Navigate to Food section

A Kurdish Treat Becomes a Jerusalem Staple

Kubbeh soup was once a secret of Jews from Kurdistan. Today it can be found across Israel, even in the frozen food section at the supermarket.

by
Janna Gur
February 16, 2022
Itamar Greenberg
Kubbeh Matfunia at Ima restaurant.Itamar Greenberg
Itamar Greenberg
Kubbeh Matfunia at Ima restaurant.Itamar Greenberg

On a chilly winter afternoon in the mid-1980s, I found myself in a recently opened restaurant called Ima in downtown Jerusalem. It was lunchtime, I was cold and hungry, and the restaurant—with its vaulted windows and red tiled roof—looked temptingly homey. Before I had time to go through the menu, a server came over and asked which kubbeh soup I preferred.

“How do you know I want a kubbeh soup,” I asked, “and not, say, stuffed vegetables?”

She shrugged. “Stuffed vegetables are really nice,” she said, “but our kubbeh soup is the best in Jerusalem.”

I hesitated. “I have never had one before.”

“So try matfunia. Hamousta is a bit extreme for a kubbeh rookie,” she said, disappearing in the kitchen before I had a chance to ask what matfunia was, or hamousta for that matter, and whether the soup was enough to qualify as a meal.

After a few minutes, the server was back with a large bowl of bright orange-red soup with large chunks of pumpkin and zucchini and a few plump dumplings. Ten minutes later the bowl was empty, and I was hooked. The soup—flavorful, nicely balanced, with a subtly sweet note—was a perfect foil for the true raison d’etre of the dish: the dumplings. Sipping a glass of mint tea for dessert (the soup definitely qualified as a full meal), I was already fantasizing about my next bowl of this simple and heartwarming treat.

If you are familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine, the word kubbeh (or kibbeh) will sound familiar, but probably in a different context: either a crunchy, meat-filled, torpedo-shaped dumpling called kubbeh nablusiya, or kubbeh naye (raw kubbeh). The latter, often called Middle Eastern steak tartare, is made from raw ground goat or lamb, mixed with bulgur and spices. Kubbeh in a soup is different. I once heard someone call it a love child of a matzo ball and a meat-filled kreplach. This description is accurate, to a point: The shell is heftier than a matzo ball, but fluffy enough to absorb the broth; the stuffing has more flavor and bite than one found in an Ashkenazi kreplach.

When I tasted my first kubbeh soup at Ima, it was still a novelty, but within a decade, it would evolve into one of the icons of Jerusalem cuisine—particularly Kurdish kubbeh soup for Friday lunch, as a pre-Shabbat meal.

Jerusalem cuisine is predominantly a Sephardic one, shaped by descendants of Spanish Jews who arrived in the city from the Ottoman Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slow-cooked meat stews, stuffed vegetables, and dainty savory pastries with mouth-watering names like pastelikos, borekitas, or biscochos are all hallmarks of this cuisine. Kubbeh soup is a more recent addition. It arrived with Kurdish Jews—a relatively small and close-knit community whose members immigrated to Israel in the course of the 20th century. More than half settled in Jerusalem, the rest in a couple dozen rural settlements (moshavim) across the country.

Kurdistan is a province of Iraq, but Kurdish Jews regard themselves as a separate group, certainly where food is concerned. “Kurdistan is relatively close to Turkey and Syria, and its cuisine can be regarded as the extension of the Levantine cuisine,” explained Lilach Rubin, a Jerusalem-based activist and culinary entrepreneur. “Unlike many ethnic cooks who went through a culinary culture shock when they arrived in their new homeland, a Kurdish homemaker found all she needed to make traditional fare”—primarily to various wheat products such as semolina and bulgur wheat, both indispensable in Kurdish cooking.

“The Kurdish community was very poor and so was its cuisine,” added Renana Peres, a rabbi and a Hebrew University professor, who hails from a Persian-Kurdish family. “During the week, women would cook simple meals based on seasonal vegetables, a little bit of inexpensive meat or fat and of course bulgur. For Shabbat meals, the same ingredients were put together in a more elaborate way: Vegetables would be stuffed and bulgur and meat transformed into dumplings.”

Kubbeh Hamousta at Morduch restaurant.

Kubbeh Hamousta at Morduch restaurant.Janna Gur

Making a proper Kurdish kubbeh takes a lot of time and even more practice. The standard stuffing is ground meat, but the most authentic and prestigious dumplings are stuffed with siskeh—shredded, slow-cooked roast beef and/or lamb. The shell is made from a very finely milled variety of bulgur called j’rish (as opposed to Iraqi kubbeh, made from more forgiving semolina). Preparations start on Thursday and are often a social event, with a few family members or neighbors getting together for a session of rolling, stuffing, and gossiping. Most of the dumplings end up in a soup pot or in the overnight hamin pot.

