Kishk Soup with Garlic

There were so many striking things about the day I ate kishk for the first time. As I mentioned, kishk is not something I’d ever heard of, let alone eaten, until recently. I tasted a steaming bowlful after a winter morning’s baking lesson in Lebanese flatbread last year; my teacher, Naemi, walked us up the stairs from her traditional, Sitti-style basement baking area and started in on preparing lunch. As if the glorious scene of the bread baking wasn’t enough to enrapture me, her mouneh, her preserves, were a force to be reckoned with.

There were her own lemony olives, her labne in oil, her clarified butter that she scooped up with a whisk to get her soup going. For a sweet note, jars of fig jam and preserved pumpkin. Garlic cloves, lots and lots of them, were the basis of the soup along with the butter, to which she added a little bundle of ground lamb that seemed to be waiting for this purpose in her tidy refrigerator. I spotted two large bins in the fridge, one of laban (thin yogurt) and one of labne (thicker); how handy.

A kitchen like that is in all kinds of ways exactly what I aspire to. And it’s what the whole DIY, local, organic, food-in-jars, cook-it-yourself movement aspires to. Not to mention the second, third, and no doubt fourth generations of Lebanese Americans (like you and me and so many of us who come together here) with any spot of Lebanon in their history who want to remember and to eat the incredibly good foods of our forebears.

The soup’s mouth-watering scent induced me, finally, to take my eyes off all of the jars long enough to ask what it was she was making. Kishk, she said, slowly pouring a cup of the powder into her meaty garlic-butter broth. What is it? I asked. Soup, she said, reminding me of the kinds of responses I so often get when I ask for details about aspects of Lebanese cuisine from the few women who still cook like she does. The finer points are not going to be verbalized; better watch closely.

We ate the lunch, every bite of it, with the flatbread we had baked that morning—the misshapen ones that Naemi wouldn’t be able to sell. In other words: the ones I made. Little bread scoops (which the Lebanese tear off and fold up so instinctively that I will someday suss out the technique as just that, a technique) enfolded the usual suspects, the olives and labne and lifft. But then Naemi scooped up her kishk the same way, and I realized there were no spoons at the table, no silverware at all actually. I shouldn’t have been surprised; there are few if any foods on a Lebanese plate that are not to be eaten with the bread.

Kishk is less a soup then it is a porridge. Kishk has body, and when it’s made with meat, even more so. The salty yogurt-bulghur powder is not just for soup though; it is very traditionally made into a paste that is spread on man’oushe. Its flavor is first and immediately that of fermentation, so that you could think something might be wrong with it, as you might the first time you taste blue cheese. The fermentation is accompanied by a certain sourness that is trademark labne (the good stuff is always a little sour, not the flat blandness that is grocery store Greek yogurt). I’d say after eating that first bowl of kishk that it is an acquired taste, or at least a taste that you are either for or against. Kishk must absolutely be eaten with the bread, whatever you can get your hands on, be it pita or flatbread or if you must, a piece of toast.

When I made kishk again recently to share with you, I gave Dan a spoonful. He swallowed kind of hard and said, OK. Meaning not even hey, that tasted a-ok, but rather: ok, I got it down. He had never heard of kishk before either, despite his full-blooded Lebanese lines.

I’m not surprised that the kishk didn’t make a grand showing in our Lebanese-American kitchens. It’s serious survival food. The man at the American International bulk foods store way on the south side of Lansing, where I found my kishk, told me in his very thick accent about the kishk in the mountains of Lebanon. He said it is often made into shankleesh cheese, hardened balls of kishk that little children suck on for nourishment as they walk to and fro school. The thought of handing my nephew John a ball of kishk-flavored shankleesh for his pocket treat on his way to school gives “LOL” its true meaning every time it crosses my mind.

With all of my questions about the kishk, the shop owner finally asked, Never had kishk before? Just once, I told him. That’s because you, YOU are American! he said jovially. Yes, I said, thinking of the scene I was setting for my kishk in blue pottery bowls on marble, so different from the dear, old-country feel of Naemi’s table. But I am LEBANESE American, and there’s a difference, I said. I can see that, he said, and then he handed me a candy bar (an imported one) for that difference, as I walked out the door with my kishk.

