Mama's Iraqi Kubba't Hallab

Hallab is the Arabic name for the Syrian city Aleppo, and traditionally this city makes the absolute best kubba. So Iraqis named this particular kubba in homage to Hallab because it is THAT good. And it really is. 

Mama recently made her famous Kubba’t Hallab, which not every Iraqi makes due to the care, labor, and time involved, and the preparation of it all made me nostalgic for a life I never lived. Maybe the one my parents lived before I was born? I am certain we not only inherit genes and language, but memories and feelings, too.

Kubba is a type of dish usually made of a bulgur or potato dough, or in this case long-grain white rice dough, that is stuffed with a ground meat mixture, often hand-shaped like an egg, sometimes flattened like a croquette, then either boiled or baked or deep fried. Some people shape them into balls, but the far superior kubba maker will shape them like eggs. My mama, of course, is one of the world's best kubba makers. The shape changes the texture and ratio of each bite and makes everything in the world just right. 

You can also bake your kubba into a casserole and call it a tabsi or kubba bil firin (literally "kubba in the oven"), layering the same ingredients the way you would a lasagna -- or more like a shepard's pie -- with the grain or potato dough forming the top and bottom layers, and the ground meat in the middle. This is also very, very good. When I was a vegetarian, mama invented a special meat-free kubba bil firin for me and it's now one of my favorite dishes. 

The ground meat mixture is called qeema, and this simple qeema is mixed with finely chopped parsley and onion. Parsley, crrefis, is an important flavor in Iraqi food. And quality crrefis is important to me. Other qeemas include almonds and golden raisins. I personally prefer the simple one.

There are many kinds of kubba: Kubba't Hamuuth, Kubba't Mosul, Kubba't Burghul, Kubba't Jareesh, Kubba't Puteta, Kubba't Bil Sayneah, and so on and on. 

Yes, there are many kinds of kubba, but ask anyone who knows anything at all: Iraqi Kubba't Hallab is the mother of all kubbas. 

My mama has altered the recipe to her liking, of course, mixing flavors from both Baghdadi and Turkmenli style Kubba't Hallab. And I can't help but be proud that my mama's Kubba't Hallab is perhaps the best of all Kubba't Hallabs. And if Kubba't Hallab, itself, is the best of all kubbas, then that must mean my mama is the best kubbachiyya of all time! 

Traditionally, Kubba't Hallab does not call for onion in the qeema, but my mom adds it, which says a lot about how my family likes to eat. And traditionally Kubba't Hallab has saffron or turmeric in the rice dough, but not my mom's! Ya'ni, she fries it longer than traditional recipes call for because she prefers it crispier on the outside -- as do I! -- so that it turns golden without added coloring! She doesn't want to hide the natural flavors with spices other than black pepper. As it turns out, I, too, cook in this simple way, always running out of black pepper in my pantry while the turmeric lasts forever. I never consciously mimicked my mama's style, it just sort of happened naturally. 

Mama’s Kubba’t Hallab

Makes about 25-30

Ingredients:

2 cups long-grain white rice (don’t listen to anyone else, use only this rice!)
2 lbs ground meat (beef or lamb, Mama says only 1x ground!) 
1 bunch parsley (cruffis
1 large onion
1 egg
salt/pepper
oil for frying


Directions: 
RICE DOUGH for SHELL:

1. Soak rice in cold water for an hour.
2. Wash the rice with your hands, like laundry, to get the starch out of it. 
3. Then rinse it to clean.
4. Put in a pot on the stove. Cover it with water, about ¾ inch. Add salt. Medium/high heat. You don’t want a rapid boil. You want to cook it slow and absorb the water. Don’t shake the rice. No oil. It’s not like cooking regular rice.
5. When it starts simmering, takes about 10 min, put it on medium heat for about 15-20 min or until it looks absorbed.
6. Don’t shake the rice ever, don’t mix it, it needs to stay leveled. But you need to dig little holes for the remaining water at the bottom to steam up. My mom uses the handle end of her wooden spoon to carefully make about 5 holes at the bottom. Wait another 15 minutes on low after making holes. So it’ll be very soft.
7. Once done, turn off, leave covered, let cool. All the steps of the rice are covered! This way it’s a little warm when you need to handle it.
8. Notes: If it’s too hot to handle wear rubber gloves. Machine mixers make it too mushy, so you have to use your hands to knead it into a rice dough.
9. When it cools off enough, crack one egg in it. Egg whites alone are fine, but mama uses the whole egg.
10. Knead it in with your hands. Dip your hands in water to handle the dough. That’s it, just knead the dough. Done. Set aside.

