This meatballs and pasta soup recipe is probably very different from any you’ve ever tried so get yourself prepared for a whole new flavour combination! There is a lot of coriander, garlic and mint in the broth for this soup that give it it’s fabulous aroma and set it apart from other meatball and pasta soups.
This is my cheat’s version of a moreish soup called by a myriad of names all over Iran, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Each one of these soups is a bit different from the others but they are all made with pasta shaped like tortellini or ravioli. My version is close to one made in northwest Iran and the neighbouring Azerbaijan.
I learnt to make the original version of gushbara from my mother-in-law who is a fabulous cook. Her skill in making pasta dough, rolling the dough and filling small dumplings for the soup has always fascinated me. Hers is finger-licking delicious but takes a lot of time to prepare. But I loved this soup and had to find a way to make something that tasted similar but was easier to make so I came up with this recipe.
Herby soups are part and parcel of Persian cooking. No wonder the word for cook in Persian (ashpaz) is derived from the word for soup (ash, a is pronounced as in art). So a cook is one who makes soups! There are literally hundreds of types of soups with all kinds of flavours, from savoury to sweet and sour, completely vegetarian or with different kinds of meat. Some are thickened with flour, others with noodles, rice, whole grains like wheat and barley or bulgur.
There are also some soups that are made with pieces of pasta dough like the one from which I’ve taken the inspiration for my cheat’s gushbara. Gushbara translates to “earring” or “like ear lobes” in Persian, because of the shape of the tiny dumplings in the original version.
You may call my gushbara a “deconstructed” version of the real thing. I make it with shop-bought Italian pasta shapes like orecchiette, creste di gallo, farfalle or cappelletti but any kind of pasta shape or even little squares of homemade pasta dough can be used instead. Using dry pasta cuts the preparation time but flavour-wise the end result is quite similar to the original. Critic No 1 (my lovely son and my best food critic) approves of my cheat’s version and is always begging me to make it for him. He is quite a soup expert!
This curious pasta soup has a long and interesting history too. There are many versions known as gushbara, jushpara, jushbara, tushbera, dushbara and chuchvara in some regions of Iran, former soviet republics of Central Asia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Afghanistan. A friend from Jordan told me her grandmother made jushbara too but had no idea where it came from.
I’m not going to debate the origins of the dish. My best guess is that it was brought to Iran and all adjacent countries by nomadic Turkic tribes centuries ago and they may have adopted that from an earlier Chinese version. I found a recipe in a 16th century Persian cookbook but the book doesn’t say where the soup originated. It’s fascinating how the dish evolved over the centuries in all these places and how each nation now has claims to its origins.
Today many versions are enjoyed in various parts of Iran where the fillings and flavourings can vary hugely. In some places the pasta parcels are filled with lamb, in others with lentils. Some are made with broth, others with sauce, much like ravioli. I made one recently from eastern regions of Iran with spinach and walnut dumplings. If there could be a cheat’s version of that I’d make it all the time.
In our family gushbara is served with torshi (chopped vegetables pickled in vinegar and spices). When there isn’t any torshi we use lime/lemon juice or good wine vinegar flavoured with garlic paste.
To serve four persons you will need the following ingredients:
This Persian sweet and sour chicken meatballs recipe is my quick and easy variation of khoresht-e aloo ba havij (plum & carrot khoresht/khoresh).
I hate to call it a stew but there’s no other word in English to use. In Persian cuisine my sweet and sour chicken meatballs belongs to the category of khoresht (also pronounced as khoresh) like many other so-called stews that we serve with rice. Like curries if you will. Khoreshts can be green, yellow, red or even dark brown.
Khoreshts are made with various kinds of vegetables, herbs, nuts, fruits and pulses. Many include meat, poultry or fish but there are some without. A khoresht is often named after whichever ingredient that is the star of the dish. Possibilities are quite endless.
You’ve probably noticed that there’s no mention of chicken in the Persian version of the name of the my khoresht. That’s because in this one carrots and prunes are the shining stars.
