If I could write a cookbook from the ground up, I'd want to travel all over the towns of Kurdistan, from the mountains of southern Turkey to the Tigris in Iraq to northern Iran, and collect their recipes. I want to know more about malthoum and kebab kishkash, about the wheat harvest in Mosul and mountain cheeses. This region is a great reminder that the borders of the modern Middle East were mainly drawn by arbitrary lines sketched on a map, and there are a lot of different ways to view the Middle East along ethnic, religious, and even culinary or linguistic lines.
My introduction to the diversity of this region came while living in Damascus, where I spent a good amount of time with a Christian family that hailed from Hasake and Qamishli, in the far northeastern corner of Syria. The Kurdish region stretches from it's western tip in Aleppo, Syria through Turkey, Iraq, and the it's eastern edge in Iran. Western media seems to paint this region simply as Kurdish, but in reality it's a fascinatingly beautiful part of the world that has long been home to a wide variety of ethnicities and religions: there's Armenians and Arabs, Yazidis and Zoroastrians, a large Christian population, including Assyrians and Chaldeans, and the region had a sizeable Jewish population before 1948. I had two Kurdish friends in Damascus who regularly conversed in Sorani and introduced me to colorful Kurdish textiles and fiercely flavored red pepper dip. We went to a concert of Kurdish music held at the French Embassy one evening (Kurdish music and gatherings are banned from public venues in Syria), and I saw old men cry at the joy of being able to share their beautiful songs.
The cuisine of Kurdistan is rich with the influences of Arab, Armenian, and Persian cooking, and it's also terrifically unexplored. The most famous dish from this region is kubbe, a meat-stuffed dumpling poached in broth. As the name implies, kubbe is related to kibbe, the Middle Eastern meat and bulgur dumplings (or patties, or casserole, depending on the incarnation). Similarly, there are many variations of kubbe- some people make the dumpling shell with a mixture of bulgur and semolina, some use all semolina, others add some matzo meal or use ground rice. The broth always has a slight tart element to it but it can vary from a simple lemony chicken broth to a saffron broth to a tomato-tamarind broth favored in Iraq or even a plum-flavored soup in Iran.
Ever since I first made kubbe, kneading about 20 pounds of dough with two other women on the floor of a Damascene apartment, I've been collecting kubbe recipes and tips. These days I make an all semolina dough and stuff it with a lamb mixture brightly spiced with parsley, dried fruits and pine nuts. A homemade chicken stock with a good dose of fresh lemon juice and a pinch of saffron (if I'm feeling plush) makes the base of the soup. You don't have to have any interest in Kurdish cuisine to love kubbe, there's something universally appealing about these dumplings in warm lemony broth.
Kubbe is very popular in Israel, where it was brought by Jewish immigrants from northern Iraq, it's similarity to matzo ball soup makes it a popular choice for Passover, which begins tonight. If you want to make it for Passover, use matzo meal in the dough, as semolina is hametz.
Kubbe (Meat-Stuffed Semolina Dumplings in Broth)
Though the dough can seem difficult to work with at first, in reality it's quite forgiving, if it tears merely patch it with another bit of dough. I've made this for vegetarians using vegetarian sausage and vegetable broth (heresy, I know!) and even avowed carnivores couldn't tell the difference. Makes about 4 main-coarse servings.
for the dough:
2 cups fine semolina (semolina flour, often found in the pasta aisle, works perfectly)
1/4 cup flour
1 cup hot water
for the filling:
1 small onion or shallot, diced
1 lb lean ground lamb (you can also use beef)
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice
1/4 cup chopped dried cherries, currants, or cranberries
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 heaping tablespoons pine nuts or chopped slivered almonds
for the broth:
6 cups good homemade chicken stock
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
a pinch of saffron
salt, a tiny bit of red pepper to taste
chopped parsley for serving
1. Make filling: Heat some olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onion and saute until softened, a few minutes. Add the ground lamb, season with salt and cook over medium heat, breaking up the pieces, until it is nicely browned, 10-15 minutes. Stir in the cherries and pine nuts in the last few minutes of cooking. Stir in the parsley to combine and then remove from the heat.
2. Make dough: mix together semolina, flour, and salt in a bowl. Gradually mix in hot water, stirring with a fork, until the consistency of playdough. Add a touch more water if necessary. Let rest 15 minutes. Knead the dough again (I do this by pressing it around with a silicone spatula) until pliable. Working with damp hands, take a walnut sized piece of dough and flatten it in your palm. Place a small spoonful of the meat mixture in the center, then close up the dumpling and roll it around between your palms. Your goal is to have a very thin shell encasing a good portion of meat, but this takes some practice. Continue forming dumplings, always keeping your hands damp to prevent sticking.
3. Bring a pot of water to boil, lower the heat so the water is just simmering. Poach the dumplings in the water (you may have to do this in batches) for 15 minutes. The dumplings may float before this, but they need the full 15 minutes for the semolina to cook. Remove with a slotted spoon.
4. While the kubbe are poaching, bring chicken broth to a simmer, add the saffron and season to taste. Stir in the lemon juice. Add as many kubbe as you are going to serve to the broth (reserve any extra dumplings separately), and let reheat for 1-2 minutes. Place a few kubbe in a bowl, ladle the broth over top. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.