Written By: Jennifer F. Steil
Article Date: Jun 19, 2007 - 6:19:25 AM
Diners dig into organic vegetables and fresh meats.
Three years ago, Jamil Hindi, the owner of Al Mankal restaurant on Amman Street in Sana’a, suffered from a plethora of troubling health problems. “I was very fat, very lazy,” he said. As a result, he suffered from high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and a host of other ills. But then Hindi, who is originally from Jordan, began eating organic, healthy foods. He had first learned about macrobiotic and organic foods while living for eight years in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and decided to try putting a bit more thought into his diet.
Organic foods are usually defined as foods that are grown without any fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or any other chemicals. Meat defined as organic is taken from animals who only eat organic foods themselves, and who have not been pumped full of hormones or antibiotics. Hindi said he felt immediately better after switching to foods that contained fewer toxins. In the last year and a half, he has lost about 34 kilograms. And with the extra weight went the health problems; his blood pressure and sugar returned to normal. “My health became very good,” he said. “The accumulation of toxins makes more chances for sickness.
But if you eat an organic diet, you have fewer toxins in your body.” His own experience with organic foods has led Hindi to transform Al Mankal into an organic restaurant—the first such restaurant in Sana’a. About 90 percent of the food at Al Mankal is currently organic, and the restaurant is expected to be entirely organic in the next two or three weeks. Guests dining at Al Mankal recently had no idea it was going organic, but were supportive of the idea. “It is a very good idea,” said Anne Wonoch, who works for the French consulate in Dubai and visits Sana’a frequently to see her husband Dominique, who works in political affairs at the French Embassy.
“A lot of people are interested in organic food, and this is the first time I have ever heard of it in Yemen.” Although they hadn’t known their food was organic, the couple said they had enjoyed their meal of fatoush, lasagna, and pasta. Dominique Wonoch said it didn’t matter to him whether the food was organic, as he was so busy he simply didn’t have time to think about it. But he did see one upside: “Now that we know we can eat organic foods, maybe she (Anne) will come over even more often,” he said, smiling. Three Yemeni women dining nearby also hadn’t known the restaurant was going organic, but said they come often because the food is so good.
“The food is quite delicious,” said Shrooq Mohammed of Sana’a. “And the restaurant is clean.” Why does Hindi feel that it’s important to go organic? He hands out a flyer with a list of ten reasons. First, organic food reduces children’s exposure to pesticides, which can cause disease. Second, It conserves soil by growing plants in a more sustainable way. Third, it keeps water safe from runoff contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farming also saves the energy needed to create synthetic fertilizers. More energy is spent on producing such fertilizers in the United States than on tilling, cultivating, and harvesting all of the crops in that country.
Now peace-loving health nuts have a place to dine.
Also, organic farming reduces health risks associated with pesticides, some of which have been found to cause cancer; protects farm workers from exposure to such chemicals; helps the growth of family farms; supports the economy by reducing the expense of cleaning up toxins and ameliorating environmental damage; promotes biodiversity by rotating crops; and perhaps most importantly—food grown without chemicals simply tastes better. All of the vegetables and fruits the restaurant uses come from organic farms, which Hindi visits personally to ensure he is getting quality produce. “I authenticate everything myself,” he said.
The restaurant also has stopped using any food from cans. “If we want tomato paste, we get tomatoes and we make paste,” he said. “We don’t buy it in a can.” Even the yeast used in the bread is organic, said Hindi. He adds ground flax seeds to the dough as well, to make it more healthful. Flax seeds contain Omega-3 oils, which can improve cardiac health, have anti-inflammatory properties, and have even been found to ease mild cases of bipolar disorder. Al Mankal shuns the powdered milk most restaurants in Sana’a use, and only buys fresh cow’s milk. The meat will also all be organic. “When I first went to beef factories, I really hated it,” Hindi said.
“I visited South Africa, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and discovered they are not selling meat—they are selling chemicals.” Yemen, however, is still in pretty good shape, he said. After all, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are expensive, and many farmers simply cannot afford them. Fish will not be served if it is not in season. Right now, Al Mankal does not serve shrimp, as the shrimping season is over, and the only shrimp available are frozen. He plans to introduce tofu dishes that will taste like meat, he said. Tofu is made from soybeans, and contains no flesh.
It is also a good source of protein. Consumers should be able to find out exactly what they are putting into their bodies, said Hindi. This is why he plans to create monthly news releases that will tell customers the exact amount of fat, calories, cholesterol, and such in every dish. Going organic is not just about food. Hindi is also completely making over the kitchen, so that it only uses clay, glass, or stainless steel pots and pans—no aluminum or plastic. The cooking method is just as important as the food and pans, said Hindi. So he does not allow his food to be cooked in microwaves or electric stoves. Eggplants used in muttabel, for example, are roasted in wood stoves. Organic food, globally, is more expensive than other food.
This is sometimes because organic farms don’t get the same government subsidies that massive factory farms get. But despite the added expense of organic food, Hindi is not planning to raise the prices of any of his dishes. He is however planning to retrain his staff. “Being organic is giving food with love and care,” he said. “I tell my staff to tell each other they love each other.” Eating organic foods, he believes, makes people more peaceful and loving.
“I am 100 percent convinced that if you want to lead a peaceful life, you must go organic,” he said. He believes Yemeni people would behave much less aggressively with each other if they ate purer food. Samir al-Qasir of Syria, who has managed the restaurant for four years, is quite excited about the change. “It will make quite a difference to have organic food,” he said.
“Our clients are educated, high-profile people, and they have encouraged us to offer this kind of service.” Al Mankal no longer offers soda, he said. It only offers teas, coffee, mint, and fresh fruit juices. It’s for the customers’ own good, he said. “We want to lead people to a healthy and happy life.”
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