Kishk Soup with Garlic
This is a very simple and versatile soup that is thick and nourishing. Kishk powder always contains salt, so little to no seasoning is necessary beyond that. If garlic isn’t your thing, all is not lost—use lots of onion instead. The meat is also optional, and can be simple ground lamb or beef, or use cooked kibbeh balls (see this recipe). Do eat the kishk with good flatbread or pita. The quantity is easily adjusted using a ratio of 3:1, water to kishk. Serves 2.

3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
6 garlic cloves, green germ removed and minced
½ pound ground lamb or lean ground beef (optional)
1 cup kishk powder
Dried mint or parsley (for garnish)

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter or heat the oil. Lower the heat and add the garlic, cooking just long enough to release the scent without browning it. Add the meat and increase the heat to medium, stirring constantly to break up and brown the meat.

Add three cups of water to the pot. Gradually whisk in the kishk powder, a little at a time. Cook over medium-low heat until the mixture is thick, 5-10 minutes. Ladle into warm soup bowls and garnish with crushed dried mint. Serve with flatbread or pita.

Print this recipe here.

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30 Responses to Kishk Soup with Garlic

  1. Thank you for this informative post on kishk, Maureen. I used to love this soup when my mother made it, always putting kibbe in it , which added another dimension of flavour to it. I’m not sure I could find any kishk powder here in the Gaspe Peninsula but on my next trip to Montreal will definitely get some!

  2. Mayada says:

    Thank u for a beautiful post.
    Can we have the receipe for the flat bread pls
    Ur site is beautiful and heart warming

  3. Maureen I have never had this, but reading this I want to try it. Hope I can find the kishk powder in Atlanta. Wonderfully written and the pictures are wonderful as always.

  4. Jerry Wakeen says:

    “walked us up the stairs from her traditional, Sitti-style basement baking area”

    One of my fondest memories of my paternal grandmother is her working in the basement baking bread.
    Long tables full of formed rising dough loafs covered with cloth. A favorite gas stove/oven combo where the top oven was for baking the bottom for browning under a broiler.

    I believe that stove resurfaced after about 50 years and my brother bought it from a cousin. Yellowish enamel finish, 4 burners of course but the oven side for baking is the main feature. The use of large wooden bread handlers helped load and retrieve the bread, don’t know how they made those….in those days plywood was not available so it appeared to be made out of a single sheet of wood. I still have one I saved, although it split and is now in two pieces it is still precious!

    Just forwarded two of your cookie “links” to a lady in the parish that made the mistake of asking me what my favorite cookie was! :)

    • Merry in Massachusetts says:

      My paternal grandmother also had a baking kitchen in the basement……is this peculiar to the generation or to the Lebanese?

  5. Emily says:

    I have heard lots of stories from my mother-in-law about her coming home from school and smelling the bread all the way home because her mom and sittu had been baking bread in the basement all day… I loved reading this story! I have serious doubts of finding kishk in Arkansas, but am going to try to make it with Sithu next time we visit!

  6. Roger Toomey says:

    I don’t know if I could handle that much garlic. Think I’ll stick with browned onion.

    But that’s how we ate it with folded flat bread.

  7. nancy says:

    is the ground meat optional or the choice of beef?

  8. Cheri says:

    I was brought up on kishk, although I do not use garlic. I saute some onion, mix the powder in, then add water slowly stirring so there is no lumps. I’ve had it with and without meat. I love it!!

  9. Marian Boulus says:

    Maureen,
    Thank you so much for this recipe. My husband, Michael, loves kishk. His father, Paul, made it for the family during lent. I purchased the powder in a Lebanese grocery store in Dearborn but did not know to make it. Thanks to you I will make it now!

  10. Roger Toomey says:

    You might also try mixing some of the powder in with scrambled eggs. Sort of like cheese with eggs, but of course a luban flavor rather than American Cheese flavor. I think it is easily substituted in any dish that would call for a strong cheese. As I said in a previous post, Grandma considered it a staple of her Lebanese cooking.

