Chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, or warm chocolate chip cookies are the most familiar comfort foods for Americans. But for Oren Sasson, it's his grandmother's crispy pastry stuffed with slow cooked meat, herbs and spices: a traditional Syrian Kurdish snack called shamburak.
However, Sasson's restaurant, Ish Tabach, is far removed from Kurdistan. (In Hebrew, Ish tabach means "The man's a chef" but is a homophone for "Praise be he.") It's nestled in an alley alongside Jerusalem's burgeoning food mecca—the Mahane Yehuda market.
For Kurdish Israelis, shamburak's crunchy exterior and savory filling is a link to older, simpler times. Sasson recalled an older customer who drove a couple hours from Haifa and, with one bite, started crying.
"He told me, 'It takes me back 60 years,'" he said.
Kurdish Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1920s, but most came after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948; today virtually none remain in Kurdistan. Most moved to Jerusalem, and the neighborhood abutting the Mahane Yehuda market remains a center of the community.
One of the few aspects of Kurdish culture remaining among their descendants is cuisine. The most familiar is kubeh soup—semolina dumplings stuffed with meat and cooked in a lemony sour broth. Mordoch, a shrine to the perfect kubeh soup, and a handful of other restaurants serving Kurdish fare populate the blocks around Ish Tabach.
Kurdish cuisine is rich with simple baked goods, the most common being qadeh, a wheat flour pocket stuffed with salty cheese and cooked on a skillet like a quesadilla on steroids.
Shamburak—an adaptation of Turkish for Syrian börek—are typically small half-moons of flaky dough, stuffed with ground beef and fried in oil. It's fare traditional to Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Sasson's departs from the traditional, incorporating elements unique to Israel's fusion of disparate cuisines, such as Indian and South American influences.
He offered a Jewish folk etymology for shamburak, saying it was derived from the Hebrew "she-mevorach"—that which was blessed for the Sabbath, because it traditionally used leftovers from Saturday's meals.
"Every Sunday, she'd take the meat that was left over from the Sabbath—intestines, stomach, tail—chop it up, spice it, fold it into the dough and put it in a pit with glowing coals," Sasson said.
"I'd watch her do it, time after time, each time a different version, in the garden at home," he said, pointing at the heavy brass mortar she used to musically pound the meat with herbs while singing. As a child, Sasson's family moved around a lot, and he wound up living with an adopted family on a kibbutz. His grandmother's shamburak takes him back to the simpler times of childhood. "It's an experience which gives me the shivers thinking about it."
Six months ago, after overcoming years of ill health, he decided to open a restaurant serving her traditional pastry which he holds dear. Since then, a growing number of locals have been drawn by the tantalizing aroma of fresh baked bread wafting into the street and the certainty a full stomach.
On offer are eight choices of filling, all succulent varieties of spiced meat (plus a vegetarian option, with sautéed portobello mushrooms). At the top of the list is the siske—beef that's been slow-cooked for about 16 hours until tender, which the proprietor says is the most authentically Kurdish. His favorite (and this author's as well) is the inimitable beef tongue, which is braised for hours to perfection, then cubed and mixed with fried onions and garlic.
In addition to brisket braised in beer and Syrian kebab, the chef occasionally offers daily specials, such as siske with apricots, whose juices help cut through the rich beef.
Sasson said the dough is a family secret, but confided that it's simple wheat affair with very little yeast, which is kept chilled to prevent rising.
"What's critical is to let it rest. Rest, then fold, rest then fold," he said, gesticulating the hardwired motions. He and his crew prepare over 20 pounds of it daily.
Atop the dough come spiced mashed potatoes, inspired by Sasson's wife, whose family immigrated to Israel from Kochin, India. They help absorb the meat juices and keep the dough crisp. Then comes the meat, heaped in mind-bogglingly generous proportions, followed by roasted red peppers, onions sautéed till golden, and roasted garlic. A daub of chimichurri sauce—popularized in Israel by a wave of Argentinian immigration in the early 2000s, and made up of parsley, garlic, olive oil, and a splash of vinegar—finishes it off.
Any order can come with an egg on top, an obviously satisfying choice after a night at the bars nearby.
The dough is folded into the shape of an eye, the ends twisted and the fillings its colorful iris. It's then baked in a massive taboon oven which dominates the room. While waiting ten minutes for the pastry to bake until crispy, an assortment of salads varying daily fend off starvation and quench uncontrollable salivation.
Typically a conventional Israeli salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes with parsley, Moroccan spiced carrots, home cured olives and cabbage salad with honey vinaigrette are the order of business. But more interesting affairs such as piquant chili jam, watermelon and radish salad with mint, or roasted eggplant salad make an appearance. By far the most innovative is green tahina peppered with toasted buckwheat, which lend a delightful crunch and unexpected roasted flavor to a familiar creamy spread.
Sasson makes a point of admonishing customers who attempt to eat it with utensils, explaining that his grandmother said consuming shamburak should be a five-sense, hands-on experience. Just one bite is enough to transport you to those simpler times.