On the Arab Christmas table, kubbeh and warak dawali are nonnegotiable

By Reem Kassis, The New York Times

The first time Nermine Mansour hosted Christmas dinner, she was working in Guatemala as a diplomat for the Egyptian foreign service. Five continents and a family later, she has hosted many more Christmas dinners, her table always surrounded by guests from diverse backgrounds and laden with diverse dishes to match.

But two offerings remain a constant: kubbeh, a bulgur- and meat-based shell encasing a lamb and nut filling seasoned with cinnamon and allspice, prepared as a pie or as croquettes; and warak dawali, grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of warmly spiced rice and ground beef cooked in a rich, tangy broth.

These dishes are usually associated with special occasions, Christmas in particular, because of the time required to prepare them and the lavish ingredients they call for. Mansour, who now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, is Egyptian American and was raised in the Coptic Christian tradition, in which it is common to abstain from meat and dairy for much of the year, including the 45 days before Christmas.

“Of course, we broke our fasting and celebrated with a plethora of meat dishes,” she said.

Across many Arab Christmas tables outside the Middle East, regardless of sect or fasting traditions, kubbeh and stuffed grape leaves are nonnegotiable. They are also a labor of love, requiring meticulous handiwork and time. As with dumplings or tamales, the dishes are traditionally made en masse, with women gathering to divide the labor.

The task of rolling grape leaves takes on a different meaning when it is done alongside friends and family, explained Antonio Tahhan, a Syrian American food writer, making the task not only bearable, but enjoyable.

“I remember I always wanted to be around my mom and aunts while they were rolling grape leaves because it sounded like a party,” he said.

The full splendor of this party is revealed when the pot is flipped over and lifted to showcase lamb chops atop layers of meltingly tender, glistening warak dawali. “These dishes speak to something deeper in our shared culinary heritage, to a communal approach to cooking,” Tahhan said.

Margot Habiby, a Palestinian American living in Dallas and the deputy director of external affairs at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, said that before food processors, home cooks would pound the meat for the kubbeh in a large stone mortar and pestle.

“That pounding sound signaled a village in celebration,” she said. “If someone from the village suffered a tragedy or death, you would never hear that sound coming from any house.”

The pounded raw kubbeh can be served immediately after preparation, like a tartare. But the possibilities of what one can cook with that kubbeh paste are endless. Football-shaped, deep-fried croquettes might be one of the most recognized forms in the West, because of their prevalence in restaurants and mezze spreads. But they’re also the most labor-intensive, so many Arabs prefer to make a pie form (suniyeh), especially during holidays when time is scarce and convenience is paramount.

“It’s always been suniyeh for us,” Habiby said. “My parents just didn’t have the patience honestly to make the croquettes.”

For the suniyeh, a layer of bulgur-based dough is pressed into a pan and topped with the meat filling, then another layer of the bulgur dough. The top layer is intricately scored, and finally the pie is baked.

“Until my father died at the age of 94, it was our ritual to make the kubbeh together for Christmas,” said Habiby, adding, “but the design I was not allowed to touch, so it was a very emotional moment for me the first time I made it by myself.”

For most Arabs in the diaspora, kubbeh and stuffed grape leaves are dishes imbued with meaning as much as flavor. For Mansour, the former diplomat-turned-food writer and recipe developer, they are not only a thread connecting generations across time and geography, but also a bridge connecting people across cultures.

“I want to create an identity for my kids as Egyptian Copts, so we always have kubbeh and grape leaves alongside other traditional Egyptian dishes for Christmas,” she said. “But it’s also my way to share our heritage with everyone sharing our table.”

Warak Dawali (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Stuffed grape leaves are so prevalent across the Arab world and the Mediterranean that it can seem like there are as many variations as there are families. This recipe is for traditional Levantine versions existing in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, which generally have a warmly spiced beef and rice filling, are rich from being cooked with either meat at the bottom of the pot or chicken broth, and involve stuffed grape leaves that are rolled fairly thin and long. It’s a hallmark of any celebratory or holiday table, and perfect served with a side of plain yogurt. Though they are time-consuming, warak dawali are a very fun project to embark on with family or friends, and leftovers store wonderfully, up to 3 days in the fridge or a couple of months in the freezer.

