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A Grandfather’s Kavkaz Soup Lives on in Israel

A Grandfather’s Kavkaz Soup Lives on in Israel

Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Recipe Roots: Makhachkala, Dagestan > Beit Shemesh, Israel > Jerusalem, Israel
Shared by Alona Eisenberg

When Alona Eisnenberg was growing up in Makhachkala, a city in Dagestan along the western coast of the Caspian Sea, there was a large community of Kavkazi or mountain Jews in the region. Her family lived in that community, but largely as secular Jews. “I didn’t know at all [about] Shabbat,” she says. “The only Jewish holiday I knew was Pesach.”

Before the holiday, her family would visit a rabbi, who was also a shochet (a person who slaughters meat according to Kosher tradition and laws) to purchase meat for the holiday. The first night was always marked in their family with steaming bowls of tara, a soup of ground beef or lamb with rice, onions, cumin, and mallow or Swiss chard, topped with broken matzo. Alona remembers rushing to finish the soup in her bowl while the matzo was still crunchy.

Unlike other recipes cooked by Kavkazi Jews, like plump beef-filled dumplings called kurze, tara is one of the few that’s not prepared by other communities in the region. It is a uniquely Jewish dish, Alona explains. In some homes, the rice is left out or the meat is chopped instead of ground, and in Azerbaijan, Jewish families often add chestnuts to the recipe. 

Alona learned to make the soup from her grandfather Matitya who raised her and her sisters after their mother died when Alona was just six-years-old. A soldier for 25 years, he was strict, an elegant dresser, and an avid tender of a vegetable garden at his dacha, or mountain cabin, where Alona would spend afternoons with him. His cooking was practical and simple. 

When Alona makes tara, she says, she thinks of him.

Tara (Beef and Chard Soup)

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This recipe can be prepared, refrigerated, and then gently reheated on the stovetop before serving. In Alona’s family, tara is traditionally made for Erev Pesach, the first evening of Passover, but we also like it as a start to a special Shabbat dinner anytime during the year. 

Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 2 hours

1 pound hearty greens, such as mallow or Swiss chard, rinsed and dried
3 tablespoons vegetable oil 
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef or lamb
½ bunch cilantro, cleaned and coarsely chopped
3½ cups boiling water
½ tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
½ cup short grain white rice
Matzo, broken into bite-sized pieces, for serving

1. If using mallow, finely chop the leaves. If using chard, separate the stems from the leaves, and finely chop each separately.

2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and the chard stems (if using). Cover and sauté until slightly softened, 10 to 12 minutes. 

3. Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high. Crumble the ground meat into the skillet, stirring and breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until browned, 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Add the chopped greens, cover and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the 3½ cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until very soft, 45 to 50 minutes.

5. Stir in the salt, pepper, and cumin (if using). Use a wooden spoon to make a well in the center of the stew. Add the rice and gently shake the pan to make sure it is covered by the cooking liquid. Cover and cook until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

6. Just before serving, mix the rice into the stew and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with matzo pieces on the side to add to the stew — eat quickly before they soften.

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