QEEMA for STUFFING: 

1. Start with sautéing the finely diced onion on high head/ 
2.Then add the meat, salt/pepper, and let it cook about 5 minutes 
3.Chop the parsley, lower the heat to medium, then add the parsley. 4.Sautee until the liquid of the meat is absorbed. This doesn’t take very long. Qeema takes only about 20-30 min of cooking on medium. If there is excess fat, just tip the pan, move the qeema aside, and pat dry with a napkin. But that’s up to you. Don’t let it burn, so fold it a bit until it feels cooked. The clear liquid comes out of the meat first then absorbs it, and browns the meat.

NOW, THE PROCESS:

Assembly line of the following:
(1.) bowl of rice dough, (2.) pot of qeema, (3.) bowl of water (for hands).

 1. Dip your hands in some water, take some dough, work it with your hands, make a ball about the size of a small egg. You got this.
2. Make a hole with your index finger to make a well, while working the dough. Then flatten out the sides of the well. See picture. Try to imagine you're making an espresso cup size. 
3. Add about a Tablespoon or less of qeema with one hand, then close the ball with the other hand. 
4. Then cup the ball with your hands to make it into an egg shape. Keep using slightly wet hands. Make as many as you want before you start frying. Mama usually makes about 5 at a time, because we, her children, always need to eat them right away.
5.  Deep fry. When you fry them they need to be covered in oil. See image below. Fry as many as you want at a time, without crowding the pot. Fry until golden. 
6. Let them dry on a cooling rack.

 If you’re like me, you will eat them with labneh. Enjoy!

Bil Afya | Bon Appetit


Mezze Party / The Middle East, Too, Is Made Up of People

P R O L O G U E : It’s a strange and interesting thing to be a first generation American. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too. You may find yourself born and raised in, say, Los Angeles, and, naturally, very, very American; but let’s say you don’t have an accent in public but maybe you have a bit of one at home, speaking in the same rhythmic tones of your parents’ language, say, Arabic, and sometimes even bits of Turkman, and cursing always in their language, but not even the cool hip words kids use these days, but the softer words your parents used because, after all, you’re only children and it was a different time then. You may have unconsciously or consciously developed your own ways to fit in at school or work or parties, maybe omitting your last name or Muslim identity from conversation, or maybe secretly spending years diligently working on your enunciation, you know, those years reading aloud to yourself in your room to hear the words come out as Hollywood as possible. And, you see, you grew up in a house with parents from, in my case, the Middle East, specifically Iraq -- the Iraq that people always have an opinion about at dinners, the Iraq we’ve been intermittently at war with since I was in first grade -- with a different language, different foods, different rules than the rest of your friends. And even if you mainly answered back in English, you still inherited all the sounds and rhythm and feeling of the language, the pain and beauty of the language, too. It’s as if you have two feet firmly planted in American soil, because, hey, that’s what you know, and yet there is one emotional ghost-leg dangling, reaching, searching for some distant place you may never see in your own lifetime but contributes so heavily to your makeup. My dad always says “Don’t visit Iraq -- you’ll think me and your mother are liars.” And you know, Iraq has unfortunately been put through so much destruction, haramat, as it is, of course, a country that has the inherent misfortune of rich soil. For now, it seems it is no longer allowed to be the prosperous country of my parents’ youth; and it is this Iraq, their Iraq, the Iraq of the fifties, sixties, even seventies, where my heart searches for belonging. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too, this business of being first generation. [END PROLOGUE.]