By Reem Kassis

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 5 1/2 hours


For the Filling:

  • 1 pound short- or medium-grain rice
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter (or a combination)
  • 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1 pound ground beef

For the Grape Leaves:

  • 2 (16-ounce) jars grape leaves in brine (approximately 90 to 100 leaves for rolling; extras will be used to line the pot); see tip
  • 8 bone-in lamb chops (about 1 1/2 pounds), 6 flanken-cut beef short ribs (about 2 pounds) or 1 3/4 pounds chuck roast (trimmed and cut into 6 to 8 even steaks); optional
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 medium tomatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
  • 4 cups chicken broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
  • Plain yogurt, to serve


1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Rinse the rice in a fine-mesh sieve until the water runs almost clear, then soak in cold water for 15 minutes.

2. While the rice soaks, prepare the grape leaves: Drain the leaves, separating them slightly, and set in a heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over the leaves until fully submerged and let stand for 15 minutes.

3. Drain the soaked rice, then let stand for 15 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, parboil the lamb, short ribs or chuck roast, if using: Place your chosen meat in a pot just big enough to hold the pieces. Add enough cold water to barely cover. Bring to a boil over high, just until you see scum rise to the surface. Remove from the heat, discard the water, rinse the meat and set aside.

5. Make the rice filling: In a large bowl, combine the rice, olive oil, salt, tomato paste, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg; mix well. Add the ground beef and mix until evenly combined; set aside.

6. Drain and rinse the grape leaves thoroughly to remove the brine flavor. Stuff the leaves: Lay out as many of the leaves as will fit on a flat work surface with the vein side up and the stem end closer to you. (Aim for leaves that are about the size of an adult’s palm. If any are exceptionally bigger or smaller than that, set them aside to use for lining the pot later.) Using kitchen shears or a sharp knife, cut out each tough central stem. Place 1 scant tablespoon of the rice filling above the cut-out stem section of each leaf. Using your fingers, spread the filling horizontally into a 1/4-inch-thick log that is about 4 inches long, leaving a 1/2- to 1-inch border on either end. Fold the sides of the grape leaves over the filling, then, working from the end nearest to you, fold each leaf up to cover the filling, rolling away from you. Rolls should be tight enough that they hold but not so tight that there’s no space for the rice to expand. (If rolled too tightly, rolls may burst during cooking.) Repeat with the remaining grape leaves and filling.

7. Assemble the pot: If using lamb, short ribs or chuck roast steak, heat the 3 tablespoons oil in a large Dutch oven or nonstick pot over medium heat. Working in 2 batches if necessary, sear the meat for a couple of minutes on both sides until browned. Remove the pot from the heat and nestle the tomato slices between the meat to fully cover the bottom. If you are not using the meat, drizzle the bottom of the pot with the olive oil and cover it with the tomato slices in an even layer.

8. Creating one layer at a time, place the rolled grape leaves in either concentric circles or rows in the pot.

9. In a large measuring cup, whisk the chicken broth or water with the tomato paste, salt, allspice, cinnamon and pepper to combine; pour the mixture over the grape leaves. Cover it with a layer or two of the extra, unrolled grape leaves and top with an inverted heatproof plate that’s slightly smaller than the pot’s diameter. (This prevents the leaves from moving around when liquid comes to a boil.)

10. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Allow to boil for about 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours. After simmering, check the liquid content by tilting the pot to one side. If much more than a very thick trickle of liquid appears, then, using oven mitts or a tea towel to keep the inverted plate and leaves in place, carefully pour that liquid out into a very small pot or measuring cup and reserve (this can be used for reheating leftovers).

11. Remove the plate, slightly lift the edge of the unrolled leaves, pour in the lemon juice and let cook over low heat for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to rest for 20 minutes.

12. To serve, discard the unrolled leaves on top. Select a serving dish slightly larger than the pot and invert the dish on top, then quickly — and very carefully — flip the pot and dish over, setting the dish on a surface and lifting the pot to reveal the stuffed grape leaves and meat, if using. (If you find the pot too heavy, then you can also use tongs to transfer the leaves and meat to the serving dish.) If you did not use a nonstick pot, some tomato slices may not release. You can discard them or scrape them out and add them to the platter.

13. Shake the platter gently back and forth to help the stuffed grape leaves come apart, so you can serve individual pieces. Serve generously (at least 10 to 15 per person), with plain yogurt on the side.


Jarred, brined grape leaves can be found at any Middle Eastern grocery store or online. Opt for those labeled “California style,” which refers to leaves that tend to be younger, smaller, more tender and of the variety most similar to those used in the Middle East.