Meat usually plays the second fiddle to vegetables, herbs or fruits in a khoresht. Have you seen my Persian Aubergine (Eggplant) Stew with Meatballs & Dried Lime recipe? If you are not a big fan of meat you can make that one with chicken pieces or meatballs like this one. Or use mushrooms if you like and it will still be khoresht bademjoon (aubergine/eggplant khoresht).
Nothing is really set in stone in Persian cooking. We even don’t really measure our ingredients. Most Persian cooks just use their eyes, taste buds and noses and few have measuring cups and spoons in their kitchens!
I learned cooking in the same way. My grandmothers didn’t have measuring cups or scales in their kitchens but very magically they managed to turn out fabulous dishes of same quality every time.
When I’m writing recipes I do use scales and measuring spoons. It takes more time but I want to give you a recipe that works. You can go on to make it your own by adjusting the ingredients to your own taste. It’s the method that really matters.
I often make my sweet and sour chicken with thigh pieces but when I have chicken breasts in the fridge I tend to make chicken meatballs for this khoresht rather than using whole or cut up breasts. All the spices that I add to the meatballs and the onion that goes into it makes the rather bland chicken breast taste so much better and more succulent.
In Iran this dish is usually made with golden aloo bokhara, a special kind of yellow plums that are poached, peeled and sun dried. Aloo bokhara is quite hard to come by here. I find prunes a very good substitute but add a little fresh lemon juice to the sauce. It works quite well.
Chicken meatballs with carrots and prunes is delicious with rice but you can also serve it on its own, with crusty bread and a nice green salad like my Herby, Garlicky, Lemony Romaine Lettuce Salad and a lovely glass of dry white wine.
Ingredients to serve four:
For the meatballs:
For the sauce:
This koofteh is one of the very first dishes that I made on my own after my auntie showed me how to make them. She called them poor man’s kufta (yolchi kuftasi in her native Azari language). I was eleven years old but can still remember the day and the scrummy dish.
I hadn’t made these in years. I was craving them but wasn’t sure my meat-loving husband would be a big fan. I was even prepared to heat him some other leftovers if he didn’t like it. But to my amazement he loved it so much he had them the next day too and asked me to make them again!
So what makes these meatless “meatballs” so delicious? I’d say lots and lots of herbs, the barberries and especially the prunes that lend a slightly sweet and sour flavour to the “meatballs” and the sauce.
These “meatballs” are called koofteh in Persian which basically means “pounded”. In old days meat for koofteh was pounded with a huge stone mortar and pestle. Pounding gave the meat a sticky texture that held the meatballs together during cooking. But poor man’s koofteh don’t need pounding. There is no meat to pound!
The trick to hold the ingredients together is to knead the mix lightly and to use a sticky type of rice. Any kind of short or medium grain rice will be good. I used Italian Arborio which I often use to make sticky mixed rice dishes. It’s also important to allow the sauce to boil, lower the heat a tad bit so it doesn’t boil briskly and then submerge the meatballs one by one so the temperature of the sauce doesn’t drop. The rest is all really easy peasy.
Barberries do make this dish tastier but you can do without if they are hard to come by where you live. They come dried but I keep them in the freezer to preserve their gorgeous colour for longer. The tiny ruby red berries don’t even really freeze so I use them in my dishes after a quick rinse under the tap.
Nowadays most Middle Eastern and Persian groceries in the UK and online suppliers stock barberries. The dried berries are very light so a packet of 200 grams will see you through quite a few dishes.
Serve these “meatballs” with warmed flatbread or crusty bread to dunk in the sauce. Iranians love to have a bowl of fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and tarragon, spring onions and radishes on the table too. The herb mix is called sabzī khordan (herbs for eating). The herbs serve as flavour enhancer and refresh the palate between morsels.
To serve five persons (two meatballs each) you will need the following ingredients:
For the meatballs:
For the sauce:
PS: A little bit of the rice and herbs will eventually get into the sauce but that’s OK. It will thicken the sauce and add to its flavour.