  11. Geri Kalush Conklin says:

    I too grew up with kishk. Mom made it rather thick and always had cubed beef as I remember. I am making the syrian bread ( I should say I’m practicing) and enjoying it.

  12. shelly says:

    Hi Maureen,

    I am glad I discovered your blog. I am an Israeli, who lives in Los Angeles and I adore the Lebanese cuisine! A while ago I got Salma Hage’s cookbook and I’m hooked. Your food looks delicious! And I love your writing style. I’ll definitely come back for more.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thanks so much Shelly–I love Salma’s book too (and I wrote the intro for it!). I look forward to seeing you here!

  13. Verna says:

    My grandmother make kishik soup with ground lamb, i chopped onion and a small head of shredded cabbage. She would brown ground lamb in a little bit of ghee. Then add the cabbage until wilted. She would drain off most of the fat. Then add 3/4 of a cup of kishik powder that had been dissolved in 4 cups of water. The she would bring it to a boil and let simmer gently for 15 minutes. Was one of my favorites. Thanks to this website I just found a source for kishik powder again.

  14. Dino says:

    I live in Florida, and always look forward to the first cold morning of the season, so I can enjoy a hot bowl of kishk. That morning was today. :-)

    I learned to make kishk from my grandmother. We always use chopped lamb, and we use onions instead of garlic. I usually use a blade chop, and trim it and chop it myself. Because I like the flavor of the lamb, after trimming the meat I brown the bones and “melt” the fat. Once browned and the fat is rendered I sauté the onion in the rendered fat, then add the chopped lamb.

    Lately I’ve been adding a pinch of salt and a dash of lemon juice to enhance the flavors I remember as a kid.

  15. Michelle says:

    I love that I have discovered your website!!! I was trying to remember how to make kishk, as a girlfriend brought some for me from Lebanon. I am in Miami. My grandmother, who is from Zahle, used to make it for me when I was a little girl. Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed my kishk today along with the wonderful memories. I look forward to reading all of your recipes! Xoxo

  16. Noreen says:

    Hi
    U have such a amazing site for peoples who love food !! U have great words to explain anything dear :) !
    I love it simply to say !!! I am breast cancer survivor
    God Bless u !!

  17. Ann says:

    My mother made lots of Kishk but mine was a huge flop! I’ll try it again using your recipe but without meat and with only onions like my mother made it. My father was from Zahle but both parents came from Damascus, Syria.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Well I sure hope this recipe works great for you and reminds you of your mother’s delicious kishk! Thanks Ann!

  18. Mary says:

    I’m enjoying your sie tremendously! I am Syrian and Lebanese, second generation American-born, and I cook and bake most of our foods.
    Kishk is my favorite, but getting really good powder is difficult these days. I can’t seem to find one that has that perfect sour flavor I remember from my youth. I have come across Jameed, which is a concentrated liquid soup starter, and it’s the closest I’ve found to that taste I remember.
    I don’t remember if Sittu used garlic or onions (I use a few cloves), but she would wilt chopped cabbage in clarified butter or ghee. Then she would dissolve the kishk powder in water. We made very small kibbee balls with a dot of butter inside, drop them into the soup, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Perfection!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      The cabbage in the kishk sounds wonderful; I have seen it done here and there and will have to try it. Thank you Mary,cousin!, for taking time to comment!

  19. Michael says:

    I saw a jar of kishk and asked asked about it. The nice man from Syria said he could not explain it. Thanks to you I’m going back to get a jar. I haven’t made it yet, but it makes me think of polenta.

    Your narative and writting is very interesting. Thank u for sharing.

  20. Charlotte says:

    I would love to have a recipe for shankleesh. I haven’t had it since my sit to passed. Do you have a recipe for this cheese that you can post?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Charlotte–I’ve posted about labneh preserved in oil, but not specifically shankleesh, which is typically made with goat’s milk and is much drier than the labneh in oil. That said, you could use that method and take it further until the cheese is dry like shankleesh, and spiced that way as well. Great idea for a post, thank you…I will put it on the list!

 

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