In memory of Amuma
“My mother makes so many delicious foods but I never bothered to learn”, I remember Ofra telling me while she was preparing the final touches of the meal. “But I realized she wasn’t getting any younger and I began to record her recipes before it would be too late”. She worked gracefully in her small kitchen, chatting and tidying as she went, her movements choreographed from years of experience.
“She taught me how to make rice that cooks up perfectly every time”, she continued “each grain separately and I never have to worry about how much water to add”
“I thought you said your mother was Iraqi” I observed as she poured rice into a boiled pot of water “why are you making rice like a Persian?”
“Ah, my mother is originally from there but moved to Iraq when she was young.” Jews often moved to escape persecution or for better economical opportunities and their food heritage reflects this. Typical of the cuisine of the wandering Jew, this Persian style rice was served with Iraqi kubba soup, combining the culinary elements of different cultures. These recipes are passed from mother to daughter, country to country, a living history linking past to present.
Her kubba soup, although considered a popular Iraqi dish, had typical Persian flavorings; mounds of fresh herbs, lemon juice and a bit of sugar to counter the tartness.
She then went on to make fried kubba, dropping them carefully into the hot oil and letting them turn golden and crisp before removing them with a slotted spoon. “These I make at the last moment because they are most delicious fresh” she explained as she brought the serving plate full of steaming kubba to the table.
It was over a year ago since we enjoyed her meal of three different Middle Eastern dumplings; beet, okra and Syrian style fried kubba, and I have always wanted to try making them at home. Sadly, our last meeting was a condolence visit after her mother’s death. As Ofra recounted her mother’s last days in hushed tones, I was remembering another conversation, her words echoing in my mind, “before it would be too late”
Yesterday I finally called her up for the recipe, scribbling hurriedly as she described the nuances of each step. Even on the phone I imagined Ofra’s beautiful hands punctuating her voice, gently emphasizing important steps “Drop them into boiling water slowly, not on top of each other, but in a circle so they have room to float”
So I did what she told me, chop, dice, fry, stuff, mold, stir….all morning as my kitchen counters became more cluttered with each step. Never will I be such a self contained and neat cook as Ofra but I realized to make perfect kubba, all you need is enthusiasm and love.
For the soup (קובה סלק)
1 onion, chopped
4-5 very red tomatoes, peeled either by grating them or using the hot water method
50 grams (about three tablespoons) of tomato paste
1 flat tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
(Ofra calls these spices by color; red, orange, black and white)
6 beets, peeled, cut in half and then into half circles
Juice from 1-2 lemons
1 tablespoon sugar
1 bunch coriander, chopped with part of the stems
1 bunch parsley, chopped with part of the stems
5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock (or water and chicken soup powder)
For the kubba filling
300 grams chicken breast (I used leftover cooked beef and ground chicken). It is also convenient to use ground chicken or beef.
Small bunch celery leaves, about 3/4 cup, chopped
A bit of parsley, chopped (there should be more celery than parsley)
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of paprika, turmeric and black pepper
For the kubba shell
About 21/2 cups course semolina
Pinch of salt
Preparing the soup
In a large pot, fry the onion in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil until translucent. Add the tomato paste and stir until it begins to thicken and a rich tomato aroma is released. Add the peeled tomatoes and continue cooking for 15 minutes so the tomatoes soften. Add the beets and the chicken soup, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the beets begin to soften but still retain a nice bite, about 45-60 minutes.
Meanwhile prepare the kubba
In a food processor or by hand pulse the coriander, parsley, onion and spices until combined but not liquefied. Use the pulse option instead of continually running the machine for more control. Add the chicken breast if using and pulse until combined. It’s ok to have small chucks of meat.
Prepare the work surface and make the kubba
Wrap plastic wrap on a large oven tray otherwise you will be arranging kubba dumplings on all your dishes. Have the filling, a bowl of water and the semolina bowl within reach. Pour 1 cup of semolina into the bowl at a time otherwise it will dry out in the middle. Adding more water doesn’t help at this point as it becomes hard and sticky instead of soft.
Add about 1/2 cups of water for every cup of semolina and combine. Wait a few minutes for the water to absorb. It should be soft and pliable. If it is soupy add one tablespoon of semolina at a time or wait a bit longer.
Take a small piece of semolina dough and about the same volume of filling. Push the meat into the semolina ball and close the opening. This method works only if the dough is very soft, otherwise use your thumb and forefinger to make a hole in the dough and simultaneously pinch the sides to create a small cup. Add the meat and close the top using water to smooth the dumpling shell. Call your neighbors and ask them to help. You should make about 40 small dumplings. If you are not using them all freeze the remainder on the plastic wrap, once frozen store in an airtight container or bag in the freezer.
The final touches
Meanwhile turn the soup on high. Add the lemon juice, sugar, coriander and parsley. Adjust the other seasonings if necessary. When the soup is boiling like a witches cauldron, start dropping in the kubba one at a time in a spiral starting from the edge of the pot and towards the center. You can drop them in randomly of course but try not to drop two uncooked kubba together otherwise they might stick. After the last kubba is added wait until the soup comes back to a boil and reduce heat. The kubba will fall apart if they are boiled for too long. Using a long wooden spoon gentle dislodge any kubba that have stuck to the bottom of the pot or have stuck together. Continue cooking for another 20 minutes.
Serve with white rice, invite your neighbors and dig in.