Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls

The Jewel of the Iraqi Kitchen—Ruby Red Kubbah

A classic Iraqi dish, kubbah shwandar is a vibrant magenta beet broth with meat-filled semolina dumplings.

Rachel and I spend a lot of time talking about food. We reminisce about all the amazing meals we’ve eaten. We make lists of recipes we want to try. We consider what produce is in season and we plan our cooking calendar around all the Jewish and American holidays.

Every so often, during one of these sessions, Rachel will mention the delicious red kubbah soup that she first tasted in a little restaurant by the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem. She always tells me “We should really make it!” 

In Hebrew this soup is called kubbah selek (beet kubbah) or kubbah adom (red kubbah) and in Arabic it is called kubbah shwandar. 

A classic Iraqi dish, kubbah shwandar is a vibrant magenta beet broth with meat-filled semolina dumplings. The soup is rather simple to make. The stock is made with sautéed onions and celery and lots of sliced beets. Then it’s flavored with fresh lemon juice, sugar and salt and pepper giving it a wonderful sweet and sour flavor. My grandmother always made her stock with a big beef neck bone, but a beef bouillon cube or two add just enough flavor. The actual kubbah, however, is a little more delicate and time-consuming. 

I spent hours of my childhood in the kitchen watching my grandmother make kubbah. Soak the semolina and farina for the casing. Put it in the fridge for a half hour, so it becomes easier to work with. Chop the onions and parsley. Mix with the meat and seasonings. Roll the dough in balls, flatten and stuff and form perfect balls. Over and over and over. 

Why bother with all that work when I’m blessed with a mother who still makes wonderful kubbah? I never perfected the art of making kubbah. 

This summer, Rachel and I pitched a few recipe ideas to a kosher foodie magazine called Fleishigs. They said yes to the kubbah! So, we spent a Sunday testing recipes and making kubbah. We were happily surprised—we succeeded in making gorgeously round, fluffy, tasty kubbah. And our recipe was published in Fleishigs. 

In the Middle East, cooking and baking usually involves the company of other women. Recently, Rachel and I shopped for all the ingredients and schlepped to the kitchen of our good friend and cooking whiz Esther Avrahamy and invited master chef and caterer Jazmin Duek to join us as well.

Esther pulled out an old well-used recipe book with lots of Post-it notes sticking out of it. When I saw the cover, I was overcome with emotion. “Awafi” (health or bon appetit in Iraqi Arabic) was published over thirty years ago. 

It was a labor of love by Millie Gabbay and the sisterhood of the Sephardi Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, where my extended family were congregants for many years. My great-uncle Nuri and Auntie Tina were very invested in preserving all the old Iraqi recipes in the book. They bought boxes of the book to Los Angeles, but I was young and single and never bothered to keep a copy. It was wonderful to see her well-worn copy after so many years. 

That day, we compared notes on making kubbah, we laughed, we cried from the onions and we used our hands to pat together some fabulous kubbah. 

Our lucky families enjoyed this beautifully vivid red soup and flavorful kubbah for dinner (served over steamed white rice, of course!) — Sharon

Semolina Kubbah

For the filling
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 medium onion, grated
2 teaspoons baharat
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

For the dough
1 cup farina
1 cup semolina
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

  • In a large bowl, combine ground beef, Italian parsley, grated onion, baharat, salt and pepper. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, combine farina and semolina, water, salt and pepper until incorporated.
  • Cool in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
  • Wet palms with water and roll the dough mixture into walnut-sized balls and place on a tray lined with wax paper.
  • Flatten each dough ball into your palm and place a large teaspoon of filling in the center.
  • Gently gather the sides of the dough to cover the filling and delicately pinch closed and roll into a ball.
  • Place the stuffed kubbah balls on a tray, loosely cover and leave in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
  • Gently drop balls to the pot of boiling beet soup and cook about 25 minutes.
  • Raw kubbah can be frozen for up to 2 months.

Sweet and Sour Beet Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
8 stalks celery, chopped
8 medium beets, peeled and sliced
into thin half moons
10 cups water
3 lemons, juiced (3/4 cup juice)
2-3 tablespoons sugar
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium heat.
  • Add onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add celery and beets and sauté for two minutes.
  • Add water and bring to a boil.
  • Add lemon juice, sugar, salt and pepper and cook for 15 minutes.
  • Reduce heat, then gently place kubbah into the boiling soup and simmer in a covered pot for about 25 minutes.

Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC 

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