It was a Thursday morning, and a very early morning, at that. It was a five o’clock in the morning kind of early morning when Mousa Kraish found me via Instagram, of all places, and sent me that enthusiastic and confusing but lovely email. We met up hours later for coffee at the Intelligentsia on Sunset to have our first conversation about Bedouin, his soon-to-be Mid East inspired cafe. It all happened in a blur, and it took about twenty minutes before I could make out something about my possible role in it all, a mezze dinner, and complete creative control. Wait what? The next minute we are in front of the building that in months will be Bedouin.

Mousa is Palestinian American. This comes as a relief in a way that’s hard to explain; maybe because I don’t have an Arab community in Los Angeles and am thirsty for that kind of understanding, a secret comfort in an unspoken familiarity. At least, finally, someone to consider the important questions: Palestinian Kadayif is nothing like Iraqi Kadayif, and why, exactly, is that? Why do we call it the same thing if the only thing it has in common is that it’s a dessert? Okay maybe the sugar and walnut filling. But sometimes Iraqi Kadyif has cream. Does the Palestinian one ever have cream? And sometimes it has cheese, but why, then, don’t Iraqis call the cheese one kanafeh like everyone else? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

A little over a week later I find myself hosting a small mezze and wine gathering at Mousa’s place in Angelino Heights. More specifically his beautiful backyard, on the deck that he built. Most everything for this mezze is made from scratch and with so much care. Some might say unnecessarily so, but when most of the guests are not entirely familiar with the complexities of the region, heart matters. In Los Angeles, there is limited exposure to Middle Eastern food, especially from Arab countries. Just hummus and kebabs. Sometimes falafel and tabouleh. Oh and the misrepresentative grape leaf dolmas, slimy and from a can. And pretty exclusively Armenian, Lebanese, or Iranian style dishes. There are no, say, Iraqi or Palestinian or Syrian restaurants in Los Angeles, at least not to my knowledge, each with its own unique styles and flavors and textures. What ends up happening in this city is that, in order to expose those who are maybe unfamiliar or even afraid, everything sits comfortably and romantically under the umbrella of “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean,” generalizing the region, which is problematic because we already politically generalize the region. Many people don’t think of the Middle East as vast and complex, with varying ethnicities, languages, dialects, religions, cultures, histories, cuisines; they think of the Middle East as one big blob of hummus and falafel and camels and war. It’s a little annoying, actually. With that said, my Iraqi mother’s hummus is going to have a different taste and texture and secret – of course there are always secrets! -- than what most Angelinos are familiar with, especially on the Eastside.

Mezze means something to the effect of “tastings.” It’s the tapas of the Middle East. For this mezze I wanted to focus primarily on ingredients and flavors and textures from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey; and yet, without being too unfamiliar, while also being representative of the farmers-market-part-time-vegetarian-health-conscious culture of Los Angeles. 

Cardamom, saffron, za’atar, sumac, nigella seeds, olive oil, pomegranate, dates, cumin, garlic, garlic, garlic, mint, dill, lebneh, lemon, lemon, lemon, sea salt, tahini, parsley.

