Weekend Cooking

Shish Barak (Lebanese Lamb Dumplings in Yogurt Sauce)

January 11, 2017
Photo by Bobbi Lin
Author Notes

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. —Sara Jenkins

  • Makes about 40
Ingredients
  • 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
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. For the filling:
  2. Make the filling by mixing and kneading the ground lamb meat with the rest of the filling ingredients. Mix well to amalgamate and leave refrigerated for at least a couple hours and up to overnight.
  1. For the dough and the dressing:
  2. To make the dough, place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the salt, olive oil, and water into the well. Using a fork, beat the flour into the dough, switching to kneading with your hands once the dough thickens. Knead the dough on a smooth surface until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest about 20 minutes.
  3. To make the dumplings, roll 1/4 of the dough out on a flat surface. Roll out to about 1/16-inch thin, then cut into circles using a ravioli stamp or biscuit cutter. Place a small ball of lamb filling in the center of the dough and fold into a crescent moon shape pinching hard all around the edge to seal. Pinch together the two tips and place on a lightly-floured sheet tray or flat plate.
  4. To cook: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. In a nearby skillet, melt the butter with the dried mint and Aleppo pepper, if using. When the water boils, fill a large serving bowl with a ladleful of the cooking water to warm the bowl. Swish the water around and dump all but about 1/4 cup. Whisk the yogurt in the water, thinning it out and warming it. Boil the dumplings in the water; once they float to the top, let them bob for 3 to 4 minutes (check one for doneness), then place them in the warm bowl with the yogurt. Swirl to coat and then drizzle the butter all over and sprinkle the pine nuts on top. Serve and eat immediately

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