An ancient Yemenite delicacy is passed down through generations

Hilbe is Yemenite delicacy made from fenugreek seeds. It’s mentioned in ancient Jewish and historical texts and is said to have many health benefits. One family in Jerusalem shares its love for the special sauce.

The World
Ilai Waimann proudly holds up two large containers of fresh hilbe made by his uncle, Alon Kahalani.Courtesy of Itamar Kahalani

Shalom Falafel has been in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem since before Israel was even a state. It’s known for its perfectly fried, hot falafel balls, its stuffed pitas and its delicious sauces. But there’s something else that also distinguishes it from other falafel shops: hilbe.

Hilbe is a yellowish-green sauce made from fenugreek seeds. And it’s a Yemenite delicacy, for Jews who originally hail from Yemen.

“Things will be different when you think about your life before [trying] hilbe and after hilbe,” Ilai Waimann, a Yemenite Jew from Jerusalem, told The World.

It’s hard to imagine a condiment being so magical, but hilbe really is the stuff of legend.

“It’s powerful stuff.”

Itamar Kahalani, Yemenite Jew from Jerusalem

“When you eat hilbe, it’s like when Popeye eats spinach,” said Waimann’s cousin, Itamar Kahalani. “It makes your [muscles] grow, and you can lift anything you want. … It’s powerful stuff.”

Susan Weingarten is a food historian specializing in late antique Jewish sources. She said there are references to hilbe in the ancient Jewish text, the Talmud, and even as early as the first century. The historian Flavius Josephus wrote about hilbe in the siege of Yodfat, which happened in the year 67.

Nadav Waimann squeezes lemon juice while his uncle Alon Kahalani looks on.Sarah Ventre/The World

“The Jews were on top of the hill, and the Romans [were down at] the bottom, so they threw things on them,” Weingarten said. “First, they threw boiling oil on them, which wasn’t very pleasant for a Roman in his armor. And then, they had the bright idea of using hilbe, which is a slippery jelly, before you turn it into a foam. So, if you throw down slippery jelly, and these people are trying to climb up on planks, then all they did was slither around.”

In the US, fenugreek seeds can be found at Indian markets and some health food stores.Sarah Ventre/The World

Technically, the fenugreek seeds are the hilbe. But when people talk about hilbe, they usually refer to the sauce, which is marked by the taste and scent of those seeds.

“You either love it (fenugreek seeds) or you hate it.”

Susan Weingarten, food historian specializing in late antique Jewish sources

“Fenugreek seeds have an extremely strong and specific taste. You either love it or you hate it,” said Weingarten. The smell is so strong, that some say it can even cross [into] the placenta. “There’s a claim that Yemenite babies will come out of their mother’s womb smelling of hilbe.”

Weingarten described the taste as slightly sulfurous. Others might describe it as bitter or even just as “funky.”

The claim about hilbe-scented newborns is far from the only rumor about the Yemenite sauce. There’s also a laundry list of supposed health benefits, including that hilbe lowers cholesterol, helps ward off diabetes, assists in milk production in nursing women, can be used as a pre-workout drink (like a protein shake), manages blood pressure, helps prevent hair loss — and so much more. (Not all of the claims have been studied or scientifically evaluated.)

Ilai Waimann reaches for a spoonful of fresh hilbe.Sarah Ventre/The World

If you go into any Yemenite community in Israel, especially on a Friday afternoon, it’s almost certain you’ll find families eating chicken soup with hilbe as a pre-Sabbath meal.

Waimann’s and Kahalani’s family lives in Aminadav, a small, mostly Yemenite community southwest of Jerusalem. In this family, Alon Kahalani (Itamar’s father and Ilai’s uncle) is the keeper of the hilbe flame.

On one warm, breezy afternoon, he gathered together his children, nephews and all the necessary ingredients for fresh hilbe. Sitting on his kitchen countertop, he laid out fenugreek seeds, garlic, lemon, cilantro, water, salt and zhug (Yemenite hot sauce).

Alon Kahalani shows reporter Sarah Ventre how to blend hilbe to the proper consistency.Courtesy of Ilai Waimann

The brown fenugreek seeds were soaked overnight in a clear glass bowl. They puffed up a bit and sat at the bottom of the bowl, the water floating on top having turned yellow.

“Usually I drink this water before I use the hilbe because it’s very healthy,” Alon Kahalani said.

He poured out a couple of glasses and toasted, “L’chaim!” which means “To life!” The water smelled a bit like maple syrup but tasted sharp, bitter and almost metallic.

Alon then blended all of the ingredients and explained, over the roar of the blender, that he wanted it to be the consistency of “bubble soap.”

Alon Kahalani prepares hilbe by blending the ingredients together until they become foamy and frothy. He says it should be the consistency of “bubble soap.”Sarah Ventre/The World

After one or two small adjustments, Alon went in for a quick taste test. He grabbed a spoonful of the foamy, frothy, light green sauce with flecks of herbs dotted across it. After a lot of buildup and with very little fanfare, Alon declared that he’d produced the perfect bowl of hilbe. 

“That’s it,” Alon Kahalani said, dropping the spoon on the counter.

Ingredients used to make hilbe.Illustration by Sarah Ventre/The World
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of the soaked fenugreek seeds (measured after they’ve soaked overnight)
  • ⁠Handful of cilantro
  • ⁠Lemon juice of about half a lemon
  • ⁠1 garlic clove, crushed
  • ⁠Water from soaked seeds to thin it
  • ⁠Salt to taste
  • ⁠A teaspoon of zhug (optional)
Directions for how to make hilbe.Illustration by Sarah Ventre/The World

“My mother was a good teacher,” he said, explaining that she taught him how to make hilbe when he was just 10 years old.

Everyone grabbed a spoon and started eating without the assistance of any soup or falafel or even pita. Since hilbe doesn’t keep for very long, it’s usually best to eat it within 24 hours of first making it before it loses its luster. 

That’s not a problem, though, in the Kahalani household — because there are never any leftovers.

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