Many of the mezze dishes of the evening are meant to be dipped with warm pita. The hummus was prepared with the utmost attention and care since it is usually so critically judged, even by amateurs. They were the Rancho Gordo heirloom chickpeas, soaked for hours, and cooked until the perfect texture. Time was spent pealing all the skins. All the skins. The ingredients were organic and fresh. And that heirloom garlic with the purplish hue, the spicy one I picked up from Cookbook in Echo Park, now that has to be some of the best garlic around – it ended up in almost everything that night. To test my patience I waited until the bell peppers were blackened before peeling them for the muhammara, a Syrian dip made from roasted peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses. A bowl of the thick and creamy lebneh, topped with olive oil and za’atar. A smaller one of just the olive oil and za’atar with Maldon salt to dip. The jajeek dip, too: lebneh, cucumbers, garlic, mint. All the pickled things we call tourshi. The classic: beet and turnip tourshi; the thin, crispy dill cucumber tourshi; and even the garlic I pickled in apple cider vinegar two years ago. Olives, olives, olives. A feta sampler, even. Grilled halloumi cheese, my favorite. The organic, grass-fed beef koftas with parsley, onions, spices, and drizzled with a lemony tahini sauce. The filo dough boreks stuffed with diced golden and purple beets, beet greens, and Bulgarian feta, and served with lebneh. The roasted cauliflower salad made of green, yellow, and purple cauliflower, shaved almonds, golden raisins, garlic, lemon, Maldon salt, and black pepper. And an Ottolenghi-inspired spicy purple beet dip that made the table POP! with added color. All with endless pita and red wine. 

Dessert was a simple three ingredient Palestinian semolina cake called harissa, topped with shaved almonds and then soaked in a cardamom-cinnamon-infused simple syrup. Semolina cakes vary across the Middle East and Mediterranean. Iraqis, par example, bake the almond into the cake, giving it a grainier texture. This was served with Mousa’s special Palestinian fresh sage tea, pronounced in his own dialect as shai instead of chai, which I personally never heard before. Overall: a success.

Bil Afya | Bon Appetit

Iraqi Watermelon Rind Preserves; OR: Breakfast at Ada Kahvalti

I met Terry for the first time at Selin's cooking class in Kadiköy a month earlier. We exchanged numbers and stayed in touch during my nearly two months in Istanbul. Terry is beautiful and interesting and adventurous. She grew up in Istanbul; her family even had a summer house on one of the Princess Islands. When she was very young her parents decided to move the family to Mexico City on what I like to imagine was a whim. This sudden desire for exciting transformations must be a family thing, as I happen to find Terry during another major life transition, which I fully appreciate because I happen to be in the throws of one myself.

Terry is responsible for introducing me to the wonderful Turkish breakfast at Ada Kahvalti, on Büyükada, the largest of the Princes' Islands. (Büyük means big. Ada means island. When I put these things together I am very pleased with myself.) 

Four of the nine islands, interchangeably and collectively called the Princess, Princes', or Prences Islands, are the prime weekend vacation spots for the Istanbulu. These islands feel like remnants of another time, seemingly isolated and notably charming. There are no cars on the islands. People walk, bike, or take horse-drawn carriages called phaeton. Ada Kahvalti, a ten minute walk from the ferry, is in the front yard of a home, on a tree-lined street with other such homes. I walk up and down Akdemir Sokak (sokak means street) many times before I finally find the hanging sign hidden behind the bougainvillea.  

The Ada Kahvalti breakfast is not on the table all at once. It wouldn’t fit. The owner brings anything she chooses in rounds. Small dishes arranged beautifully on the table. One with green olives, another with black olives and a delicate lemon wedge. The deep-red muhammara, a roasted red pepper walnut dip and staple in many Middle Eastern countries, is slightly tangy and topped with a few crumbled walnuts. A plate of fresh cherry tomatoes, chopped with parsley arrives, with just a hint of olive oil and lemon, followed by sliced cucumbers with those wonderful little curly green peppers native to the region that I have yet to find in the states; clearly handpicked and locally-sourced.  There is a selection of cheeses from various parts of the country, including the subtly tangy çökelek, a crumbly whey cheese, here with red and green peppers, that makes me appreciate the limited time I have in this city. Quartered medium-boiled farm eggs topped with chopped parsley and what tastes like paprika. An assortment of fresh breads and pastries including sliced baguette, simit, and pogača. A requested addition of the quintessential menemen, eggs lightly scrambled atop a steamy tomato pepper stew, here with slices of sujuk, a spiced semi-cured meat. I prefer my eggs pouched, not scrambled, in the stew, the way my father taught me, and so am pleased when the deep yellow yolk is still clearly visible. Of course, there is my personal favorite Turkish breakfast must-have, the bal kaymak, a type of thick clotted cream sitting in a pool of honey. And, of course, the uniquely flavored and textured homemade preserves, of which I can’t seem to get enough: one is rose with lemon and bergamot; the other, watermelon rind. 

