The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Kurdistan

Kurdish Jews have a long history filled with ups and downs, Chef Dennis Wasko retells their story as well as explores their unique cuisine.

koobe (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
It is believed that Jews have lived in the area of modern Kurdistan since the 8th century BCE.  Also known as Assyria and Mesopotamia, the area now encompasses parts of Iran, northern Iraq, Syria, and eastern Turkey.  The first Jews arrived after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel and the subsequent exile of the ten tribes during the period 858 – 824 BCE.  An ancient Kurdish tradition relates that Kurdish Jews are the descendants specifically of the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, and Benjamin. 
In his travel memoirs, Benjamin of Tudela related that there were about 100 Jewish settlements and substantial Jewish population in Kurdistan in 12th century. It is also from Benjamin of Tudela’s memoirs that we learn of David Alroi, the messianic leader from central Kurdistan, who rebelled against the king of Persia and had plans to lead the Jews back to Jerusalem. Benjamin of Tudela also reports of wealthy Jewish communities in Mosul, which at the time was the commercial and spiritual center of Kurdistan. During the crusades many Jews fled from Syria, the Levant, and Judea to Babylonia and Kurdistan.
The Kurdish Jews were craftsmen by trade.  They were traditionally farmers, gold and silversmiths, and weavers. Though skilled craftsmen, life was hard for the Kurdish Jews and economic distress and isolation from the outside world plagued the communities.  Life was dangerous and murder was common.  Jews were often sold into servitude up to the beginning of the 20th century.  Due to these hardships and the rise of oppressive Islamic regimes the Kurdish Jews became a close knit community.
Judaism flourished in Kurdistan and many Kurdish Jews played a part in the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud.  Among the most important Jewish shrines in Kurdistan are the tombs of Biblical prophets, such as that of Nahum, Jonah, and Daniel. There are also several caves supposedly frequented by the Prophet Elijah. All are venerated by Jews today. 
Kurdish Jews began immigrating to pre-state Israel in the early 20th century after a series of brutal murders.  The majority of Kurdish Jews immigrated to Israel in 1950-51.  This period is known as the Great Exodus.  The Kurds have always had strong Zionist leanings and one of the most famous members of the Lehi, Moshe Barazani, was of Kurdish descent.  There are approximately 150,000 Kurdish Jews living in Israel today.  They are very proud of their heritage and work to maintain their customs and language, Aramaic.
The dumpling, koobe, is the unique specialty of Kurdish cuisine.  Some are round and some are moon-shaped, but they are all stuffed with delicious fillings, usually chicken or lamb, and served on the Sabbath, holidays, and all year long.  Bulghur wheat, onion, garlic, celery, tomato, pepper, and lemon, combined in a multitude of dumplings, comprise the backbone of Kurdish Jewish cuisine. 
The following recipe for Kutel Pishra, Stuffed Fried Dumplings, is very traditional and is often served with drinks as an appetizer or as an addition to a Kurdish buffet. 
Kutel PishraMakes about 20 dumplings
for the dough:-1 pound bulghur, soaked for 1 hour and drained-1 cup semolina flour-1 cup water-½ teaspoon salt-2 tablespoons tomato paste-Oil for deep frying
for the filling filling:-1 tablespoon olive oil-1 cup chopped onion-1 clove garlic, chopped-½ pound ground lamb-¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper-½ teaspoon kosher salt-¼ teaspoon ground allspice-¼ cup celery, chopped
1.    Combine all of the dough ingredients and knead together until a uniform dough is achieved.  Set aside to rest.
2.    Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat.  Add the onions and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes.
3.    Add the lamb, pepper, salt, and allspice and cook for an additional 2 minutes.  Add the celery and sauté for 1 minute.  Remove the filling from the pan and allow to cool completely.
4.    Take an egg-sized piece of dough and flatten it into a circle ¼ inch thick.  Place 1 teaspoon of filling in the middle of the circle.  Bring the dough up around the filling and seal the edges together, maintaining an egg shape.
5.    Heat the oil in a medium sized pot to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Fry the dumplings until golden brown, about 5 minutes.  Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels.  Serve warm.