Kurdish flavors

Vegetables and herbs play central roles in almost every aspect of the Kurdish menu.

Rolled feta cheese burekas, kibbeh, falafel and zucchini-carrot patties with yogurt sauce. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Rolled feta cheese burekas, kibbeh, falafel and zucchini-carrot patties with yogurt sauce.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
When we were invited to dine at the Niroj Kurdish Cuisine restaurant near Los Angeles, we looked forward to indulging in some of our favorite Middle Eastern specialties, but we got much more – a fascinating discussion about the culture and cooking of the Kurdish people.
Luqman Barwari, the chef-owner of the restaurant, spoke passionately about his culinary heritage. Born in Mosul, he grew up on Iraqi-Kurdish cooking, but he emphasized that Kurdish food varies according to where Kurds live. Kurds from Iran cook in a style that is different from that of the Kurds from Turkey, Syria and Iraq, which were part of the Ottoman Empire.
On the menu of Niroj he wrote: “Kurdish dishes take many of the best aspects of Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian and Persian cuisine, and add even more fresh herbs, subtle spices and lots of vegetables that are native to their region.” Fresh herbs and vegetables are so important to Kurdish cuisine that Barwari grows organic vegetables for his restaurant.
The author of Traditional Kurdish Food: An Insight into Kurdish Culinary Heritage, Ala Barzinji, wrote that “vegetables and herbs play central roles in almost every aspect of the Kurdish menu.... Mint, basil, parsley, celery, spinach, chard, thyme, chives... are used extensively.”
Varda Shilo begins her book Habishul Hakurdi (Kurdistani Cooking, Hebrew) with a chapter on the wild herbs and greens that her family gathered every spring when she was growing up in Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan. They used those greens, which included mallow, mustard greens, purslane and mint, in omelets, grain dishes and pickles.
Two vegetable starters we particularly liked at Niroj are easy to prepare at home – walnut and red pepper dip with carrots (see recipe) and piyaz, a colorful white bean and sweet pepper salad flavored with parsley, sumac, pomegranate molasses, pepper paste and semi-hot Aleppo pepper. Barwari’s tasty renditions of these appetizers seemed lighter than those we had tasted before, perhaps because of a higher proportion of fresh vegetables.
Kurdish cooks excel in making vegetable patties. The zucchini-carrot patties at Niroj were flavored with feta cheese and Aleppo pepper and topped with yogurt sauce. (See recipe.) Some cooks stuff their vegetable patties. Shilo’s potato patties are made of grated cooked potatoes, matza meal and eggs, and have a filling of fried onion, celery and hot peppers; her carrot patties enclose fried onions seasoned with hot paprika.
Batya Doron, who blogs in Hebrew about Kurdish cooking, flavors her zucchini-carrot-potato patties with curry powder, onions, parsley and fresh coriander. Instead of frying flat patties, she notes, you can fry the mixture in balls like falafel, or you can bake it as a pashtida (casserole).
When we visited Kurdish homes in southeast Turkey – in Adiyaman and Urfa, we were impressed by the quality of the yogurt, butter and cheese, which are used by Kurdish cooks in a variety of dishes. Barzinji fills phyllo cheese fingers with soft goat cheese blended with celery leaves and mint leaves. For Purim, Shilo fries three-cornered savory pastries made of egg-enriched yeast dough and a filling of feta-type cheese mixed with creamy white cheese.
Barwari fills his delicious rolled phyllo dough burekas with feta cheese and parsley. (See recipe.) And there was cheese in his kunefeh (knafe), the dessert we sampled at the restaurant. It was filled with mild unsalted goat cheese, enriched lightly with butter and enhanced with rosewater syrup and fresh pistachios.
Much of Kurdistan is mountainous, and the cold season calls for filling stews and soups made with pulses and grains. At Niroj we tasted a Persian-style beef stew with yellow split peas, eggplant and tangy tomato sauce that was served with basmati rice. (See recipe.) Kurdish Jewish dishes, like Shilo’s lentil and turnip soup, can be substantial, too. It is thickened with rice or bulgur and is flavored with fried onions and plenty of garlic. Her soups of sautéed vegetables – zucchini, carrots, celery, onions and garlic – are cooked with lentils and rice. Chickpeas and rice make her chicken soup satisfying, and white beans lend substance to her beef soup that’s flavored with tomato paste, fried onions and garlic.
Such hearty dishes were highlighted in an exhibition at the Israel Museum on the culture of the Jews of Kurdistan that we attended in 1982. Among them were kubbeh (meatballs in a bulgur shell) cooked in vegetable sauce, and overnight Shabbat stew with chickpeas and kubbeh.
“In winter,” said Barwari, “I make Kurdish kubbeh from Israel” – red kubbeh soup cooked with red beets and yellow kubbeh soup cooked with yellow beets. It was brought to Israel, he said, by Jews who came from the Kurdish part of Iraq. ■
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
This recipe, known as muhammara in Arabic, is popular in southeast Turkey and in northern Syria. Often it is spiced liberally with semi-hot red pepper. Pomegranate molasses, olive oil and cumin provide background flavors.
In Luqman Barwari’s version, called Hesandin dip, carrots and roasted red peppers contribute a subtle sweetness that gives the dip a milder flavor. To make it, see the note following the recipe.
Serve the dip with fresh pita or other fresh flatbread. Taste the walnuts before you add them to make sure they taste fresh.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 1 cup walnuts
❖ ¹⁄3 cup bread crumbs
❖ 1 Tbsp. olive oil
❖ 1 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses
❖ 1 tsp. sugar (optional)
❖ ½ tsp. ground cumin
❖ 1 Tbsp. paprika
❖ ½ tsp. salt, or to taste
❖ 1½ tsp. Aleppo pepper or other semi-hot red pepper or ½ tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
Grind walnuts and breadcrumbs in a food processor. Add oil, pomegranate molasses, sugar, cumin and paprika and process to a slightly chunky paste.
