Meatball Soup with Pasta & Herbs

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 this hearty one. This very easy but hugely flavourful soup is my version of my mother-in-law’s gushbara soup. The name translates to “earring” or “like ear lobes” in Persian, because of the shape of the tiny dumplings in the original version.

My mother-in-law is a wonderful cook. She makes her gushbara with great ceremony. Hers is finger-licking delicious but takes a lot of time to prepare because she makes the pasta dough from scratch and wraps her tiny meatballs in pasta squares meticulously to form little parcels similar to tortellini.

You may call mine a “deconstructed” version of the real thing. I make it with shop-bought Italian pasta shapes like creste di gallo, farfalle, cappelletti or orecchiette but any kind of pasta shape or even little squares of homemade pasta can be used instead. This really cuts the preparation time but the end result tastes quite authentic. Critic No 1 (my lovely son and my best food critic) approves of my cheat version and is always begging me to make it for him.

The hardest bit in making my version is shaping the delicious, subtly spiced meatballs. But it’s worth all the trouble. Plus the meatballs are so versatile you can use them in many other recipes.

Ingredients for the tiny meatballs
Ingredients for the tiny meatballs
Tiny meatballs ready to be fried
Tiny meatballs ready to be fried
Meatballs almost ready to cook in the broth
Meatballs almost ready to cook in the broth

This curious pasta soup has a long and interesting history too. There are many versions known as gushbarajushpara, jushbaratushbera, 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 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. They may have adopted it from an earlier Chinese version. I found a recipe in a 15th century Persian cookbook written by a chef of the court of Safavid kings 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 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 love my mother-in-law’s version which has been a favourite in her family for generations. She is of Iranian descent but was born in Baku, now the capital of Azerbaijan Republic. Her family fled to Iran after Azerbaijan, once ruled over by Iran and then Russia, became a soviet republic in 1920s. Making gushbara together with everybody participating in the making of the little dumplings is one of the longest-held family traditions in her house.

In my husband’s family gushbara is served with torshi (chopped vegetables pickled in vinegar and spices) but we have it with lime/lemon juice or good wine vinegar too when there is no torshi.

To serve four persons you will need the following ingredients:

  • 250g lean beef mince
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tbsp dried mint
  • 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper or mild chilli flakes
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or grated
  • 20g butter (or 4 tbsp of olive oil)
  • 1 1/2 litre boiling water or stock (beef, lamb or chicken)
  • 150g pasta (creste di gallo, farfalle, cappelletti, orecchiette or other pasta shape)
  • 50g coriander, roughly chopped (or more if you love coriander like I do)


  1. Squeeze the grated onion with the back of a spoon to extract most of the juices. Discard the onion juice.
  2. Put the mince, spices, salt, mint, grated onion and grated garlic in a bowl. Mix and knead for a couple of minutes. Take small pieces of the mixture and shape into small meatballs.
  3. Melt the butter in a medium-sized frying pan over medium high heat and add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs until lightly browned.
  4. Transfer the meatballs to a medium-sized saucepan. Deglaze the frying pan with some of the boiling water (or stock) and add the juices to the meatballs. Top up with the rest of the water or stock. Bring to the boil. Taste and add salt if required.
  5. Add all the pasta and stir. Cook for at least 15 minutes. Forget about al dente, the pasta should become very soft and thicken the broth a little. Taste and adjust the seasoning again. If there is too little broth to your liking dilute the soup with a little more boiling water or stock.
  6. Add the chopped coriander and cook for a couple of minutes until the coriander is a little wilted. Serve immediately with lime/lemon wedges or vinegar and more chopped coriander if you wish. Enjoy!

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