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
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
oil for frying
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!