Sixty years have passed since the last of Zakho’s Jews left Kurdistan. Most of the Jews settled in Israel bringing with them empty bags, uprooted lives and the spirit of the past. Their ancient language of neo-Aramaic, their music and dance and entire culture, had been plucked out in time and transplanted to where it had no hope of continuation. Only memories remain and even that is quickly disappearing. Their recipes are one of the only remnants which have succeeded in being passed on to the younger generation.
The Jews of Zakho, lived an isolated life in the wild terrain of Northern Iraq and have existed there from the Assyrian conquest of the 8th century BC, surviving the rise and fall of numerous empires. In the 1950’s, however, their way of life would cease because of a combination of Pan-Arabism and the creation of the State of Israel. With the swift change in political climate, the Jews left their home country en masse after thousands of years of continual history. There exodus was not because they dreamed of living in Israel, but because it had become dangerous to be a Jew in Arab lands.
An important legacy of the Kurdish Jews is having lived together in relative peace with their Muslim neighbors and the regional chieftains or aghas for centuries. On the day Zakho Jews left,
“… they crossed the bridge to the bus stop, they saw that another crowd had gotten there first: Hundreds of Muslims had lined the streets to bid their neighbors farewell. Old women raised cries of li-li-li-li-li-li, ululating as if a loved one had died…”
(Excerpt from My Father’s Paradise, by Ariel Sabar)
The recipe for Kubbeh Hamousta is what Zakho Jews brought back with them. It consisted only of green vegetables, mainly celery stalks and leaves, swiss chard, green onions, green or dried garlic and water steeped in sumac (Rhus coriaria or Tanner’s Rhus). Hamousta means sour in neo-Aramaic and traditionally sumac fruits called drupes were used to create a sour liquid found in many of their recipes. In Israel lemons, which were much more plentiful, was a substitute for sumac. Although Sumac plants are indigenous to Israel, growing mainly in the central and northern regions they are usually not plentiful enough to harvest.
Southern Iraqi’s and those of the north share many of the same culinary culture but this recipe is unique to Iraqi Kurdistan, and to Zahko in particular. My grandmother who lived south east of Zahko, in a village called Koysanjak, did not make this dish, although she made a similar tomato based kubbeh which she also called hamousta.
Traditionally the swiss chard, garlic and celery would be pounded into a paste before added to the soup but with the invention of the food processor that technique is now obsolete (thank goodness).
Perhaps small part of their culture can be retained through such recipes.
Green Hamousta Kubbeh (קובה חמוסתה)
This is a Kurdish version of the famous dumplings from Iraq, throughout the Levant and Turkey. There are many Kurdish tribes in Iraq and each has similar yet distinct recipes attributed only to them. The Kurds cover large areas of Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Syria and Turkey. During the 700s BC Assyrians sacked the Kingdom of Israel and deported the Jews, with some eventually settling in Kurdistan. More Jews followed during the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians and again after the conquest by the Romans. According to DNA analysis Jews and non Jew Kurds share a common ancestry beginning in the area of Kurdistan. It is thought that these Kurds immigrated to Israel several millennia ago and are the forefathers of today’s Jews.
1 bunch swiss chard (white beet leaves)
2 sticks celery
1 cup of celery leaves
4 green onions
6 cloves garlic
3/4 cups fresh lemon juice
10 cups chicken or beef soup stock
2 zucchinis chopped into large pieces
2 turnips, chopped into large pieces
700 grams of fatty stewing meat, such as chuck, shank or neck (I use beef because of availability but lamb is more traditional)
50 grams lamb tail fat
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup celery leaves, minced
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cup semolina
1 cup fine cracked wheat, not burgul, (it should be uncooked)
½ teaspoon salt
Approximately one cup water
Soak cracked wheat in about one cup of water for 30 minutes or until it has absorbed the water and has expanded, it shouldn’t be soupy. Add the semolina and ½ teaspoon salt and knead until the dough is soft and elastic like playdough. Add more water if necessary to create pliable dough. If the dough is too wet, let stand for 30 minutes or add small amounts of semolina. Remember that different batches of semolina and cracked wheat absorb water differently.
Fry the chunks of meat in lamb fat using a cast iron skillet until the meat is browned on all sides, adding a few drops of water to the pan if the bottom begins to burn. Cover the meat with water and let the water boiled down completely and the meat loses about half of their volume (this is an improvised Khelia). Set aside to cool. Fry the onion in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil or lamb fat until dark brown, add to meat. Add the salt and pepper. Remove from heat and add the chopped celery leaves. Cool completely.
It is also possible to use ground meat instead. Combine all the ingredients for the filling and stuff the dough uncooked. This is a much easier method since the meat is clumped together and not crumbly.
Wash the vegetables. In the blender add the green onions, celery leaves, garlic and about ½ of the chard leaves. Add water and blend until all the vegetables are pulverized. Roughly chop the remaining chard. Boil the chicken stock or water. Add the vegetables and chopped swiss chard (and whatever didn’t fit into the blender) and cook for about five minutes. Add the pulverized vegetables in the stock/water and cook for another 10 minutes. Add about 3/4 cup lemon juice. It should be very sour.
Take a piece of dough the size of a walnut, shaped the dough into a ball and with your thumb make a hole for the stuffing. The sides of the shell should be thin, about 1/6 of a cm as the dough will expand in the soup. A bowl of water is useful to dip your hands in to keep the dough from sticking. Stuff the shell with the cooled meat filling, for every piece of dough try stuffing with about the same volume of meat. Flatten the stuffed kubbeh into discs. Place them on a lightly oiled surface such as a baking pan. Only when the soup is boiling add the kubbeh. With a long wooden spoon stir the soup gently to make sure the kubbeh have not stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the kubbeh begin to float. Remember the kubbeh will disintegrate if cooked too long. Uncooked stuffed kubbeh can be frozen. To freeze put a tray of kubbeh in the freezer until frozen to the touch. Take them out and put them in a freezer bag.
My Father’s Paradise, by Ariel Sabar
Kurdish Cooking, Varda Shilo