In search of a kardi (Arum) recipe and finding family

by Sarah on March 22, 2009

When I first became interested in Kurdish cooking and their many kubba dumplings I naturally went to my grandmother because she was wise in the world of kubba. She told me of all the different kinds of kubba she used to make including one intriguing one called kubba kardi (made from the poisonous Arum plant).

“How do you make this kubba?”, I asked but she waved me away and said,
“Don’t mess with it, the leaves are poison! You have to learn from someone experienced.”
Being a city girl my grandmother didn’t have access to the plant. So I called my Aunt and she said,
“Keep away from it! You will poison yourself! Who ever heard of an American making kubba kardi?”

A couple years passed and I had forgotten all about it when I saw an article in the local food magazine about a Kurdish woman called Osnat who made food from local weeds, including kardi and the journalist wrote how this “good witch” was able to transform poisonous plants into very delicious food. When I called my Mom to tell her she said, “that’s my favorite cousin!” Of course it would be as it seems that every Kurd in Israel is related to another in an intangible web of ties and all of them are my Mom’s long lost cousin. She told me she always wanted to visit her childhood friend but after moving to the States she never went back to the village.

So I decided to drive into the village without having called first, and introduce myself figuring if she wasn’t there I would stop to visit my brother who lives nearby. I received directions from the first man I saw in the village of Ajur and found myself knocking on her door , a kindly looking women of about 70 opened and I quickly introduced myself , “Hi, I am Sarah, Zarifa’s and Zadok’s granddaughter and I just….” She immediately pulled me in by my arm, sat me down and began preparing a breakfast of homemade olives, humus, white cheese, bread and mint tea for breakfast. I told her between bites that I was very happy to have found her, the famous Osnat and she replied, “Osnat is my neighbor I am Zipora, You can go to Osnat, but only after eating.” We started to chat and naturally the subject was about food and I told her I had never eaten kubba kardi. Immediately she started to bustle around in her tiny kitchen and with some sort of kubba specific super power had kubba kardi simmering on the stove within five minutes. Wow, I barged in on the wrong lady and she is actually nicer than anybody who had invited me, she immediately became my new favorite relative.
I told her that my Mom had wanted to visit Osnat but never had the chance so that I decided to come visit for her (I didn’t tell her I was on a secret mission to get a kardi recipe)and that my grandparents could not come because they are too old to travel. Her eyes filled with tears and she replied,
“You are coming in the name of your mother and grandparents!” I really didn’t know why she was getting so emotional, as she had never met me and barely knew my mother.
She took me by the hand and said,
” Let’s go to Osnat and I will tell her that you are coming to offer condolences for her father’s death in the name of your mother and your grandparents. God bless you”
“Oh” I never knew Osnat existed until week before and certainly not her beloved father.
She asked “How did you find out about his death? It was only a few days ago. ”
I quickly muttered something about how stuff like this travels like lightening within our family while making a mental note to tell my mother and grandparents as soon as possible to avoid future embarrassment. I had given my mother Osnat’s telephone as was listed in the magazine and began breaking out in a cold sweat visualizing her calling Osnat to ask about the health of her father.
I felt pretty peevish but could not figure out a way of extraditing myself without making my parents and grandparents look insensitive pigs who didn’t care about the death of a close relative (ok not so close, I still have not figured out exactly how they are related, but trust me they are). I quickly tried to find out a few essential details before I was introduced, Osnat’s father’s name, for example.
“This is Sarah, Zarifa’s granddaughter who came in their name and in her mother’s name to sit with you during your time of bereavement.” Osnat gave me a bear hug and introduced me to several others as they sat around her kitchen table talking about long ago memories. I stayed as long, or as short as was politely possible and when I left told her that I love making kubba and always wanted to learn how to make the kardi version and that if she needed any help picking the plant I would be glad to help. I felt pretty bad that I had come for my own selfish reasons and everyone was thinking how holy I was and how I should be blessed by God, have a long healthy life and bear many children. I tried to convince myself that the preservation of cultural knowledge is a holy undertaking.
A few weeks later Osnat called to say,
“I am going kardi picking today, do you want to come?”
“Yeah! I sure do!”
So off I went, I picked her up and she directed me to a popular kardi picking spot but there was nothing to be found, we went to another site but yet again nothing, then another, and another, none, I was about to drive home empty handed when she said,
“There is one last place, stop here on the side of the road.”
So we did and bingo, tons of kardi. I was hyperventilating I was so excited and photographing these legendary plants from every angle like it was a superstar not just a roadside weed. For years I passed by them without realizing that they were a part of the culinary culture of the Kurds, Bedouins and some Arab Israelis. While Osnat, at age 64, barged into the prickly plants of last year, in her flimsy summer dress, I was snapping away until she called out to me, “did you come to pick kardi or what?” We went back to her house and she told me that now she has to wash all the plants, then cut into small pieces and finally boiled for a couple of hours. We had picked a huge pile and this must have taken her at least two days to do. She gave me some frozen prepared Kardi to take home for my efforts.

A few weeks later she called again to say “Sarah I am cooking Kardi” so off I went. Watching Kardi cook is a very boring affair but I enjoyed her company. After about 2 1/2 hours to 3 hours into the cooking she decided to taste it to see if it is ready. She gave me a small bowl as well as one to Zipora, her neighbor. After a few minutes I felt my mouth and the entire length of my esophagus start to tingle, nothing painful but still a very queer sensation that never happened before. So I asked “is this supposed to burn like this?” Zipora said, “it’s not finished cooking, it still burns” but she was really not perturbed but continued eating the
kardi like it was an English coffee cake. Wow I thought, what tough ladies, sitting outside on this sunny day eating poison, they are so chilled out.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Celeste February 9, 2010 at 9:30 am

This is such a great write-up. I love how you have captured the heart of the people, their lives, their loves.
I feel as if I was your neighbor and you were telling me this story over a cup of tea.
It reminds me of a time when I was a teacher and an older, Vietnamese student invited me into her home for a meal.
She cooked plain rice but over top was a green of some sort.
When I asked her where she bought it, she informed me that she had picked it just down the road.
All the time I thought those greens were simply weeds.
Nothing simple about it.


ben April 2, 2011 at 6:02 am

Sarah, I just read this post now. It’s an amazing story and the Kubbe Kardi is something I must try someday. Great post!


Sarah April 2, 2011 at 6:29 am

thanks Ben, one of my very first posts, think I need to edit it as I used Immediately three times in the same paragraph ;-)


Han April 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I am a Korean-American living in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. Kardi (or kari as the Kurds call it here) has become my favorite food. Just about every home here is cooking it whenever they can get it or buy it in local stores. I was wondering what this plant is, when I stumbled upon your site through Google. I am not only amazed by this food, but also by the connections I am increasingly discovering between the Jews and the Kurds. Thank you for this great story….


Sarah January 21, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Thanks for the comment Hans. I would love to travel to the Kurdish area of Iraq one day and experience authentic Kari one day.


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