What kind of comfort does food give us exactly? I find myself asking this question a lot right now, because we are all, clearly, in desperate need of comfort, and for many of us, that rests with food.
The immediate answer has to do with the sensual joy of preparing something delicious and eating it, or with the social pleasure of interacting with others at mealtimes. But when I got to thinking about my soup with lamb meatballs and semolina dumplings, something quite different came up: a network of connections and past experiences, associations that created a deep sense of familiarity, of continuity.
One of my earliest food memories is tagging along with my mother during her weekly shopping in the Machane Yehuda food market in Jerusalem, grabbing hold of her overflowing basket — I can feel its coarseness on my hand — and taking it all in: the steamy air full of cilantro and mint, the speeding produce trolleys, the rugelach stand, the fresh cheese purveyor, the piles of ripe apricots and strawberries.
Very hungry, we would then stop at a market restaurant and have kibbeh, which was my father’s (and my) favorite. The variety we had was a type popular among Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese Palestinians and Israelis. These are torpedo-shaped; made with a shell of bulgur wheat and minced meat; stuffed with cooked mince, onion and pine nuts; flavored with cinnamon and allspice; and deep fried until dark brown and completely irresistible — all accompanied by a lemony tahini sauce.
Kibbeh might have been mentioned in a tablet from 879 B.C., served at a banquet hosted by an Assyrian king.
Kibbeh, kubbeh, kubba or kobaba, meaning ball-shaped in Arabic, are some of the names for a range of dishes found in the Levant, Iraq, Kurdistan and Turkey. One of those, also found around the market in Jerusalem, was served in restaurants run by Kurdish Jewish immigrants.
These Kurdish kibbeh were usually made with a shell of semolina and fine bulgur (rice is also an option), stuffed with slow-cooked confit shredded beef and poached in a soup. The soft yet slightly chewy casing was the opposite of the crisp fried variety, but just as good. The soup was key, as the kibbeh dumplings were eaten with it and absorbed its rich flavor. Normally, you would find three types: tomato (with okra), beetroot and hamusta. They were all wonderfully sharp, but hamusta was my favorite, made with greens, celery, zucchini, garlic and lots of lemon juice.
My version is a kind of hybrid of the tomato-based soup and the hamusta and is in line with the dish known in Iraq as kubbat hamuth, “hamuth” meaning sour in Arabic. I also removed the filling from the dumplings, turning them into balls.
The art of stuffing kibbeh is deeply rooted in the region’s history. The skill and dexterity involved were highly prized and considered one of the finest skills a woman — women traditionally make kibbeh in the Middle East — could have. As the food writer Claudia Roden writes, “One is said to be favored by the gods if one is born with a long finger, which makes the shaping of kibbeh easier.” This version saves quite a bit of that effort.
Historically, kibbeh appears to have been enjoyed in a much less modest setting. An early mention seems to come in a cuneiform tablet from 879 B.C., served at a banquet hosted by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II to inaugurate his new palace.
In that banquet, thousands of kibbeh were probably made. Yet I am feeling encouraged by an even older manuscript from the region that it is OK, actually, to have taken the liberty of removing the meat filling. In fact, the earliest recorded recipes known, kept in the Yale Babylonian Collection and dating to at least 1600 B.C., describe making a meat-based soup and adding a grain (dried barley cakes) to it. Very little work, by the sound of it, and lots of flavor.
The reassurance that comes from such an ancient source doesn’t make my soup more legitimate in some fundamental way; judging by the mixed reactions online of those trying to recreate the recipes, I am not even sure it tasted that good. But as I sit and enjoy my meatballs and dumplings in a soup, I do get a boost of hearty comfort and a strong sense of connection and continuity.
Recipe: Lamb Meatball and Semolina Dumpling Soup With Collard Greens