My great-aunt Victoria (Toya) Levy was an incredible woman. Born in Baghdad in 1922, she moved to Israel with her husband in 1950 to start a new life. They lived in a tiny house surrounded by fruit trees that they planted in the small town of Yavneh, where Toya dedicated her life to helping children from broken families.
She was an amazing cook — and a generous one, too. Shortly after we got married, my husband and I spent a day with her to learn the secrets of Iraqi Jewish cooking from the best.
That day, Toya taught us how to make t’beet, a Shabbat dish of stuffed chicken with rice cooked overnight, and kubbeh batata: potato fritters stuffed with ground beef. In her tiny kitchen, she also taught us to make meatballs in a dried apricot and tomato sauce. Of all the dishes, this was the only one that my grandmother never made and so I was not familiar with it. Yet its flavors stuck with me. The simple ingredients — sour dried apricots, tomato, lemon juice, raisins and just a few spices — somehow made a dish much greater than the sum of its parts. The meatballs were so tender and rich, and the sauce was sweet and sour, a combination that Iraqi Jews love.
My great-aunt Toya passed away years ago. I had somehow forgotten this wonderful recipe and when I tried to research the dish, I found different versions of it in almost every Iraqi and Iraqi Jewish cookbook I searched in. The dish was called mishmishiya or kofta mishmishiya (“mishmish” means apricot in both Arabic and Hebrew), ingryieh (a name that I saw only in a Jewish cookbook) or margat hamidh-Hilu. Interestingly, all the Jewish versions included meatballs, while Islamic recipes used stew meat. I assume this had to do with the cost of ingredients and the fact that most Jewish recipes were written by Iraqi Jews who moved to Israel, where stew meat was much more expensive than ground beef.
According to Nawal Nasrallah’s “Delights From the Garden of Eden,” which researches the ancient cuisine of Iraq, the roots of this stew can be traced back to the Babylonian and Assyrian days (19th-6th centuries B.C.). A similar recipe, called mishmishiya, is also documented in Al-Baghdadi’s book “Kitab al Tabikh” from Medieval Baghdad. It calls for fresh apricots of a sour variety. Back then, of course, tomatoes from the New World were not available and, in fact, the original mishmishiya was also known as the “white stew.” Since Jews were living in Iraq from the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., I feel a real connection to this humble stew’s long history.
Of all the recipes I found, my great-aunt Toya’s version is the best. Her apricot meatballs have become a family favorite; the 2,000-year-old dish from worlds away lives on, now with our kids.
Dried apricots are available all year long, but I still think this dish is most suitable for a summer dinner. The apricots, with their bright color and flavor, mirror sunny summer days, not to mention the fact that this easy and fast recipe is perfect for those of us who want to spend as little time as possible over the stove when temperatures outside are soaring.
- The recipe calls for dried apricots with no added sugar. They are available at specialty supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. If you’re using sweetened dried apricots, reduce the sugar in the sauce to 2 teaspoons.
- The original recipe included raisins in the sauce, which I chose to omit, but you can add those for extra sweetness.
- Store the cooked meatballs in a sealed container in the fridge for up to four days.
For the meatballs:
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 cup chopped Italian parsley
- 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- 2 slices of bread (like challah or ciabatta), crusts removed, soaked in water
For the sauce:
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp dried mint or ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
- ¼ tsp ground cardamom
- 1 Tbsp sugar (see notes)
- 1½ tsp salt
- ⅛ tsp white pepper
- 1½ cups water, at room temperature
- 3 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 cup (4 oz.) unsweetened dried apricot (see notes)
- ¼ cup golden raisins (optional, I do not use)
- cooked rice, for serving
- Start by making the meatballs: Put ground beef, parsley, onion, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Squeeze water out of the bread, add to the beef and mix with your hands for a couple of minutes. Shape the mixture into 1½-inch meatballs and arrange on a tray. Set aside.
- Use a skillet or a pot that is wide enough to hold all the meatballs in one layer, if possible. Put the skillet on medium-high heat, add olive oil, and when oil is hot, add onion and sauté until golden, about 6 minutes. Add tomato paste, mint, cardamom, sugar, salt and white pepper, mix and cook for another minute. Add water, lemon juice and paprika and bring to boil, then reduce the heat and cook on low simmer for 5 minutes. Taste sauce and adjust salt and sugar to taste.
- Add meatballs to the skillet and spoon sauce over them. Scatter the apricots and raisins (if using) between the meatballs. Bring back to a boil on medium-high heat, then reduce heat to a low simmer (you want to see small bubbles forming in the sauce), cover and cook for 15 minutes. Gently flip the meatballs and cook for another 15 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through.
- Serve over rice.