Middle Eastern meatball soups

Meatballs are often served in tomato sauce, but I like them just as much in Middle Eastern soups.

Meatball soup (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Meatball soup
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)

Meatballs are often served in tomato sauce, but I like them just as much in Middle Eastern soups.

I often cook my meatballs in chunky vegetable soup, made from a colorful mixture of seasonal vegetables and flavored with cumin, turmeric, garlic, salt and pepper. Sometimes I add beans and rice or small pasta shapes, and then my soup becomes more substantial – you could call it meatball minestrone.
Serving meatballs in vegetable soup enables me to have good-sized portions from a small amount of meat. Even a modest amount of meatballs imparts a pleasing flavor to the broth. (See recipe below.) Jews of Syrian heritage prepare a number of meatball soups. Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, makes cilantro-tomato soup with Syrian meatballs. She poaches the meatballs in a soup made of chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, garlic sautéed in olive oil, tomato paste and water, and finishes the soup with cilantro (fresh coriander). Syrian Jews also serve meatballs in beef broth cooked with artichokes, garlic, tamarind concentrate, lemon juice, sugar and salt. To make an easy tomato-rice soup with meatballs, Dweck cooks allspice-seasoned Aleppian meatballs and rice in meat broth flavored with tomato paste. (See recipe below.)
The meatball soup made by Israeli-born New York restaurateur Einat Admony, author of Balaboosta, is not an Ashkenazi soup, as the title of her book might suggest.
The Yiddish term balaboosta, wrote Admony, whose father is Yemenite and mother is Persian, traditionally meant “a perfect housewife” but today applies to enterprising, energetic women. Her soup is an easier version of the lemony Middle Eastern soup chamusta, with meatballs substituted for the classic kubbeh (dumplings with meat stuffing).
When making the meatballs, Admony mixes semolina with the ground beef and seasons the mixture with grated onion, roasted garlic, parsley, baharat (a Middle Eastern spice blend), cumin, sweet paprika, hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper. She forms the meatball mixture in finger shapes, sautés them in oil and serves them in bowls of lemony green vegetable soup. The soup is made of leeks, celery, garlic and chard sautéed in olive oil, and simmered in chicken stock seasoned with salt, pepper, turmeric, sugar and a generous amount of lemon juice.
Legumes such as chickpeas and split peas are common in Persian meatball soups, sometimes as an element of the meatball mixture itself. Gideon Kalimian, author of the Hebrew cookbook Hamitbah Haparsi (Iranian Cooking), serves his chicken and chickpea meatballs, called gundi nohodi, in clear chicken soup. To prepare the meatballs, he grinds roasted chickpeas into crumbs, mixes them with ground chicken and a little oil, and flavors the mixture with grated onions, turmeric, ground cardamom, salt, and an unusual addition – rose water. He cooks and serves the meatballs in chicken soup.
Kalimian makes tarragon meatballs by combining ground beef, rice, ground onions, a generous quantity of tarragon leaves, cumin, salt and pepper, and inserts a surprise inside each one - a pitted date and a bit of crushed Persian dried lemon. He cooks the meatballs in chicken soup with dried lemons, sliced carrots, cooked chickpeas and turmeric.
When I studied cooking in Paris, the school’s chefs recommended adding soaked bread or breadcrumbs to meatball mixtures. You might think you are improving the meatballs by omitting the bread, they said, but in fact it helps keep the meatballs’ texture tender; without the bread, they could come out too hard. By mixing ground meat with semolina, rice, chickpea flour or split peas, Middle Eastern cooks are actually following a similar formula.

Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and 1,000 Jewish Recipes.

Meatball and vegetable soup

These beef and chickpea meatballs are inspired by Persian gundi. You can purchase chickpea flour in a shop that carries Indian ingredients, or buy roasted chickpeas at a nut shop and grind them.

