When Melanie Shurka decided to open a kubeh restaurant in New York, Kubeh, she learned how to roll from the best.
Kubeh (also known as kubbeh, kubbe, kubba, kibbeh, even kobeba, depending on the country of origin) are typically hand-rolled oval or rounded semolina “dumplings,” most often filled with ground beef. Shurka finds the term “dumpling” imprecise, and she’s not the only one. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden writes, “You could call them dumplings, but they are a many-splendored thing that defies characterization.”
These are made by Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Egyptians, with many small, but important variations in both spelling and technique. Jews brought kubeh to Israel as they emigrated from these countries, where they became, like many other Middle Eastern dishes, part of the canon that is now considered Israeli food.
With questions about appropriation at the forefront of food thought right now, and the burgeoning of the twin conversations of what constitutes Israeli cuisine and why it is so popular outside of Israel, Shurka seems aware that she is riding a wave, yet is respectful of kubeh’s broad and varied history in the Middle East prior to arriving in Israel.
While kubeh originates in many countries, the Jews made theirs without mixing milk and meat. Shurka honors the Jewish Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish Israeli women she learned from by keeping with this tradition.
She says that kubeh was traditionally ochel bayit, or food made at home, lovingly, by women across the Middle East. Roden notes that kubeh were once the standard upon which women were judged, even if it was the hired cook who had actually made them.
Born in New York to an Ashkenazi American mother and an Israeli-Iranian father, Shurka first met kubeh via the Iraqi-Israeli mother of a former boyfriend. Later, while living in Israel, her love of them deepened, and she ate them frequently. Back in New York, bereft of her beloved kubeh, she began making them herself, using cookbooks and videos as guides. Since they are so labor intensive and thus best made in great quantities, Shurka began to plan a restaurant based on kubeh, in part, so she could eat them whenever she wanted.
When the perfect kubeh eluded her, she returned to Israel to learn properly from some of the women who still make them the traditional way. This required some persuasion to get in the door at Rachmo, one of the popular kubeh joints in Jerusalem and then, via social media connections, into the homes of the women she hoped to learn from. Several Kurdish and Syrian Jewish women generously let her join them in their kubeh making. One woman, said to be the “best roller” in her community, even made a party out of her visit, inviting friends so they could all roll together with the American girl.
The two types of kubeh most common in Israel (and found in many cookbooks) are siske, a soft pulled beef filled version, served in hamusta broth (a sour Swiss chard and lemon broth), and one filled with ground beef and served in vibrant beet broth.
At Kubeh, Shurka invites diners to mix and match kubeh and soup—there are four types of each: fish, vegan mushroom and siske semolina kubeh and gluten-free Syrian lamb and rice kibbeh, and the traditional hamusta and beet broths, Persian chicken soup laced with dried lime and a broth called “Tumia,” made with tomato, fennel, mint and arak.
According to Roden, making kubeh is a matter of skill, “of making a paste of perfect consistency so that the shell will not fall apart; of using your finger to hollow out the shell to make its walls as thin as possible without breaking.” Shurka’s siske kubeh satisfy Roden’s test; when you cut into one with your fork or spoon—and you must, as they are each well more than one bite’s worth—there is the satisfying bit of meat in every doughy bite.
The restaurant itself, which was designed with Michael Groth, is light, bright and modern: a mix of clean white walls, wood and brick, accented with bursts of Mediterranean blue, colorful tiles and Moroccan and Turkish metal ware and textiles as well as a samovar, a family heirloom from Iran.
I’ve eaten at Kubeh both on a warm fall morning, and on a frigid winter evening; it is as appealing to linger over rosewater mint lemonade after a bowl of kubeh on a hot day as it is to finish a meal with hot mint tea. Shurka herself is a welcoming presence in Kubeh, making the rounds of tables and chatting with customers when the kitchen isn’t too busy.
In addition to kubeh and broths, the menus include a variety of vegetable-forward Israeli and Middle Eastern mezze, dips and main dishes such as hummus, labneh, schnitzel, shakshuka and tabbouleh, as well as the Iraqi sabich sandwich, Syrian-style fried kibbeh (both beef and pea versions) and a crispy rice tahdig.
I asked my server at my last visit how many of the customers order kubeh, and he quickly replied that almost everyone does. It’s the namesake dish, a warm and comforting taste of home for some and a completely new taste for others. Either way, Kubeh is a unique and delicious restaurant option when visiting New York.
Kubeh, 646-448-6688, 464 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY, Tuesday–Thursday 11:30 am–11 pm, Friday–Saturday 11 am–midnight, Sunday 11 am–11 pm, closed Mondays. Not kosher.
All photos by Rebecca Fondgren, courtesy of Kubeh.