Monday morning at the home of the Halaila family in Majdal Krum in the Upper Galilee. On Wednesday, Yisra, the second of Sabah and Mahmoud’s five children, will marry her sweetheart, and 1,400 guests are invited to the wedding. “I cut it down as much as I could,” sighs the father of the bride. As is customary, the women of the family will prepare the traditional dishes for the wedding meal. “Kubbeh and mansaf [lamb in a yogurt sauce] are the traditional wedding foods,” says Sabah. “Everyone loves them and everyone can eat them, from young babies to toothless old people. Today, inshallah, we are going to make 3,000 kubbeh for our guests.”
The week leading up to the wedding is filled with various celebrations and milestones culminating in the big day itself. Just last night, Sabah and Mahmoud hosted all their neighbors for a backyard barbecue, and tonight it is time for a most wonderful centuries-old tradition: All the women of the family come together to prepare kubbeh for the wedding. They will roll the balls (kubbeh means ball in Arabic) together as a group. The women – neighbors and friends as well as family – have been invited to arrive at 12.30. Meanwhile, Khaled Halaila, a professional chef who is related to the family, and is one of the few men permitted to take part in the women’s ceremony, gets the ingredients ready: 35 kilos of meat (a mixture of beef and lamb), 28 kilos of bulgur, 30 kilos of onions, five kilos of pine nuts – These are the dry numbers behind the nearly unfathomable quantity of individual kubbeh to be prepared. Huge pots and trays are needed for the undertaking, not to mention the portable refrigeration units for storing the kubbeh until it’s time to fry them on the evening of the wedding ceremony.
Awaiting the women’s arrival, Khaled is already hard at work on the preparations – chopping hundreds of onions (“If you soak them in water first, you don’t need to cry”), cooking the meat filling, and readying the tremendous quantity of the bulgur and meat mixture that will be used as the kubbeh’s outer coating. Due to the massive scale of this operation, a large electric mixer takes the place of the traditional mortar and pestle. He adds baharat (a mixture of nutmeg, white pepper, cloves, allspice and lots of cumin), red pepper, and home-dried herbs like mint, basil and hyssop.
Around noon the first women start arriving, and they get busy mixing the cooked meat with the pine nuts and pouring a little oil into the dozens of saucers of water that have been set out on the tables. The meat and bulgur mixture is sticky and you have to wet your fingers frequently in order to work with it. From time immemorial, it seems, women have borne the burden of preparing traditional foods in the home kitchen, while men reaped the glory of preparing food for great leaders and military commanders. And in modern times, it’s the chef restaurants that earn all the acclaim. Women are not much of a presence in the annals of professional cooking, except when it comes to certain delicate tasks that require great patience, such as filling, and so now it’s the women who take their places at the tables.
They first roll the paste into a ball, form a depression in it with a finger, fill it (some by hand and some with a spoon) with the meat filling, and then shape it into an oval. They make one kubbeh after anotherafter another; the process is monotonous and it looks like the ingredients will never be used up. Meanwhile, they chat and joke and laugh. Latifiya, an elder of the tribe, makes kubbeh with acrobatic flair as she utters blessings for the bride and her family; Indi, the bride’s sister, burns incense for good luck; Hussein, the bride’s brother, a medical student who returned from his studies abroad for the big event, parks his car close by, turns up the stereo full volume and cheers the women on. Overseeing it all is Sabah, a cook with a rich store of traditional knowledge, and the council head’s office manager for the past 32 years (“There have been six different council heads in my time. I’m the only one who’s always there”).
At the peak of the celebration, close to 80 women are busy making kubbeh, and the joyous feeling just keeps growing. Even the nonreligious women who don’t normally cover their hair wear head coverings today for the kitchen work, and at a glance the large group of women looks like a single entity with many colorful arms and heads. All the women, of every age, are continually taking pictures of themselves and of one another. By around three in the afternoon, the ingredients are almost used up, and one woman snaps pictures of everyone cleaning the tables and getting lunch ready for the whole group. She explains that the photos are “for the family in Shatila in Lebanon.” They also have relatives in Syria – two cousins were killed in bombardments there not long ago. Cell phones and social networks have made communication much easier than ever before.
For lunch, the hard-working women prepare lamb with rice, served with warm sheep’s milk yogurt, and kubbeh nayeh. A select group of five or six women enters the home kitchen to prepare the latter dish, a blend of bulgur and raw meat seasoned with lots of hot peppers. The meal is topped off with sada, a bold, somewhat bitter and tangy coffee that simmers over a low fire for three or four days. The man who volunteers to make the sada for weddings and funerals in the village is also one of the few men present at this women’s banquet.
Five unforgettable kubbeh experiences
1. Kubbeh maqliyeh (fried kubbeh). Ya’qub Hayat of Kafr Rama serves a marvelous fried kubbeh with a coating of bulgur and meat, and a filling of meat, chickpeas and herbs. Fried kubbeh is often called kubbeh nablusiyeh (after the city of Nablus, even though this Syrian-Lebanese food is more closely identified with the northern part of the Levant) or kubbeh halabiyeh (after the city of Aleppo).
Sharabik, Kafr Rama, (04) 999-5768
2. Kubbeh nayeh Although there is no firm historical evidence about this, the widespread family tradition, as described above, of eating kubbeh nayeh on the day when fried kubbeh is prepared for a wedding, attests to the source of the custom. In the pre-modern age, kubbeh nayeh, made of bulgur and raw meat, was only eaten at the time when animals were slaughtered, and on the day when cooked kubbeh, which could be preserved for a longer time, was made. More recently, due to the difficulties of oversight in ensuring that the raw meat is consumed at the proper time, there is some dispute about this traditional dish even in lands where it is common, like Lebanon and Turkey (where it is known as ig köfte). The best, perfectly seasoned, kubbeh nayeh in Israel is to be found at Duhul Safdi’s Diana Restaurant in Nazareth.
Diana, 61 Paulus, Nazareth, (04) 657-2919
3. Kubbeh zahlawiyeh The bulgur and meat coating is filled with a mixture of lamb fat, nuts and shata pepper, and grilled. Chef Kamal Hashlamon used to make this delicacy at his restaurant, Turquoise, in East Jerusalem. Now he makes it for private catered events.
Chef Kamal Hashlamon, 052-676-5079
4. Kubbeh siniya (fish). In Acre and other Levantine coastal cities, the bulgur coating was often filled with fish and seafood. Osama Dalal, owner of Dalal Tapas Bar in the Turkish Bazaar in Acre, inherited a splendid fish kubbeh recipe from the women of his family. The kubbeh is baked in a pan and cut into diamonds. The dish is not a regular fixture on the restaurant menu, but it may be ordered in advance.
Dalal, Acre, (04) 639-7345
5. Kubbeh hamu (kubbeh soup). In Iraq and Kurdistan, part of the geographical area where kubbeh is popular, the traditional food is generally served either in soup or in a thick sauce. Boiled kubbeh is part of the Iraqi-Jewish and Kurdish-Jewish culinary heritage (the rules of kashrut and the Jewish holidays are also responsible for a variety of special kinds of kubbeh) and some of the finest examples, which are still made by hand, can be found at local family restaurants.
Azura, Ha’eshkol 4, Jerusalem, 053-710-6716