If it is too thick, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water. Transfer to a bowl. Season to taste with salt and Aleppo pepper or cayenne, adding enough to make it hot.
: Hesandin Dip: Omit the bread crumbs and the paprika. Add 1 cup finely chopped raw carrots (chopped in a food processor) and 1 chopped, roasted red pepper to the mixture of ground walnuts, olive oil, pomegranate molasses and cumin. After combining the ingredients, taste and add salt and semi-hot or hot red pepper to your taste, and sugar if needed.
These patties are adapted from Barwari’s vegetable patties, which are called mucwer. To help the patties hold together, he uses semolina rather than flour; if you’re using semolina, start with 2 tablespoons and gradually add enough to get a mixture that’s thick enough to form into patties. If you want to fry the mixture in balls, add extra semolina or flour until the mixture is stiff enough to be rolled into balls.
To make these patties parve, omit the feta cheese and the yogurt sauce.
Makes 12 small cakes, about 4 appetizer or side-dish servings
❖ Yogurt-garlic sauce (see note below)
❖ 1½ cups coarsely grated Mexican squash or white squash or zucchini
❖ 1½ cups coarsely grated carrot
❖ 110 to 170 gr. (4 to 6 oz.) feta cheese, crumbled (½ to ¾ cup)
❖ 1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
❖ 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley or fresh coriander
❖ 1½ tsp. Aleppo pepper (semi-hot red pepper), or to taste
❖ 1 tsp. paprika
❖ Salt and freshly ground black pepper
❖ 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, or more if needed
❖ 1 large egg, lightly beaten
❖ ¼ cup vegetable oil (for frying)
❖ Parsley or fresh coriander sprigs or small tender lettuce leaves (for garnish)
Make yogurt-garlic sauce. Reserve at room temperature.
Combine grated squash with carrot, garlic, parsley, Aleppo pepper, salt and black pepper to taste. Add beaten egg and stir in lightly. Stir in flour.
Heat oil in a deep heavy large skillet. For each patty, drop 1 heaping tablespoon of vegetable mixture into pan. Flatten them slightly with back of a spoon. Fry over medium heat about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Turn very carefully so oil doesn’t splatter. Drain on paper towels. Stir mixture before frying each new batch. If all the oil is absorbed, add a little more to pan. Serve hot, with a little sauce spooned over each one; or serve the sauce in a separate dish. Garnish with herb sprigs.
Yogurt-garlic sauce: Mix ½ cup plain yogurt, ½ finely minced small garlic clove and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
This recipe is adapted from Sultan’s Kitchen by Ozcan Ozan. Some fill these pastries with feta cheese alone. Barwari combines the cheese with fresh parsley. Ozan also adds 1 or 2 chopped green onions to the filling and recommends serving the burekas with yogurt-garlic sauce (see recipe above) or with plain yogurt for dipping. If you like, serve the burekas on a platter with pieces of tender lettuce leaves.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
❖ 350 gr. (12 oz.) crumbled feta cheese (1½ cups)
❖ 2 eggs
❖ 4 sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped
❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) phyllo dough, about 20 to 22 sheets
❖ 2 cups light olive oil or other vegetable oil for frying
In a bowl, mix the feta cheese, eggs and parsley.
Unroll one sheet of phyllo dough onto a flat surface. Keep remaining dough covered with a damp towel to help prevent it from drying out. Using a sharp knife, cut sheet of dough lengthwise into 4 equal strips. Take one piece and place it on work surface with the short end nearest to you. Place 2 teaspoons of filling at one end, fold in the 2 long sides of the dough so they meet in the center over the filling, then roll up the dough to the end, forming a small cigar shape.
Moisten the end of the dough with a little water and stick it to the pastry. Repeat this until you use up your filling.
Heat the oil in a large skillet, lower the heat to medium, and fry the cigars in batches on both sides for about 5 minutes total, or until they’re golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, place them on paper towels to drain. Arrange the burekas on a platter.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
This stew is from Persian Cuisine, Book Two by M. R. Ghanoonparvar, who recommends serving it with rice. At Niroj we savored it with white Basmati rice and with a special rice dish – buriani with almonds, raisins and shredded chicken, flavored with Seven Spices (a Lebanese spice blend resembling baharat) and shaved ginger.
Makes 5 or 6 servings
❖ 1 Tbsp. margarine
❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) stewing lamb or beef, cut in small cubes
❖ 1 large onion, chopped
❖ 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
❖ 2 cups water
❖ ½ cup split peas, preferably yellow
❖ 1 tsp. ground turmeric
❖ 1 tsp. salt, divided
❖ ¼ teaspoon pepper
❖ 3 eggplants
❖ ¼ cup vegetable oil or olive oil, or more if needed
❖ 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Heat margarine in a stew pan, add meat in batches and sauté them over medium- high heat until brown.
Return all of meat to pan. Add onion and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes or until onions are no longer crisp.
Dissolve tomato paste in water. Add to pan. Add split peas, turmeric, ½ teaspoon salt and the pepper and mix well. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes to 1½ hours, or until meat is tender.
Meanwhile, peel eggplants and cut them lengthwise in slices about 2.5 cm. (1 inch) thick. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes. With a paper towel, wipe off salt and pat eggplant dry.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium- high heat. Add eggplant in batches and brown slices on both sides, adding oil between batches if necessary. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Arrange eggplant slices in a casserole dish. Add lemon juice to stew and spoon over eggplant. Bake for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.