To vary this recipe, you can substitute Aleppian soup meatballs, following the note at the end of the next recipe. Instead of the cauliflower and spinach, you can use broccoli, kale, cabbage or green beans, or any mix of seasonal vegetables.
To prevent the vegetables from becoming mushy and to keep the color of the green vegetables bright, I cook them first and remove them before making the soup base and cooking the meatballs.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Vegetable Soup:

❖ 7 cups water, more if needed

❖ Salt to taste

❖ 2 medium potatoes, peeled if desired, cut into chunks

❖ ½ to 1 cauliflower, divided in medium florets

❖ 4 carrots – 2 sliced and 2 diced

❖ 2 squash, green or yellow, halved and sliced

❖ 1 onion, chopped

❖ 1 or 2 small celery ribs, diced

❖ 1 or 2 Tbsp. chopped ginger root (optional)

❖ 2 garlic cloves, chopped

❖ A few parsley stems (optional)

❖ 1 tsp. ground cumin

❖ ½ tsp. turmeric

❖ ½ tsp. ground pepper

Beef and Chickpea Flour Meatballs:

❖ 350 gr. (¾ pound) lean ground beef

❖ ¼ cup chickpea flour

❖ 1 fairly small onion, coarsely grated (about ½ cup)

❖ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley

❖ ½ tsp. salt

❖ ½ tsp. ground pepper

❖ ½ tsp. turmeric

❖ 2 cups baby spinach leaves, or coarsely chopped large spinach, stems removed (to finish)

❖ 3 or 4 Tbsp. chopped green onion (to finish)

Bring 7 cups water to a boil with a pinch of salt in a stew pan. Add potato chunks and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Add cauliflower and sliced carrots, return to a boil, and cook for 3 minutes.

Add squash slices, return to a boil, and cook for 3 minutes or until vegetables are just tender. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon.
Add onion, diced carrots, celery, ginger root, garlic and parsley stems to vegetable cooking liquid.
Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Add cumin, turmeric and pepper. Discard parsley stems.
To make meatballs: In a medium bowl combine the beef, chickpea flour, grated onion, parsley, salt, pepper and turmeric. Knead until thoroughly mixed. Shape mixture in meatballs, using about 1 tablespoon of mixture for each one. Add them one by one to the simmering soup.
If there is not enough broth to cover the meatballs, add ½ to 1 cup hot water, pouring it near the side of the pan, not over the meatballs. Cover and cook the meatballs over low heat for 45 minutes, or until soup is well-flavored. If soup is too thin, uncover for the last 15 minutes of cooking; if it is too thick, gradually add ¼ to ½ cup hot water.
Just before serving, add spinach to soup and heat for 1 minute or until wilted. Return cooked vegetables to soup and heat through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve soup sprinkled with chopped green onion.
Smooth tomato-rice soup with meatballs

This recipe is from Aromas of Aleppo. Author Poopa Dweck wrote: “If there were ever a perfect tomato soup for a cold winter’s night, this would be it.” If you have meat or chicken broth ready, the soup is quick and easy to make.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

❖ 225 gr. (½ pound) beef chuck (shoulder) or boneless veal, cut in 5-cm. (2-inch) cubes; or ½ chicken, quartered

❖ 2 liters (2 quarts) water

❖ ½ cup short-grain white rice

❖ 3 Tbsp. tomato paste

❖ Aleppian Soup Meatballs (see Note below)

❖ 1 Tbsp. kosher salt

❖ Lemon wedges for serving

Put the meat or chicken in a large saucepan, add water and boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes, skimming the foam off the surface periodically.
Add the rice and continue boiling, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. When the rice begins to appear creamy, add the tomato paste, meatballs and salt. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 30 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with lemon wedges.
Note: Aleppian Soup Meatballs: Combine 225 gr. (½ pound) ground beef, 2 Tbsp. short-grain white rice, 1 tsp. ground allspice, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon and 1 tsp. kosher salt in a medium mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly. Shape into balls 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter.