Meatball Soup with Pasta & Herbs (Cheat’s Gushbara)
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 and the Levant. 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 this soup 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 the 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 “lamb’s ear”, “earring” or “like earlobes” 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 pictured above. 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, gushvareh, jushpara, jushbara, tushbera, dushbara, dushbere, chuchvara and shishberek in some regions of Iran, Central Asia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Afghanistan and the Levant. In Azerbaijan it’s a national dish.
I was always curious about the origins of the dish. It’s fascinating how the dish evolved over the centuries in all these places and how each nation now has claims to its origins. I found a recipe in a 16th century Persian cookbook called Treatise on the Art of Cooking but it doesn’t say where these dumplings originated. My own best guess was that it was brought to Iran and all adjacent countries by nomadic Turkic tribes centuries ago and that they had adopted that from an earlier Chinese version until I found an article in the very authoritative Oxford Companion to Food.
Based on linguistic evidence the article titled joshpara says these dumplings originated in pre-Islamic Persia and spread to all other places. That was a surprise and also very interesting as according to that article in medieval times Iranian merchants trading for fur and flour in Syberia taught it to Finno-Ugrian peoples who called it pelnan (ear bread). The advancing Russians in the 17th century adopted the Finno-Ugrian pelnan and it evolved into pel’meni as we know it today.
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 the 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:
- 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)
- Squeeze the grated onion with the back of a spoon to extract most of the juices. Discard the onion juice.
- 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.
- Melt the butter in a medium-sized frying pan over medium high heat and add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs until lightly browned.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!