I am thrilled to end 2019 with a food memory by Professor Sami Zubaida who remembers Baghdad in the 1940s, coming back from school, and being ‘assailed’ by the delicious and distinctive aromas of bamya (okra) cooked with mint and garlic.
Sami has inspired generations of sholars and students through his teaching at Birkbeck College, University of London, as well as through his visiting positions in Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, Aix-en-Provence, Berkeley CA, Paris and New York. His main research Middle East Politics, Religion and Law mingle with his interest in food culture and politics which he takes a tad beyond academia with his cooking flair and skill. Sami also holds the position of Professorial Research Associate of the Food Studies Centre, SOAS and is a regular contributor to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Amongst his extensive publications is A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East and his latest, published in 2018 is Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System.
Baghdad in the first half of the 20th century, till the 1940s: while there were no exclusively Jewish quarters, certain areas had a high concentration of Jewish households. In the earlier decades these were the old quarters, around markets and synagogues, but by the 1940s the Jewish middle classes relocated to the then modern suburbs of Bab al-Sharqi, Sadounand Battaween (now downtown commercial areas). Walking around these streets on Friday midday and later afternoon you would be struck by the cooking aromas of Bamya (it does have a distinctive smell), garlic, and mint. This was the customary Friday lunch of Kebba-Bamya. We kids, walking back from school, were assailed by these delicious aromas, intensifying our hunger.
At home, I would walk straight to the kitchen, to watch the last steps in the cooking of the rice, finished, typically, with chopped onions fried in sesame oil being poured over the boiled rice, then left to steam. Lunch was served soon after, with the aromatic stew over the rice. The stew was called ‘hamidh’, sour, but in reality it was sweet and sour. The Kebba was rice-Kebba: rice soaked, drained, then pounded in a mortar into a paste. Friday morning was marked by the loud noise of pounding in brass mortars with heavy pestles. The paste was then shaped into small dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground meat, onion and parsley. The art of the operation is to make the dumpling shell light and thin. The dumplings would then be added to a stew of Bamya and, often, pieces of meat on the bone, typically lamb ribs, made sweet and sour with vinegar, tomato paste and sugar, but sometimes with dried limes (loumi Basra) and date syrup (sylan or dibis), with the addition of garlic (rare in Jewish cooking and confined to a few dishes including this one) and mint. The preferred mint was Butnaj, penny-royal, a strong and spicy variety. Most people liked their Bamya very sweet. As far as I can tell, this concoction of sweet and sour Bamya was confined to Jewish households, as other Baghdadis stewed their Bamya, with or without meat, but not with Kebba, and not sweet and sour. Other households did have similar rice Kebba, and ‘hamidh’ stew, but with Shalgham, turnip, and the hamidh was genuine. The Jewish sweet and sour stew on Friday was sometimes cooked with beetroot (Shwanderiya) instead of Bamya. Bamya was available all year round: during its growing season, most household would dry the Bamya threaded on string, like necklaces. In later years, dried Bamya could be bought from grocers.
Many households would cook surplus quantities of the Bamya stew, the leftovers being then kept cold overnight (sometimes on the flat roof where people slept in the summer months), then eaten for breakfast or brunch on Saturday when cooking is ritually forbidden.
Jews also cooked Kebba Helwa, sweet Kebba, paradoxically not sweet at all, just not soured. These were typically much larger dumplings, also stuffed with ground meat, but much higher seasoning, including ground dried limes, cooked in a stew of aubergine, squash, or both.
Burghul-bulgur was, of course, known and used in Baghdad, but associated with Mosul. Kebba Burghul was a different production, the variety that is now familiar in Middle Eastern cookery. In Baghdad it was often labeled ‘Kubbat Mosul’.
In more recent times, in the diaspora of Iraqi Jews in Israel and elsewhere, Kebba-Bamya is reproduced and celebrated, but often with different materials and techniques. The rice paste of the dumplings is tricky and difficult to work with, so often semolina is substituted, or mixed with rice. A little meat or chicken is also added to the mixture to make it stick, as is done with the burghul crusts.
I still cook and enjoy Bamya stews with lamb ribs or kofta, in the sweet and sour tomato sauce, with garlic and mint, but rarely with Kebba: too fiddly. The ‘normal’ Bamya stews of Middle Eastern cookery taste bland in comparison.
Kebba-Bamya: The Recipe
I have tried to follow Sami’s indications on how to make kebba-bamya as closely as possible. However, I substituted lamb ribs with lamb cutlets and pennyroyal with mint because both are more readily available.
The traditional way to prepare this kebba with rice, requires that you soak the rice and then grind it before combining it with the meat. Many people now, simply use ground rice.
Because it is time consuming, I suggest that you make this recipe in stages. Cook the cutlets the day before, and on the day, make the Kebba patties and okra stew.
For the Kebba filling
200 g/ ½ lb. ground beef
1 small onion chopped
1 tablespoon baharat
15 g/ 1/2 oz parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon clove
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon chili pepper
6 rose buds, ground
For the Kebba shells (makes 8 kubbah shells)
100 g / 1 cup ground rice
110g / 1 cup ground meat
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
60 ml / ¼ cup water to use as needed
For the Bamya (okra) stew
3 lamb cutlets
400g fresh or frozen okra
4 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste
3 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
3 tablespoons vinegar
3 tablespoons date syrup
- Prepare the lamb cutlets the day before. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan, and cook the cutlets for about 4 minutes on each side. Transfer to a plate.
- Add 2 teaspoons of salt to 2 ½ litres of water and bring to a boil. Add the lamb cutlets. A brownish froth will form on the surface, skim it with spoon. When the liquid looks clear add the spices, cover, and leave to simmer over low heat, for 1 ½ hours. By the end of cooking the liquid is reduce by about half its volume.
- Cool and refrigerate until ready to use the next day.
- The following day start by making the kebba Mix the meat, ground rice and salt in a large bowl. Knead to combine.
- Add a little water at a time while still kneading. You’ll know when to stop adding more water when the dough is soft and pliable.
- Cover and leave to rest while you mix the filling ingredients in another bowl.
- Place a small bowl to dip your fingers in, and avoid the dough sticking to your hands while making the dumplings.
- Divide the kebba dough into small balls, each about the size of a golf ball. Hold it with one hand and with the thumb of the other, make an indent, and press it gently into a concave disc.
- Fill the cavity with two teaspoons of minced meat and pinch the sides to close.
- Roll back into a ball, press to flatten, then pinch around the edge so it becomes fatter in the centre and thinner at the rim. Arrange on a tray covered with parchment paper. Repeat to finish all the dough.
- Set the kebba aside, and bring salted water to a boil. Drop 6 or 7 kebba at a time and cook them in simmering water for 4 minutes. Lift with a slotted spoon and lay them separately on a tray.
- Heat 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep pan, sauté the trimmed okra for 3 to 4 minutes until it becomes a darker shade of green.
- Re-heat the meat and its stock and add the tomato paste, vinegar, lemon juice and date syrup and finally incorporate the okra.
- Sauté the crushed garlic cloves for 30 seconds, add the chopped mint and cook for another minute and combine with the stew.
- Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Drop the kebba patties into the stew, and cook for another 10 minutes. Do not stir, to avoid breaking the kebba.
Serve with steamed rice, topped with fried onions and a drizzle of sesame oil.
 If using fresh okra, you need to trim the stem: peel the skin around the top and leave a pointed end (see photo). Wash, and make sure to dry thoroughly before using.