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Melting Pot

Iraqi-style soup dumplings seem somehow authentic, the embodiment of a less clichéd, more complex Israel—but it turns out they, too, are hybrids

Irin Carmon
March 19, 2012

For most of my life, I thought I knew what kubbeh was: ovoid, crispy, often seen drying out, post-deep-fry in the windows of Israeli kiosks or across the eastern Mediterranean and its diaspora. But then, during a 2009 stint in Israel, a Libyan woman married to a Moroccan man introduced me to something I’d never experienced: Iraqi-style marak kubbeh adom. These dumplings were light as air, at least until you reached the herbed meat within, and they grew even fatter soaking in a sweet-sour red soup. My friend introduced me to them in the basement of her Herzliya house, but one serving was not enough. On the same trip, I found my way to Mordoch’s in Machaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem, where I gorged on the regular beet soup but also tried dumplings in hamusta, an even more sour yellow soup.

Frenetic Googling on where these could be eaten in the United States was no help, so not long ago, I returned to Mordoch’s to get some hints on how to survive stateside on the (somewhat uneven) strength of my own kitchen. Kubbeh in soup, particularly at Mordoch, had seemed somehow authentic, the embodiment of an Israel less clichéd and more complex than a falafel cart yet more convincingly local than a Tel Aviv high-design restaurant—an Israel I wish I knew better. I should have guessed the words “authentic” and “local” always need an asterisk.

Sarit Agai is the current matriarch of Mordoch; her husband Itzhak and his father founded it, a homey paper-tablecloth type of place, 30 years ago. The first restaurant was Itzhak’s grandfather’s, back when the Machaneh Yehuda shuk was the spiritual center of the city and a melting pot for Jews of the Muslim world. The soup dumplings were most associated with Iraqi and Kurdish Jews, but the Agais are themselves mutts: Iraqi, says Agai, and “the other half is seven generations here in Israel from the Old City of Jerusalem. And another part from Persia and another part from Iraq, a blila (miscegenation) from generation to generation.” She herself is half Moroccan and half Spanioli, Sephardic in Jerusalem for many generations—some straight from Madrid in 1492, some via Turkey and Egypt.

That was typical of who was peopling the alleys of the shuk when, back in the ’60s, “there was a communal oven where everyone knew whose bread was whose, by the marks,” says Agai. That’s why they have stuffed cabbage on the menu, and shakshuka with fresh crushed tomatoes, and cigarim and mejadra and even goulash.

Most people come for the soups, especially the older Jerusalemites who have fewer and fewer people with whom to reminisce about the old world, and visiting South American children of Iraqi Jews. “There are people that come in for kubbeh and say that they want to cry, because their mother is dead,” Agai says. Her own children work the kitchen and the tables.

According to Yael Zerubavel, founding director of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers, the soup dumplings played an iconic role across Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities. “Women were particularly proud if they knew how to make kubbeh well,” she said. And, it was said, “husbands are blessed to have a wife who knows how to make kubbeh well.”

By now, you can buy frozen kubbeh in the supermarket, but Mordoch is one of the few places that hasn’t changed—the Agai family still makes everything by hand, same as 30 years ago, nothing frozen and scarcely anything even ground by machines. They buy their produce in the morning at the shuk. “Our kubbeh is immediate, it’s here and now,” says Agai. “There’ll be new kubbeh in the morning.”

But outside of Mordoch, kubbeh recipes vary wildly, from kubbeh composition (shifting measures of bulgur and semolina, mostly) to construction (whether or not you cook the meat before rolling it in dough and popping it in the soup—works to dry it out, I’d say; sometimes you’re called upon to freeze the dumplings, which can help keep them intact, but it’s not strictly necessary) to the presence of spices. And of course, the soup itself. Mordoch’s red kubbeh soup is in a broth of cubed beets, carrots, tomato paste, and bay leaves. The dumplings are bulgur flour and semolina surrounding ground beef with onion and chopped “karpas,” in this case celery leaves but sometimes parsley. Zerubavel says in Kurdistan a meat or chicken soup forms the base, and sometimes people add raisins or pomegranates.

When I tried out the recipe that Agai gave me, I found that something was missing in terms of holding the dough together. In his more updated take, the Israeli chef Haim Cohen recommends a cup of soup water mixed with the grains, a suggestion well-met, though his recipe seemed too low on broth in proportion to the dumplings. Part of the issue is the precise milling of the grain. Bulgur flour isn’t particularly easy to come by in the States, and it comes either coarse or very fine; a fine golden one from a Turkish market turned out to be best. Then there’s finding the optimal combination of bulgur and the generally softer semolina. Some recipes call only for semolina, but it’s worth battling it out with the drier and more unwieldy bulgur, since semolina-only dumplings tended to be gummier and heavier, whereas bulgur fills with air.

It’s up to you how elaborately spiced you want your soup and meat. Mordoch keeps it simple, as does a recipe that was well-received on the food site Food52—lemon, chicken stock, possibly paprika. Cohen recommends adding baharat to the meat, a spice mix that itself varies wildly across regions but often includes black peppercorns, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and cloves; he puts mint leaves in the dumplings. His soup adds brown sugar and honey to the lemony-beet base.

As much as Machaneh Yehuda, with its commingling of Sephardic and Arab cultures, feels like the emotional home of these soup dumplings, they are of course borrowed from elsewhere, at least originally. Sarit Agai grew up in Abu Tor, “alongside Arabs,” Agai says. “I would eat with them. So, where does any of it really belong? I don’t know.” Zerubavel says kubbeh soup originated in Arab communities and was adapted by the Jews. “If you want to know something that was specifically Jewish about the soups,” said Zerubavel, who did oral history work in Syrian and Lebanese communities, “it was that they used matzoh flour for the dumplings during Passover.”

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.

The Recipe

Lamb Kubbeh in Beet Soup

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.