Yes, watermelon rind preserves. Terry and I struggle to place the flavor, and when we ask the owner she gives us an adorably sassy smile. 

At thirty, I’ve surely tasted so many peculiar flavors that it must be rare to be so startled, and by something that looks and feels like a basic marmalade. Yet, here I am, confronted with a taste unlike anything I’ve ever had before. This sparks one of those trite deeply personal inspirations: there is so much life out there

Back in the states, lovingly perusing my copy of Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden, I come across an Iraqi version of the Watermelon Rind Preserves. Apparently this is a THING. And, upon questioning, my parents are fully aware, having failed to mention this to their children. "There's some in the fridge. It's your father's favorite." 

Iraqi Watermelon Rind Preserves

adapted from Nawal Nasrallah

ingredients:

2 lbs watermelon rind (1 large watermelon)
     (removed of the red flesh and firm green outer peel!)
     (cut rind into strips about 1” x 2”)
3 cups sugar
½ cup honey
juice and zest of half a lemon
4 cardamom pods, whole

directions:

1. Place strips of watermelon rind in an appropriately sized pot, cover with cold water.
2. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, about 30 minutes.  Drain and keep about 3 cups of liquid. Set aside.
3. In a heavy lidded pot: dissolve sugar in the watermelon rind liquid.
4. Add honey, lemon zest, and cardamom. Bring to a boil.
5. Add drained rind. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, about 30 minutes.
6. Set aside, cover, and let cool overnight. 
7. Next day: boil again over medium until thick, about 30 minutes.
8. Add lemon juice, a few minutes. It’s done when it keeps a thick and chunky texture.
9. Cool completely. Refrigerate. Keeps a long time.
10. Serve with geymar/kaymak/clotted cream!


Bil Afya | Bon Appetit




Istanbul's Famous Pando Kaymak

It was that last week before I left Istanbul, the city of my heart, and very early in the morning, when I dragged Şule across the Bosphorus to Beşiktaş  to the culinary institution that is Pando Kaymak

Growing up, my parents would constantly reminisce about that unparalleled clotted cream, that dream served with honey and bread, the one made from water buffalo milk, and always with stars in their eyes. This was back home in Iraq, back before the wars, back before Saddam, back when Iraq was allowed to thrive. The Iraq of their memory was a great country, secular, with an excellent education system, an investment in locally grown foods, and a booming capital city.  

In Iraq this dream that mildly resembles clotted cream is called "geymar," in Iran it's called "sarshir," and in Turkey it's called "kaymak." It is usually made from cow's milk. But the absolute best one is made from water buffalo milk. 

Water buffalos are moody creatures and raising them is an art, something almost poetic. These animals seem to produce milk only for those farmers with an almost familial relationship, developed over years of trust. It's not something you can mass produce. This is why water buffalo farms are rare. 

So when I finally make it to Istanbul, the city my father studied in his sophomore year at university, I, naturally, search for any place that serves kaymak made from water buffalo milk

Most people visit Istanbul for the views, the history, the "East meets West." I'm in Istanbul for the water buffalo kaymak. 

And then I find it. 

A now 92-year-old adorable man named Pando who, with his wife Yuana, spend three days perfecting each batch of water buffalo kaymak. 

This man is known as an institution by the Istanbullu. His name is actually Pandelli Şestakof, but everyone calls him Pando. And his shop is actually called Kaymakli Kahvalti Burada, but everyone calls it Pando Kaymak. I love that. 

