Pascale's Kitchen: Jewish-Iraqi cuisine

The first is for making kubbeh balls. The second is for a sweet and sour pumpkin soup and the third for okra soup, both of which are made with kubbeh. The fourth recipe is for baklava.

 Baklava (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
Baklava
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

Thirty-two years ago, I published a cookbook about Jewish-Iraqi cuisine that became a bestseller, and can be found in many people’s homes all over the country. Just before Passover, I was invited to take a special tour of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, which has opened a new exhibition on Jewish-Iraqi cuisine. 

I’ve always been fascinated by Iraqi cuisine. I love hearing stories about what life was like for the Jews living in Iraq, as well as seeing the beautiful colors, and smelling the wonderful aromas of Iraqi Jewish food. 

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In Iraq, kitchens were always constructed on the ground floor, with a door opening onto a courtyard. Visitors at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center can see a reconstruction of this traditional home inside the museum. Although the kitchens were modest, they were built to be extremely functional. Many dishes, such as the preparation of kubbeh balls, were prepared while sitting on low wooden benches situated in the courtyard. 

Until the 1930s, Jews in Iraq would cook food over a wood-burning stove, and in later years, on Primus stoves. In the exhibition, visitors will actually be able to experience the aromas that would emanate from specific dishes that were traditionally prepared in that era. There are also video clips that show step-by-step how certain dishes were prepared by hand. 

The video I was most struck by was titled “Inside Shula’s Kitchen,” in which Suzette Shulamit Binyamin makes hamin (Iraqi cholent) in her famous pot with her granddaughter, as she reminisces about traditional Iraqi cuisine. And so, following my visit to the museum, I immediately set out to meet with Binyamin in person at her home in Tel Aviv. 

 THE BABYLONIAN Jewry Heritage Center’s exhibition features Jewish-Iraqi cuisine.  (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN) THE BABYLONIAN Jewry Heritage Center’s exhibition features Jewish-Iraqi cuisine. (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

Binyamin, 83, answered her door and immediately led me to her kitchen, from which an amazing aroma of spices wafted from huge pots that were full of okra, pumpkin and kubbeh balls.

Binyamin has four daughters, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson. She told me all about her childhood growing up in Iraq, and what it was like preparing and cooking food in her mother’s kitchen. According to Binyamin, Jewish-Iraqi cuisine was influenced over the generations by Turkish, Persian and Indian cuisine. 

While she was talking, her fingers were busy putting together a huge pan of baklava, and she quickly offered me a generous portion, alongside a steaming glass of tea. I felt so honored when Binyamin began sharing with me all the shortcuts she has developed over the years for making the best tasting baklava. Only after she got married did she actually begin cooking herself, at which point Binyamin began searching for techniques that made preparing traditional Iraqi food easier and quicker, without compromising on flavor and taste. 

For example, she loves preparing kubbeh, which she adds to sweet and sour soups, as well as crispy sambusak pastries. Binyamin kneads the dough, checks on the softness of the beef, removes the kubbeh the second they’re ready, and then quickly adds the pumpkin and okra. She says the shape of the kubbeh is not so important, so long as the semolina coating around the meat balls is thin, but covers all of the meat. 

As she pours my Iraqi tea, Suzette tells me how impressed she is with how much I already knew about Jewish-Iraqi cuisine. She also offers me a piece of candied bitter orange, as well as candied pieces of Dabdab etrog, which has especially thick skin. 

As I taste these delicacies, she whispers to me that if I use the juice from the bitter orange when making kubbeh, the flavor is much more intense than if made with lemon juice. 

Below, you will find four recipes Binyamin so lovingly shared with me. The first is for making kubbeh balls. The second is for a sweet and sour pumpkin soup and the third for okra soup, both of which are made with kubbeh. The fourth recipe is for baklava.

 TALKING COOKING with Suzette Shulamit Binyamin in her kitchen.  (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN) TALKING COOKING with Suzette Shulamit Binyamin in her kitchen. (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

If you’re interested in the exhibit featuring Jewish-Iraqi cuisine, the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is located at 83 Mordechai Ben Porat St. in Or Yehuda. For more information, contact Orli Bahar Levi and Nava Mutzafi at 03-533-9278. The entrance fee is NIS 45.

Baklava 

Use a 25 x 33 cm pan.

