The Ancient Dumpling of the Levant: Shish Barak

Indigenous pasta dishes are a rare find in the Arab world. But there is one culinary treasure involving an Arab pasta-like dish stemming back thousands of years. The base of this dish is the humble dumpling. Traditionally, dumplings have been an economical way to stretch costly meats to feed large and or poor families. Enrobing small quantities of meat with a toothsome dough yields larger servings for a fraction of the cost of meat based dishes. Everyone gets a taste of the meat, but the dough adds filling heft, while absorbing the flavors from any kind of soup or broth. In the Levant countries of Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, “Shish Barak” is a popular dish where meat dumplings are boiled in a yogurt soup, then topped with fresh herbs, toasted garlic, and crunchy pine nuts. Shish barak has been around for centuries, appearing back in a legendary 15th century Arabic cookbook from Damascus called Kitab al-tibakha. The popularity of this dish still has no signs of waning any time soon. This delicacy is usually made in the winter, when vegetables are more scarce, and a hearty soup warms the stomach and soul. 

The soup for shish barak is unusual, in that it’s yogurt based. Traditionally Arab home cooks use kishik, a fermented food made from grain mixed with sour milk or yogurt, yielding a coarse powder used to thicken soups and stews. This was a great option before the advent of refrigeration to increase the shelf life of dairy products. While many still enjoy kishik today in soups as well as in the popular Jordanian dish called Mansaf, some may find the strong fermented flavor rather gamey. A modern and  readily available alternative is yogurt, which also yields a creamy result but with a milder flavor. A savory topping of chopped fresh cilantro, mint, pine nuts and garlic sauteed in butter brings the whole soup to life. 

Shish barak is a prime example of tribal cooking, where the family gathers to create many dumplings not just to eat right away, but to freeze for later use all winter. Oftentimes the women of the village would gather to create the dumplings, as they catch up on each others’ lives, offer comfort to one another, or even exchange gossip, all while pinching one knob of dough after the other. Slow food reaps great rewards for the whole family, especially as we enter an unstable winter with shorter and colder days. Dishes like shish barak take time to prepare, so are a perfect project for the weekend, bringing the family together from assembly and cooking, to plating and eating.  To see the techniques and tips on how to make the perfect shish barak, check out my new video below!

Some general tips:

  • You can substitute the ground beef with lamb, chicken, or even minced mushrooms for a vegetarian option
  • Do not use nonfat yogurt for the soup, as full fat yogurt ensures a creamy and less lumpy result
  • If you don’t have time to make the dough, store bought wonton wrappers work extremely well and can save loads of time in the kitchen

Shish Barak (Makes 6 servings)

  • For the Filling:
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 cloves garlic finely minced
  • ½- 1 tsp of lemon pepper (optional) or regular pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • Dash cinnamon
  • ½ pound of ground beef (or any other meat you prefer) 
  • 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts (optional) 

Dough

  • 2 cups flour
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup avocado oil
  • ¾ cup- 1 cup water (start with ¾ cup, and more as needed to make pliable dough) 
  • Or to skip this step use 1 packet of ready made wonton wrappers

Sauce:

  • 1 quart full fat yogurt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch

Topping

  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • ½ bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts

For the filling, heat the tablespoon of butter, and saute the chopped onions until soft. Add the minced garlic and saute about one minute more. Add the beef, salt and lemon pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and a tiny dash of cinnamon. Saute the beef until browned, then add the 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts, then set aside. For the yeast free dough, add the flour and salt to a bowl, mix and make a well. In the center, pour the avocado oil, and ¾ cup of water to start. Using a rubber spatula or your fingers, stir the water, oil, and flour together until a  ball of dough forms. Use your hands to start kneading the dough and incorporating any remaining flour. The dough should feel slightly tacky but not damp. It should not stick to your fingers. Conversely if the dough doesn’t form together, add the remaining ¼ cup of water. What takes practice is using your eyes and sense of touch to determine just how thirsty the flour is on a given day, because the moisture content of the flour and the humidity in the air both can affect how the dough comes together. If the dough feels too sticky, then a little more flour will bring the dough back into balance. Dust your work surface with flour. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead for about 2 minutes. It should feel smooth. Cover the dough with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let it rest on the counter or refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.

 If you want to skip the step of making the dough, you can use a pack of wonton wrappers instead. Once the dough is ready, roll out on the cutting board until it is about ½ cm thick. Using a round cutter (or a glass cup) of about 6 cm diameter, cut into discs. Fill each disc with a rounded tsp of the filling and fold into a crescent. Pinch the edges shut, fold the ends behind the dumpling and pinch. Place on a parchment-lined tray and keep covered with a tea towel until ready to cook. 

For the soup, add the yogurt to a large pot. To the yogurt, add the beaten egg, salt to taste and combine over medium heat. Take the tbsp cornstarch and whisk it into to ¼ cup water until dissolved, and combine with the yogurt in the pot. Once the soup boils, reduce heat and simmer, while stirring the soup on and off for about 20 minutes. Then add the dumplings, and cook 10 minutes more. For the topping, in a skillet add all of the ingredients (from the garlic to mint,) and stir for about 2 minutes. To serve, ladle soup with dumplings into each bowl, and add a tbsp of cilantro garlic mix on the top of each bowl. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts if desired. Serve immediately. 

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