When Şule and I arrive I am obviously very excited. We have a seat and I immediately spot Pando, recognizing him from photographs online. I distractedly order from the young woman working there, keeping my eyes on the adorable man who runs the place. There is no menu, which I love, so we simply order kahvalti, breakfast, with extra kaymak. The people seated around us outside are just casually eating breakfast, so Pando probably can see that I am a little too excited to be having breakfast. He comes over to our table to see how we are doing and Şule translates the conversation. I ask her to tell him that I came all the way from Los Angeles to have his famous kaymak. This prompts him to sit with us. He motions the server to bring him çay, bardak not finjan cup preference, which I love, and he proceeds to have a conversation with us for most of our breakfast. 

Pando's breakfast looks like this: a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and the best black olives, maybe, in the world; fried eggs and sucuk; a basket of baguettes; and, of course, the kaymak in a pool of honey sitting on a small piece of honey comb, which seems to be standard for good kaymak in this city. All the ingredients are of the best quality, deliberately selected, and from various regions in Turkey. 

The only way I can describe how Pando's water buffalo kaymak is the best kaymak I have ever had in my life, so smooth going down, and why I understand my parents' life long obsession with water buffalo kaymak, is to compare it to something like whiskey. You can enjoy a decent, affordable whiskey but maybe it's nothing special, it's not exciting. But it's not a cheap, disgusting whiskey that you use for cocktails only either. That's the cow's milk kaymak. But then there's the really delicious, expensive whiskeys that you only bring out for special occasions, too afraid to waste even a single drop, and never, ever do you make a cocktail with it. That's what Pando's kaymak is, except you have to eat it right then, you can't save it. This forces you to live in the present moment and realize that in life you can't keep saving up all the good things for later. 

At some point Pando gestures to take my picture with him using his own camera.  I love that. And later when I hug him goodbye I also ask for a picture of us using my phone.

This morning I found out that Pando is being evicted from his shop, the place his father established in 1895. No, that's not a typo. 1895. He makes the best kaymak in Istanbul, maybe in the world. And he's being evicted to make way for a büfe, or a "fast food snack shop," because: capitalism. So, please, if you know anyone in Istanbul, tell them to organize a flash-mob dine-in and prove that Pando is worth keeping.

The article mentions a photo taken with a tourist: 

"Yuana, his wife and business partner, laughed cynically and moved on to a story about pretty young tourists posing for pictures with Pando that morning. Pando chuckled and waved her off. They’ve now seen it all, it would seem."

...and I like to think that overly-excited tourist was me.

Address: Köyiçi Meydanı Sokak, Beşiktaş
Telephone: +90 212 258 2616

Karaköy Pier Impromptu Çaycısı

A Wednesday evening in Istanbul. Walking the hip alleys of Karaköy, enjoying a coffee and some conversation at Karabatak cafe. On my way back to the ferry -- which is a regular form of transportation for me now -- I stumbled upon a sort of impromptu Çaycısı (chai cafe) with fresh seafood along the Bosphorus at Karaköy pier, near the fish market, just west of the Galata Bridge. This is definitely a thing

Istanbul is so alive all the time, even the middle of the week. 

The energy here is palpable. And the air, though often humid in the summer, makes me feel truly awake, as if I have been sleeping my whole life until now. Perhaps I will move here and drink çay by the sea every day. In the Turkish alphabet "ç" makes the sound "ch," thus çay is pronounced chai. Practice the Turkish alphabet before coming to Istanbul: it helps a lot. I say this because you will definitely want to come to Istanbul. For instance, all the food served anywhere in this city, from fancy restaurant to street food, is incredibly delicious. The quality of ingredients is exceptional and you will taste it immediately. 

Here at the pier, street vendors are selling fresh fish sandwiches with herbs, ground chili pepper, fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, and lemon juice called balık ekmek for no more than 5 Turkish Lira (TR), only about $2.50.  Do not worry, those fishermen you see along the pier are hobbyists, the fish is sourced from cleaner waters than the Bosphorus.  A three-man operation is handing out çay for free. Be sure to say teşekkürler and tip these men: reward kindness. When I ask to take their picture they pose instantly, no questions asked. In fact, most people here are glad to have their photos taken. Remember: this is a great way to make friends.