When I hear the words “Israeli food” or “Israeli cuisine,” hummus, falafel and an abundance of salads come to mind. Not, in other words, soup.
But, despite the way it may seem, and as Jerusalem’s 15-inch snowfall at the end of 2013 proved, winter in Israel does, in fact, exist. And in the bone-chilling cold of an Israeli winter…of cement buildings that don’t have central heating like we’re used to stateside…one dish is king: marak kubbeh (kubbeh soup) and especially marak kubbeh adom (red kubbeh soup).
Kubbeh are semolina dumplings that surprise with a flavorful meat filling. They come from the same tribe as kibbeh, a croquette made of bulgur, also filled with meat and then fried. For kubbeh soup, the parcels are cooked and served in a rich soup broth—a vibrant pink one in the case of marak kubbeh adom.
You’re lucky if you have a Kurdish or Iraqi mother, grandmother, aunt or mother-in-law. In Israel, the next-best option is snagging an invitation from a friend who does have said Kurdish relative, or you can find the soup in some home-style restaurants.
While last winter a three-week pop-up called The Kubbeh Project gave New Yorkers a taste of the family recipe, in the DC area, our only option is to get our own hands dirty—or rather, beet-stained—with this recipe from Lilly Aziz, a Kurdish Israeli from Moshav Zecharia in the Mateh Yehuda region.
The Jewish community of Kurdistan, which encompasses parts of Iran, northern Iraq, Syria and Eastern Turkey, has a history that is said to date back to Talmudic times, when the Assyrians exiled a tribe of Jews to the region in 721-715 BCS. Under Nebuchadnezzer, they were then exiled to Babylon, where its intellectuals crafted the Babylonian Talmud.
The Kurdish Jewish experience varied greatly through history depending on the rulers in power. When Islam took hold in the region, most Jews were forced to convert, though some preserved their enclave communities while others moved to larger cities like Baghdad to become merchants. The overwhelming majority of Kurdish Jews made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) as part of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah between 1950 and 1952 with their Iraqi counterparts.
Lilly and her family came to Israel from Kurdistan in Iraq in 1951, when she was five years old. The arduous journey took a total of three years, beginning by caravan from the small villages to Baghdad, with the small children and the elderly riding mules and everyone else walking. Those who survived the journey and reached Baghdad were taken in by the city’s Jewish community, which fed and sheltered them in synagogues and courtyards for 18 months until they were airlifted to Israel.
Lilly and her extended family, along with many other new olim (immigrants) in the 1950s, were dispersed throughout the country, especially regions that were still being developed, and thus introduced to Israel through the hardships of the ma’abarot (tent cities).
Work was scarce, available only in factories or orchards. Like many other Kurds, Lilly and her family settled in Moshav Zecharia, finding comforting similarities between its terrain and the one they were familiar with back home.
Today, Lilly is a prolific cook who preserves and shares Kurdistan’s rich and delicious history as part of the Partnership2Gether’s Ethnic Cooks program. She has visited South Africa and the DC area and hosted many visitors in her home, teaching them how to make real Kurdish kubbeh.
From the political hubs of Assyria, Bablyon, Kurdistan, Iraq and Israel…maybe Washington will become kubbeh’s next frontier.