Mayfair’s Shibam Restaurant is an Oasis for Near-East and Middle-East Chicago
The Yemeni city of Shibam is called the Chicago of the Desert, a reference to its impressive skyline of mud brick skyscrapers. Shibam rises as a metropolitan oasis on the Southern Arabian plateau, where it was once an important way station for caravans of spice traders, who left their mark on Yemeni cuisine.
Located on a busy corner of Chicago’s northside Mayfair neighborhood, Shibam Restaurant is an oasis all its own, a place where Persian Gulf emigres can find those Spice Route flavors of cumin and coriander, turmeric and ginger, fenugreek and aniseed blended into soups and stews and rice dishes that simply taste like home. (A sister restaurant, Shibaum South, just opened in Bridgeview.)
Of course, there are countless Chicago restaurants that sell more well-known, often times Americanized Middle East staples like falafel, shawarma, and hummus, said Reyad Ajour, the manager of Shibam, who is from the Giza area of Palestine. But there is no other restaurant in the city serving the slow-simmering and instantly addictive fahsa curry, served in a bubbling clay pot or agda, a hearty vegetable and meat stew whose grandmotherly warmth settles around you like a hug. I’ve loved Middle Eastern food since high school and I’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years. I cry for all the lost meals.
Its food is a product of Ottoman influences from the north and Indian influences to the south, Ajour explains, taking me on a tour of the lavish spread of foods that have begun to appear on the table of our large, plush booth. The dishes move from the pickup window to our table at an alarming pace.
The centerpiece, the dish ordered more than any other here, is mandi lamb, slow-simmered on the bone and served atop fragrant and colorful basmati rice. A butterflied Whole Greek fish arrives next, painted in a crimson sauce more fiery in color than flavor and perfectly broiled, with crispy edges and a moist interior. But is the chicken fahsa I can’t seem to stop eating, dunking my bread repeatedly into the bubbling tomato-onion-and-spice juices in its clay pot. I stare with longing at the golden brown mutapaq pastry, stuffed with chicken moistened with tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro, and manage to stop eating the fahsa long enough to try it. It’s flaky and flavorful and totally worth the carbs.
Yemen is larger than California in area but smaller than Texas and strategically situated in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country has been embroiled in a civil war since 2015, with a host of external actors, including the US, playing roles. As many as 80,000 combatants and civilians are believed to have died since 2016 in Yemen, and the country is facing a desperate humanitarian crisis, with some 20 million reportedly hungry or facing famine.
That’s why for some of its Yemeni patrons, Shibam has become a place to not only share food but to share their stories, and their worries.
As a percentage of Shibam’s clientele, though, Yemenis are in the distinct minority. Some 70 percent of my fellow diners are from India or Pakistan, Reyour tells me. One Indian man I spoke with on the Sunday morning of my second visit said he had just made the 40-minute round trip from Devon Ave., Chicago’s row of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, grocery stores and shops, just so he could pick up lunch from Shibam. The ingredients and the food preparation methods are the same, he tells me, but the spices are different enough, or their combinations novel enough anyway, to make eating it feel like “a change of pace.”
The Zurbian lamb, no doubt, is a clear cousin to biryani; a cucumber yogurt sauce clearly a relative to raita. Both cuisines rely heavily on rice, and hot flatbreads, with Shibam’s version arriving as pizza-size circles perfectly charred and folded into fourths and nestled in a basket. I tear piece after piece of it off, spooning on a housemade medium-hot salsa called sahawegg before adding a morsel of fish or a torn shred of the lamb mandi for a tiny, juicy sandwich.
There are also things on the Shibam menu, like the funugreek redolent stew, fahsa, that make me wish I’d experienced it sooner. Another one is a layered dessert called arika, which has mashed dates and bits of wheat on the bottom and is topped with a layer of butter and a kind of clotted cream, sprinkled with black seeds and drizzled with honey. It’s the perfect dessert to let the diner control the sweetness, which is very mild from the dates mash but can be dialed up with honey as desired.
Shibam’s interior is fast-casual inviting and comfortable, with the tables spaced far enough apart that no one feels crowded. In the basement is another large dining room, with two private, reservable rooms furnished with colorful cushions and poufs for floor seating. In Arabic countries, the midday meal is the largest, and on weekends the restaurant is hopping from lunch late into the night. It serves no alcohol, and it never closes.
Moving to Chicago from the Middle East was a challenge for Ajour, who arrived mid-winter without so much as a coat to get him started. Yemeni cook Majed Gunid, who hails from Ibb, said for him the adjustment to the chilly upper midwest was easier than learning the language or getting the hang of the educational system at the age of 15. For starters, Gunid said, he had been used to spending the full day in the same classroom, with one teacher for all subjects. Suddenly, he was expected to pack up and move every hour on the hour, and not speaking a word of English, he found it hard to ask directions.
For both of them, Shibam has been a source of familiarity and warmth, an oasis in a city that can sometimes register as chilly to outsiders. Gunid said he works there 50-plus hours a week, but on his time off there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
“Between the people who work here, and who come here and the food,” he said, “this is where I feel the most at home.”
About the author:
Carrie Miller is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who writes about, food, travel, and culture. Her blog, ExpatCook.com is about cooking American Southern recipes for strangers abroad.