Shish barak are little, ravioli-like dumplings filled with seasoned lamb, onions, and pine nuts that are boiled, baked, or fried and served in a warm yogurt sauce with melted butter, mint, sumac, and more toasted pine nuts. They are made in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, and are very similar to manti, the lamb-filled dumplings eaten in Turkey.
While shish barak are often home-cooked, I first encountered them in a restaurant in Beirut, when I was traveling with my mother, revisiting the city of my childhood and her young adulthood. We had lived there in the 70s, when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East and you skied in the morning at The Cedars, then ate fresh grilled fish outdoors by the ocean in Byblos in the afternoon.
We had moved to Beirut too late for master spy Kim Philby, who had fled to Moscow in the pitch of night a few years earlier, but, growing up, there was plenty of mystery and intrigue still at the Saint-George Hotel, where everyone went to drink, to spy, to swim, to play.
We left when the civil war began in 1973 and did not go back for twenty years, when it seemed safe to revisit. My mother and I went to eat more than anything: Lebanese food was a shared memory. It was great when we lived there and it was still amazing when we went back—in spite, or perhaps because of, the civil war, which caused the food to remain, out of necessity, firmly local and farm-to-table.
Neither one of us had ever heard of shishbarak, but the minute someone described them to us, we were determined to find them and eat them. We found them in a restaurant and I remember thinking they were somewhat odd: I didn’t hate them but it wasn’t love at first sight at all.
Over the years, however, this very Levantine combination of gamey lamb and tangy yogurt has grown on me, to the point that I recognize it as a base flavor combination. I’ve eaten cooked lamb tossed with tagliatelle, pine nuts, yogurt, and mint; I've had aforementioned manti in Istanbul and in New York's classic restaurant Prune on the Lower East Side; and I even found shish barak themselves at the amazing Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge.
Eventually, I started making shish barak myself: After all, it’s not very different from making ravioli, although the dough is not the same.
I do make a couple of tweaks that tip my shish barak away from tradition. I fill the dumplings with the lamb sausage mixture that we use at my restaurant Porsena in our anelloni. It's based on merguez, a spicy North African lamb sausage, but the flavor, though slightly different from the classic, still works. In traditional recipes, the filling is already cooked, but here, I leave it raw. And to simplify the sauce mixture, I don’t cook the yogurt, which requires all kinds of thickeners and binders to keep it from curdling. I simply whisk in a little of the hot pasta cooking water to thin the yogurt to a sauce-like consistency and warm it slightly. With the heat of the cooked ravioli and the warm melted butter, it stays perfectly warm.
For the filling:
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon harissa
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
For the dough and the dressing:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3/4 cup hot water
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon dried mint
- 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, optional
- 1 cup thick yogurt (labneh or Fage)
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts