A recipe of a wandering Jew

by Sarah on March 12, 2011

In memory of Amuma

beet dumplings, kubba

“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.

persian rice

“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.

kubba, beet and okra

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.

kubba fried

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.

beet iraqi dumplings kubba

Beet Kubba

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

Salt

(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)

Vegetable oil

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.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Jodi Lewchuk March 12, 2011 at 11:54 am

What a lovely piece, Sarah. It reminded me of my Eastern European family and many of our dishes and practices, which very much reflect how flavours and traditions flow back and forth across borders in that region as well.

Of course I couldn’t help but think of beet borscht and stuffed dumplings when reading this recipe, but what wonderful new spices — paprika, tumeric — to try, making a familiar dish brand new.

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Sarah March 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thank you Jodi, I have eaten borscht several times and you are right about the similarities, perhaps there is a connection. Although my great grandparents were born in Eastern Europe (Romania and Lithuania) my grandparents were pretty well assimilated into American life and left many food habits behind. I don’t even think my first taste of borscht was within the family.

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Yael March 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm

What a beautiful post. The kubba looks amazing and it is by far my favorite kind. Your photos are amazing as well. Very proud of you, you’re doing some amazing stuff.

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Sarah March 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thanks Yael!

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Michelle March 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

What a lovely article. The best food is one that is made with love, something that my husband and I always say when we serve each other dinner.

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Yael the Finn March 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Wow,that kubbe looks amazingly beautiful! I used to have an Iraqi neighbor when my kid was small,and she would always bring us the most delicious kubbe!

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Sarah March 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Thanks Yael and Michelle, I have another kubba recipe I want to try from her, but want to wait until okra is in season.

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Robin from Israel March 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm

That looks wonderful, I love beet kubbeh.

I wish we’d thought to write down many of my grandmother’s wonderful Hungarian recipes earlier. The few that we do have are full of instructions like “mix until it looks right”. I can make a perfectly good dish, but it just isn’t the same. Whatever the magic element was, it didn’t get handed down :(.

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Sarah March 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Robin, Thanks, Same with my family, my grandparents were pretty much assimilated and the recipes from their family were never passed on.

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barbara March 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm

What a fascinating recipe. I’ve not heard of Kubba before.

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Sarah March 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Barbara, It is a time consuming recipe but it feeds a crowd and so wonderful on a cold winter’s day.

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turkey's for life March 13, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Awww, a lovely story. My nana was a fabulous cook / baker and the whole family always went to her house for Sunday lunch. None of us ever thought to get her recipes!
Kubba – Excuse my ignorance on this one. Is this roughly the same idea as kibbeh (içli köfte in Turkey) but with room for playing around with different ingredients?
Julia

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Sarah March 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm

thanks Julia, Kibbeh, kubbeh, kubba, kubbah, they are all one happy family. There are lots of different variations of these
dumplings from the popular fried varieties, to stewed, baked and even grilled.

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Orly @yumivore March 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Capturing our food heritage is so important. Such a beautiful post it makes me crave these flavors and want a bite of kubbe!

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Simcha March 14, 2011 at 1:34 am

Yes lovely idea to get your families recipes, I unfortunately have none of mine but was given many of my husbands families recipes which have Persian, Syrian and Turkish influences. (Julia I think those kubbas look the same as our içli köftes with the difference being Turkish ones are made with fine grade bulgar or simit as it is called in some areas)

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Sarah March 15, 2011 at 7:05 am

thanks Simcha, The bulgar kubba are usually fried and the ones made with semolina or ground cracked wheat (jereesh) are often stewed.
Liz, Mushrooms would work well for the filling. If I was making it vegetarian I would add a nice vegetable stock made with lots of celery and carrots.

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Liz March 15, 2011 at 6:24 am

I love how colorful this is, I’m going to make it with mushroom filling :-D

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Faye Levy March 16, 2011 at 12:20 am

Sarah, this is so beautifully written and photographed. I love your recipe style, with phrases like “ask the neighbors to help” and boiling “like a witches cauldron.” I have “wandering Jew” relatives too–from India but the origin of the family was in Iraq, and they make similar kinds of kubba. Serving them with Persian rice sounds like a wonderful idea.

Did you use a special semolina for making the kubba? What was it called in Hebrew and where did you buy it?

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Sarah March 16, 2011 at 12:46 am

Thank you, I buy the semolina at the supermarket. It is a very common ingredient used for making cakes such as basbousa, handraked couscous and various types of kubba. Here in Israel it is known as solet and is almost always found (even in my corner grocery) near the flour and sugar.
If you have Iraqi-Indian relatives then you must have tasted amba, the mango pickle. Such a wonderful melting pot of flavors to explore in Jewish cuisine.

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Faye Levy March 16, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Thanks, Sarah. I known solet as regular semolina and since you specified coarse semolina, I thought it might have a different name.

About amba, it was an acquired taste for me but I do like it now. It’s great for seasoning vegetable dishes that might otherwise be bland, like plain cabbage cooked with sauteed onions.

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Tanvi March 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm

I really need to try these.I love beets for taste and color and making dumplings with them is new for me.We generally make curry with beets and potatoes.Love the rich color of the gravy.

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Emma March 18, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I love discovering other people’s family food memories, there’s just nothing like this dish in British cuisine, and it sounds so tasty! I’m growing beetroot this year so expect to have lots of it – will give this a go!

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Jenna Short March 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm

This recipe was fantastic!! Thank you for sharing!

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Alexandra March 11, 2014 at 10:18 am

Sarah thank you for sharing this wonderful story and recipe. As a rice lover who is always in search of the “perfect white rice recipe” could please upload Ofra’s mother recipe? So far I my method to prevent rice from sticking is to cook it in a lot of water and drain it when cooked. Thank you in advance.

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Sarah March 11, 2014 at 11:14 am

Hi Alexandra, I don’t have her exact recipe but basically she cooks the rice in a copious amount of water until it’s al dente. She then drains the rice and returns it to the pot, steaming it on low with the lid on until the grains are soft and separated (about 10 minutes, if I remember correctly though I have seen recipes that steam for much longer).

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