Little Balls of Joy: The Best Kubbe in Tel Aviv

A staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, this rich, tasty dish can be prepared in numerous delectable ways. Because it's so hard to make at home, your best bet is to visit one of these kubbe hotspots.

Like most regional specialities in the Middle East, kubbe is claimed by many countries, each of which has its own style of ingredients and preparations. Iraq, in particular, champions kubbe - pronounced koo-beh - as its flagship dish, but Lebanon, Kurdistan and Egypt each have their own version and each has a slightly different name. All, however, are based on the Arabic term for "ball."

Making kubbe isn't easy. Some even consider it a work of art. The time-consuming process used to be so highly regarded that the value of potential brides was measured in their skill at preparing it.

Kubbe is usually made from rice or burghul (wheat groats) or from cream of wheat and occasionally from potatoes. The other ingredients, such as the filling, spices, cooking techniques and even the shape vary from region to region.

The best neighborhood kubbe: Yisrael Mercaz Hakubbe

The Hatikva neighborhood in South Tel Aviv has the highest concentration of outstanding kubbe joints. You can try as many kinds as you like during a stroll through the Hatikva market but the best in the city is waiting for you in a small restaurant outside the bustling stalls. With only five tables, the line for kubbe starts forming around 11 A.M. and continues to snake until 3 P.M. or sooner, if the kubbe runs out.

Kubbe here consists of a flat, almost pita-sized yellow kubbe. It's cooked in chicken soup with ample amounts of turmeric. It's reminiscent of the Kurdish "hamusta" kubbe but instead of cream of wheat, it's made with burghul, cooked "al dente" with dough strong enough to hold the fried onions and finely ground meat spiced with baharat, a light aroma of cardamom, salt and pepper. It's usually seasoned with some Yemenite spices as well to produce one of the best kubbe dishes in the city, all for NIS 17.

For the really hungry: Try the kubbe in a pita.

Yisrael Merkaz Hakubbe, 1 Havatik Street, Tel Aviv

The richest kubbe: veal, lamb and mussels at Mizlala

With every other restaurant in town striving to be a Mediterranean bistro, Chef Meir Adoni shows how things can be done without compromising creativity. What other fancy restaurant carries brain-filled croissants as a refined version of fricassee, or kubbe soup with veal, lamb and mussels?

Wait before complaining about the outrageous price! After tasting countless kubbe dishes throughout the country, there's no doubt that Adoni has created one of the best, proving that even a classic dish like kubbe can be re-created with a personal touch. The dish features large, classic cream of wheat balls that just melt in your mouth, filled with veal meat and lamb fat, onion, parsley and some mint.  The spicy thick soup has a sour lemon taste, with chickpeas, celery, zucchini and Jerusalem artichoke. The twist is in the mussels, which give the soup a distinct Mediterranean flavor. The result is an enormous, rich celebration of tastes, a dish without rival. The price is NIS 87 but the dish can easily feed two.

For the really hungry: try sharing a bouillabaisse.

Mizlala, 57 Nachlat Binyamin Street, Tel Aviv

The secret: beet kubbe at Anati’s Kitchen

In the 1990s, Anat Shabi opened a restaurant that catered to all the best-known names in town. It shut down after a while but, after a long break, she opened her current restaurant at the present location. It's the kind of place you want to keep to yourself but it's hard to keep something so good a secret. Already attracting many fans, the place feels more like home than a restaurant.

Anat's kubbe is made with beets and served in a big dish with white rice on the side. The soup also contains squash, which mutes the beet flavor and adds some sweetness, as well as leaves of Swiss chard, lemon and lots of garlic. The twist in this dish is not just the soup, but the kubbe itself: The soft balls with mutton are cooked in advance, before being formed. The result is a wonderfully sweet and sour aromatic kubbe, definitely outside the mainstream. It's also a steal at NIS 38.

For the really hungry: Eggplant hummus is the restaurant’s flagship dish.

Anati’s Kitchen, 23 Hacarmel Street, Tel Aviv

Iraqi-style: Okra kubbe at Kubbe Grill

This newbie has shaken up Schocken Street in South Tel Aviv. A kubbe-only establishment is just what was needed outside the offices of Haaretz. Owner Maurice Nadir left the textile industry to be a restaurateur, specializing in kubbes made from family recipes. Every day he offers different styles, from fried kubbe to various kubbe soups.

Although some prefer hamusta or beet kubbe, the best kubbe dish to come out of Iraq was the okra kubbe. Although having it with rice is possible, it’s best consumed in a soup. You get three balls stuffed with meat, seasoned with baharat and lots of parsley. The meat is cooked inside the balls, keeping it juicy by not letting the fat leak out. The soup has a sour flavor with lemons and tomatoes, making it mildly spicy, just like your mother’s cooking. All this for just NIS 30.

For the really hungry: Get your kubbe with rice and vegetables.

Kubbe Grill, 30 Schocken Street, Tel Aviv

Iraq meets Sweden: Seafood kubbe at Gedera 26

The boom in "marketplace" restaurants has done an injustice to places like Gedera 26, located just outside the market. Although it uses produce from the market and could be called a market restaurant, it's actually quite different. Chef Amir Kronberg fuses his Iraqi and Swedish roots in his dishes, which are not to be missed.

In particular, his seafood kubbe is the perfect fusion of Iraq and Sweden, unlike any kubbe you have ever tasted. The usual soup is replaced with a velvety rich bisque, and the kubbe itself is filled with goat cheese, shrimps and crabmeat. The bisque is orange-yellow, with rich flavors from brandy, fennel, cream and celery, as well as crabmeat. The result is the most refined and delicate kubbe in town, with a brilliant balance between cheese and crab flavors, without tasting too fishy. What’s the word for perfect in Swedish?  The price is NIS 52.

For the really hungry: A Gothenburg sandwich, also from Sweden.

Gedera 26, 26 Gedera Street, Tel Aviv.

Other stellar kubbes in Tel Aviv:

The kubbe master of Hatikva market, David Haviv, at 19 Hamevaser Street

Pinati, 43 Bograshov Street

Kiosk Dor- Yellow Bar, Corner of Kehilat Warsaw and Kehilat Yassi

Mediterranean Basin (Agan Hayam Hatichon), 6 Shvil Hameretz

Kubbe Bar, 10 Malkhei Yisrael Street

Israel's true kubbe capital: Jerusalem

But with all due respect to Tel Aviv, the real kubbe capital of Israel is in Jerusalem. There is a dizzying number of restaurants offering superb kubbe, and choosing one does an injustice to many other worthy ones. We have chosen three representatives, located close to each other: Morduch, on 70 Agripas Street, with the best beet kubbe in own; Azura, on 4 Ha-Eshkol Street, with the best hamusta kubbe, and Ha-Agas 1, on 11 Eliyahu Yaacov Ha-Banai Street, with the best fried vegetarian kubbe. When you consider that prices in Jerusalem are also lower than in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem really rules.

Rotem Maimon