour to Birmingham on the way home after visiting family in Wales. I was nervous that my joy in this meal could not be repeated and that the feeling that it was one of my favourite dishes would prove fleeting. But Sam had the same rapturous delight, and I found it to be as good, too.
Last Sunday I visited Bayt Al-Yemeni for a third time, stopping off for lunch on a drive to Manchester, which itself was a stop on a journey to Glasgow, which itself was stop on the way to the Hebridean island, Colonsay (of which, more next week!). We ordered fahsa and the rashoosh bread again, then mint tea and a pink sweet. This time, they gave us an unexpected very plain but savoury bowl of broth for free when we sat down, which was delicious. The fahsa was just as good, though it was not served with the whisked hulba; there was a wedge of lemon and a raw dressing of tomato and chillies instead which was hot and fresh, but we missed the aromatic sourness of the hulba and its texture. I plan to return to eat it again soon.
Recipes and eating notes below