The Stuff Of Tradition

The Stuff Of Tradition

An iconic Middle Eastern meat pastry called kubbeh is enjoying a moment of mainstream popularity.

In his popular cookbook “Jerusalem,” celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi features his own variation of a traditional dish, wherein he bakes a flat bulgur-flour base with a ground lamb topping and calls it Open Kibbeh. Superstar chef Meir Adoni features kubbeh on the menu of his upscale Tel Aviv restaurant Mizlala. At Kubbeh! The Pop Up, a sold-out, three-night event last week at Manhattan’s Grape and Grain restaurant, Melanie Shurka served beef kubbeh in Kurdish-style lemon and Swiss chard soup.

In homes across the Sephardic world, kubbeh, the iconic meat pastry, are made by hand each week. In some kitchens, they are oblong in shape, fried and served as an appetizer, while in others they are rounded into a ball and cooked in soup. The recipes (and the spelling!) vary — every Middle Eastern country has a version of the dish — but the idea behind the dish known as kubbeh, kibbeh and kobebah is essentially the same.

Chef Paula Wolfert writes, “Kibbeh has been called the masterpiece of the Middle Eastern table” in “The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean,” in which she lists 50 varieties of kubbeh and includes 11 recipes.

In many Sephardic families, kubbeh are eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Shurka describes a Mizrahi Shabbat table jam-packed with dishes including a big pot of kubbeh soup from which guests would take their own portions and eat it as a main course.

The possibilities of how to cook kubbeh are many. They can be fried, grilled, baked, poached and even prepared raw, and can be made to accommodate vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten free, and Passover dietary restrictions. Not only do the recipes for the kubbeh themselves vary depending on family tradition, but so can the broth if the kubbeh are served in a soup. The soups fall either within sweet or sour camps and can include lemon, beets, squash, okra, potatoes and eggplant.

Shurka ladling out and serving the Sephardic dumpling. Photos by Michael Datikash/JW

The dumplings are both labor- and time-intensive and require a dexterous hand. The basic procedure is as follows: begin by rolling your dough into a small ball between your hands. Use your thumb to dent the ball, add a spoonful of meat filling, close the ball’s opening, and then either fry the kubbeh or add it to a pot of vegetable soup.

A fan of established Israeli kubbeh joints such as Rahmo and Ima, and the newer stalls at Mahane Yehuda market, I attended a kubbeh workshop in Jerusalem a few years ago. It was taught in the home of an elderly Iraqi matriarch who guided the group in the difficult process of making a pile of small meat-filled dumplings. Frustrated at the end of the session, I was interested to hear that kubbeh are available frozen in some supermarkets.

The lore associated with kubbeh is evocative of olden times. Claudia Roden, an Egyptian-Jewish chef living in England, notes in “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” that “Some women are known to have a special ‘hand’ or ‘finger’ for making kibbeh.” On her Iraqi cooking website, Recipes by Rachel, the Iraqi-born, Israel-based Rachelle Somekh writes, “those families that practice the more time-consuming method of surrounding a nice-sized meatball with a thin semolina coating were considered to be of noteworthy breeding.”

Shurka, who has heard some of the tales related to kubbeh-making, did not see women’s worth valued by their kubbeh-making skills during the time she spent learning the art of kubbeh from both professional and home cooks. “I didn’t get that sense from the older women I was dealing with,” she said. “From my own experience, the roll of cooking in Sephardi culture is an important one,” Shurka said. “Women, usually the ones to prepare the food, bond over the cooking process by sharing their different recipes with each other. Other than being nourishing, cooking delicious food for your family is a woman’s way of expressing love.”

At her pop-up, Shurka, 34, stayed behind the small restaurant’s bar as she dished out each person’s dinner. Diners who had registered and paid the $50 fee in advance sat at small tables in the narrow, rustic space in the East Village. The four-course tasting menu began with small salads and gondi, Persian chicken and chickpea meatballs. The dessert was a date bar served with chocolate, tahina, and raspberry, which a man near me described as a “Mediterranean Reese’s.”

This was not the first short-term kubbeh joint to pop up in New York. For three weeks in March 2013 people flocked to The Kubbeh Project, which also took temporary residence in the East Village. Some waited for upwards of two hours (myself included) in the cold to enjoy a bowl of kubbeh soup and a cup of tea.

Capitalizing on the food’s growing popularity, Shurka is currently developing a permanent kubbeh-focused restaurant with her fiancé, David Ort. While Shurka’s cuisine is not kosher, she offers vegetarian options and would be open to a kosher spin-off depending on interest. She is hoping to change her menu seasonally and serve Arak-based cocktails in addition to both Israeli and Palestinian beer. For the record Shurka prefers beet broth with her own kubbeh but enjoys experimenting with flavors from across the Middle East, even incorporating spices from her family’s Persian background (her father is Iranian, her mother Ashkenazi from Long Island).

Said Shurka, “it’s not just cooking but curating the experience for people.”