Surprisingly, a better part of this time-consuming, labor-intensive delicacy will be served for an early Friday lunch (or rather late breakfast), several hours before Shabbat starts. Peres offers a historical explanation: In the town of Zakho, the center of Jewish life in Kurdistan, most men worked on cargo rafts on the Hiddekel River and were away during the week. Kubbeh soup was served to welcome the hungry husband returning home before Shabbat, and the custom stuck even when Kurdish Jewry moved to Israel.

“When I was a kid, every Friday morning, my dad would take me and my sisters to the swimming pool and then we would all go to grandmother Kazale to eat kubbeh soup,” recalled Peres. “You can’t really call it a meal. We would sit at the kitchen table and grandmother would pour each of us a bowl of soup with a few dumplings. My mom usually couldn’t join us, so she a got a takeaway in one of the small pots my grandmother kept for that purpose.”

The soup served for Friday lunch in Kurdish households is invariably hamousta—light and very lemony broth with celery and chard. There are other delightful soups in Kurdish cuisine—like the hearty matfunia with pumpkin, bamia with okra, or vividly colored beet-stained selek (a similar soup exists in Jewish Iraqi cuisine, and is served with semolina-based kubbeh)—but a Friday lunch is always about hamousta. It is the lightest and most refreshing of all kubbeh soups, which makes it the most suitable for a pre-Shabbat meal.

For many decades, the tradition of kubbeh-making and kubbeh Friday lunches remained a secret within the Kurdish community until the 1980s, when a couple of simple eateries in and around Mahane Yehuda market added kubbeh soups to their menus next to meat balls, stuffed vegetables and other homey fare that we call today “Jerusalem soul food.” The first customers were Kurdish Jews, many of whom worked at the market or lived nearby, but pretty soon, Jerusalemites of all provenances got seduced by the kubbeh magic.

Rubin, who moved to Jerusalem in the mid-1990s from Herzliya, remembers well her first encounter with a kubbeh soup: “I settled in Nachlaot quarter near Mahane Yehuda market, very close to Morduch restaurant, one of the pioneers of the genre and still one of the best places for kubbeh in town. I was living on a budget and kubbeh soup was a godsend—tasty, filling, and so cheap!”

But with all due respect to restaurant kubbeh, the real deal is to experience the dish in authentic surroundings. “The day a friend invited me for a Friday lunch at his Kurdish parents’ home, I knew I was accepted in the inner circle of cool Jerusalemites,” said Rubin, “though on that particular occasion, the kubbeh was a bit underwhelming. Apparently, authentic doesn’t necessarily mean good.”

Amit Aaronsohn, a food writer, restaurant critic, and native of Jerusalem, grew up eating kubbeh soups—in restaurants and in the kitchen of his Ukrainian grandmother. “But I nagged my dad, who had Kurdish friends and colleagues, to get us an invitation to a Friday lunch, and he came through,” he recalled. “It was an open house kind of affair: Dozens of people came and went, family, friends, neighbors. There was a huge pot of delicious hamousta sitting on the stove. Everybody got a plate and a second helping if they wished.”

I wondered how his Ukrainian grandmother learned to make the dish. “She didn’t,” Aaronsohn said with a laugh. “She just made the soup, and tossed frozen kubbeh into the pot.”

She was not alone. As the popularity of this delicacy grew, and spread beyond the Kurdish community, many Jerusalem homemakers started outsourcing the labor-intensive dumplings. The major player in the frozen kubbeh business is Yasmin. The dumplings, manufactured in a specially designed automated kubbeh maker, can be found in the frozen food cabinets in supermarkets across the country. “I can spot Yasmin kubbeh just by looking at them,” said Aaronsohn, “they are so uniform. The flavor is OK, but it is not the real deal.” He prefers Jamila, a Kurdish restaurant in Mevasseret Zion near Jerusalem that also does a brisk business selling handmade dumplings.

Apart from the frozen options, there are scores of homemakers, mostly but not exclusively of Kurdish provenance, who sell handmade kubbeh out of their kitchens. “Try posting a question on social media or a neighborhood WhatsApp group where to find frozen kubbeh,” said Rubin, “and you will spark a heated and quite emotional discussion.”

Come Friday, it seems that everybody in Jerusalem is somehow involved with kubbeh—having a kubbeh lunch at home, buying it for takeout, bringing a pot of dumplings in a soup to friends and neighbors, or heading to one of the restaurants to have a piping hot bowl of this ultimate Jerusalem comfort food.

 

Janna Gur is a Tel Aviv-based writer and journalist. She is the author of The Book of New Israeli Food, Jewish Soul Food from Minsk and Marrakesh, and Shuk (with Einat Admony).

Support Our Podcasts

In addition to Unorthodox, the world’s No. 1 Jewish podcast, and Take One, our daily Talmud meditation, we’re hard at work on exciting new Jewish audio series.