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.