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 150 gr. almonds, peeled and ground coarsely
  • 150 gr. walnuts, ground coarsely
  • 2 Tbsp. ground cardamom
  • 1 package frozen phyllo dough
  • 200 gr. butter, melted

Syrup: 

  • 1 cup water
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1-2 drops orange blossom water, optional

Place the sugar, almonds and hazelnuts in a bowl and mix well. 

Take four sheets of phyllo dough, and place them one on top of each other on a baking tray. Sprinkle half of the nuts and sugar mixture on the dough. Add another three layers of phyllo dough, then the rest of the nuts mixture. Add the rest of the phyllo dough, and gently press down on top of them with your fingers. 

Cut through the baklava using a knife, making 3 cm.-wide triangles. You can use a plastic ruler to help you measure. Make sure that when you slice the dough that you cut all the way through, including the bottom layer. Pour the melted butter on top of the baklava, making sure that it falls evenly between all of the pieces. Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 170° for 10-15 minutes until it turns golden brown. 

To prepare the syrup, add the sugar and water to a pot and bring to a boil over a medium flame. Lower the flame and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Add the orange blossom water and remove from the flame. Pour the syrup over the baklava, making sure to cover every piece. Let cool, and serve with a hot glass of tea.

Level of difficulty: Easy-Medium.Time: 30 minutes. Status: Dairy.

 Kubbeh (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN) Kubbeh (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
Kubbeh

Makes 30 kubbeh balls.

Dough:

  • 3 cups semolina
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbsp. oil

Filling:

  • 3 medium onions, chopped finely
  • ½ kg. ground beef or ground chicken
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ¾ tsp. pepper
  • 3 celery leaves, chopped finely

Add all the dough ingredients to a bowl and mix well. Set aside for 15 minutes. 

To prepare the filling, mix the onion with the ground beef together. Add the salt, pepper and celery leaves and mix well. Form 30 balls of the filling and place them on a tray. 

Take a bit of dough and flatten it with your fingers until it’s very thin. Then, place a meat ball inside and close the dough around it and roll it around to form a ball. Place on a tray and continue to form all the kubbeh balls. 

Level of difficulty: Medium.Time: 1 hour. Status: Meat.

Sweet and sour pumpkin kubbeh

Makes 8-10 servings.

  • 4 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thinly
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 300 gr. beef for goulash
  • 2/3 can (400 gr.) crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cups water
  • Salt to taste
  • 8 cloves of garlic, whole or crushed
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • 750 gr. pumpkin, cut into 2 cm. squares
  • 1 cup mint leaves, chopped coarsely
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice or bitter orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar

Heat the oil in a medium pot. Add the chopped onion and sauté until it turns translucent. Add the pepper and paprika and stir. Add the meat and sauté on both sides until it turns gray. 

Add the crushed tomatoes and stir. Cook for 3 more minutes, then add the water and stir. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook over a medium-low flame for 30 minutes until meat has softened. Add the salt, garlic and raisins. Stir, then add the mint. Bring back to a boil, then add the lemon juice and sugar. Stir, taste and adjust seasoning. Lower the flame and cook another 15 minutes. 

Add half of the kubbeh balls and bring back to a boil. Add the pumpkin and cook for 20 minutes over a low flame. Serve hot with white rice. 

Level of difficulty: Easy-Medium.Time: 2.5 hours. Status: Meat.

Okra kubbeh

Makes 8-10 servings.

  • 4 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped finely
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • ½ - 1 tsp. paprika
  • 300 gr. goulash meat, cut into cubes (best to use mutton)
  • 2/3 can (400 gr.) crushed tomatoes
  • 8 cloves of garlic, halved or crushed
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 package (800 gr.) frozen okra
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped or dried
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice or bitter orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar

Heat the oil in a medium pot and add the chopped onion. Fry until translucent. Add the pepper and paprika and stir. Add the beef or mutton and fry on both sides until it turns gray. 

Add the crushed tomatoes, stir and cook for 3 minutes. Add the water and stir. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook over a low flame for 90 minutes until the meat has softened. Add the garlic, salt, okra, mint, lemon juice and sugar. Stir, lower the temperature and cook another 5-7 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. 

Add the rest of the kubbeh. Stir and continue cooking another 15-20 minutes. Serve hot with white rice. 

Level of difficulty: Medium.Time: 2 hours. Status: Meat.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.