The Syrian Passover Soup That Came to Brooklyn
Shared by Jennifer Abadi
Recipe Roots: Aleppo Syria > Brooklyn > Manhattan
“My mother married an Ashkenaz,” explains cookbook author Jennifer Abadi. “It was considered, at the time, half jokingly to the Syrians, marrying out. Syrians are very insular,” she adds.
Jennifer’s mother grew up in the Syrian Jewish community in deep Brooklyn after her great-grandfather was brought to the U.S. in 1921 to help establish the community. Two years later, his family, including Jennifer’s grandmother Fritzie, who was a little girl, joined him, bringing with them Syrian traditions and Halabi recipes, those from the Jewish community that once thrived in Aleppo.
Among them was a soup of spiced lamb meatballs wrapped in ground rice and plunged into a sour broth made with lemons called kibbeh hamda that Fritzie served on Passover. Jennifer says she can’t quite remember the first time she had it, “because when you grow up with it, it’s there all the time. It’s a slow kind of experience,” she says. It was served as the starter to Seder meal, which also included charoset made with dates, rice with onions, and roasted lamb with lots of garlic. “It was the Mizrachi brisket,” Jennifer adds.
But, over the years, matzo ball soup crept in on tradition, as Fritzie entered into a second marriage, this time, to an Ashkenazi man, just as her daughter, Jennifer’s mother did. “My dad and grandfather were Ashkenazim. [And] my grandmother tried to include what they grew up with and they knew,” she says. Eventually, “Matzo ball soup, for better or worse, kind of won over.”
Still, Jennifer wanted to learn to make kibbeh hamda, as well as her grandmother’s other recipes from Aleppo. “In a Syrian home, it wasn’t ‘Come my child and learn,’” Jennifer explains. She was always around food, but the custom was that women didn’t cook until they were married, “and then you were expected to do it. That’s the reality my mother and grandmother had.”
In her 20’s, when she was a graphic designer, Jennifer broke with the custom and started working on her first cookbook A Fistful of Lentils. She started with a looseleaf notebook of onion skin paper that her mother and aunt had made of Fritzie’s recipes. “I was afraid it was going to disappear. [My mother] referred to that all the time — that was her bible,” she explains. Jennifer also arranged cooking dates with her grandmother, telling her what she wanted to cook on that day and bringing the ingredients with her. “I kept a diary of my experience with her and it became a platform for us to have a new relationship,” she adds.
It started her down a path of collecting recipes, not just from her family, but from Jewish families with roots from around the globe, seeing how they changed, much as we do at the Jewish Food Society. “Food is a reflection of what once was and what now is. It’s never 100 percent of what was in old country,” she says. It’s a reflection also of what is available in New York, Brazil, Mexico, or wherever Jewish families settled.
For her most recent book, Too Good to Passover, she collected 200 recipes from 23 Jewish communities — including, of course, Fritzie’s kibbeh hamda. “No matter how much people are moving away from their origins, they bring those foods with them, literally or conceptually,” she says. “I feel like it’s a particular definition of what makes Jewish food Jewish food.”
Grandma Fritzie Abadi’s Passover Kibbeh Hamdah (Sour Soup with Lemon, Celery, Mint and Stuffed Meatballs)
Serves: 8 to 10 / Makes about 10 cups
Time: 1½ hours
For the Meat Filling:
½ pound ground lamb
1/4 cup cold water
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley leaves
For Outer Meatball Shell:
2/3 cup long-grain white rice, finely ground in a coffee or spice grinder
or Cream of Rice cereal or rice flour (if you don’t own a grinder)
½ pound ground lamb
½ pound ground beef
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
8 to 10 cups beef or lamb stock
2½ cups celery, coarsely chopped
1¼ cups finely chopped scallions or white onions
2 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
½ cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 cup carrots, coarsely chopped
1 cup white potatoes, peeled and cubed
About 1 teaspoon kosher salt (amount depends on how much salt is already in your stock!)
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ tablespoons dried mint
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
1 large yellow squash or zucchini, stem and end discarded
1. Prepare the Filling: Place all the filling ingredients in a bowl and squeeze together with your hands until smooth. Taking 1 level teaspoon of the mixture at a time, roll into balls and place on a tray. Set aside.
2. Prepare the Outer Shell Mixture: Pour ground rice (or Cream of Rice cereal) into a food processor and pulse with the meat and salt until a smooth “dough” is formed.
3. Roll 1 level tablespoon of the dough into a ball, and place it onto a separate tray.
Continue until mixture is finished.
4. Form and Stuff the Shells: Press your thumb into the center of one shell ball, and turn dough while pinching it into a thin, hollow cup. Take one of the filling meatballs and stuff it into the cup, then pinch it closed. Lightly dampen your palms with cold water, and roll it back into a smooth ball without cracks or lumps. If you prefer, you can pinch the ends to create a torpedo shape. (If you have extra meatballs, save them to toss into the soup.)
5. Prepare the Broth and Serve: Bring the stock to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the celery, scallions (or onions), garlic, and parsley and mix well. Simmer partially covered, for 10 minutes.
6. Add the carrots, potatoes, salt, and pepper. Grind the dried mint between your palms directly over the pot. Mix and continue to simmer 15 minutes, partially covered.
7. Add the lemon (or lime) juice and mix. Place the whole squash (or zucchini) into the pot and continue to simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
8. Gently drop each meatball into the soup, cover, and simmer about 45 minutes.
9. Serve the Soup: Just before serving, remove the squash (or zucchini), slice it into 1-inch rounds, and return it to the soup. Serve hot in a large serving bowl or in individual bowls.