Kubbeh Pie

One of the most recognized foods across the Arab world and the Mediterranean, kubbeh has countless variations, and different pronunciations depending on country or even region. Usually made of a bulgur-based shell with a meat, onion and nut filling, the Levantine croquettes are a staple in any feast or spread and a prominent feature on Arab holiday tables across the U.S. The pie form is a substantially easier version that captures all the delicious flavors in a main dish, without requiring shaping individual parcels or deep frying. A garlicky spread like tzatziki or tahini sauce (recipe below) provides the perfect fresh contrast to the kubbeh’s warm, earthy flavors.

By Reem Kassis

Yield: 6 to 8 servings (or 12 to 16, if part of a spread)

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus freezing


For the shell:

  • 10 ounces extra-lean beef (round cuts such as eye, top and bottom round, or top sirloin or tip all work), trimmed of any fat, gristle or silver skin, and cut into cubes
  • 1 3/4 cups extra fine (No. 1) bulgur (see tip)
  • 1 small yellow onion, quartered
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • Melted ghee or olive oil, for greasing and baking
  • Slivered almonds or pine nuts (optional), to garnish

For the filling:

  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 medium or 1 large yellow onion, finely diced (about 2 cups)
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • For the (optional) tahini sauce:
  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt


1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the shell: Place the beef cubes in a single layer on a parchment-lined plate or cutting board and put in the freezer to partially freeze (this makes grinding easier), about 1 hour.

2. Start the filling by toasting the nuts: Add the walnuts and pine nuts to a baking sheet on separate sides, spread in an even layer and bake until lightly golden, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Put the bulgur in a large bowl and soak in 1 3/4 cups of cold water. Allow to sit for 15 to 30 minutes, by which point the bulgur should have absorbed all the water.

4. Heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet over medium. Fry the diced onions until translucent and soft, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add the ground beef, salt, allspice, cinnamon and pepper and continue cooking, stirring to break up the meat, until any released water has evaporated, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat, mix in the toasted nuts and set aside. The filling can be prepped up to 1 day in advance.

5. Prepare the shell: Put the quartered onion, salt and spices into the bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground, scraping down the sides with a spatula, as needed. Add the partially frozen meat, in batches if necessary, and process until smooth and pasty. Add the soaked bulgur and pulse until combined. Transfer to a bowl and knead briefly until smooth and evenly combined. Dough can be used right away or covered and refrigerated up to 1 day.

6. Heat the oven to 375 degrees and prepare a bowl of ice water nearby to wet your hands while you shape the kubbeh.

7. Assemble the pie: Line a 10- to 12-inch round or 9-by-13-inch rectangular baking dish (metal is traditional, but glass will also do) with plastic wrap, leaving a generous overhang. Divide the shell mixture in half and spread one half, wetting your hands to make it easier, in an even layer over the base of the lined baking dish. Using the plastic overhang, lift this layer out of the pan and set aside. This will become the top of the pie.

8. Generously grease the bottom and sides of your baking dish with ghee or olive oil. Spread the remaining shell mixture in an even layer in the bottom of the pan. Spoon in the filling and press it evenly into the shell with your hands. Take the top layer you prepared earlier and carefully flip it over the filling, discarding the plastic wrap. With wet hands, gently pat it down and smooth it out to fully cover the shell. Brush generously with ghee or olive oil.

9. Using the tip of a sharp knife, score the top layer to form a geometric pattern, rinsing the knife between each cut. If using a rectangular dish, the most customary is a diamond pattern, which can be achieved with criss-crossing diagonal lines. If using a round dish, you can do diamonds or divide the circle into quarters or eighths then do a diamond pattern within each triangle. Once you have created your pattern, cut all the way through the bottom of the kubbeh along the lines that you want each serving size to be, whether you want smaller portions for an appetizer or larger portions for a main. If you are garnishing the top, you can firmly press a sliver of almond or a pine nut within each diamond shape.

10. Bake, uncovered, for 35 to 45 minutes, until golden brown. Check it once or twice during cooking, and if it seems dry, brush with more ghee or olive oil. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing and serving hot or at room temperature

11. If you are preparing the tahini sauce, put all the ingredients in a bowl with 4 tablespoons of water and mix until smooth and evenly incorporated. It will seize at first, but keep stirring and it will smooth out. Serve alongside the kubbeh.


Bulgur comes in varying degrees of coarseness usually labeled as No. 1 (the finest), No. 2 and No. 3 at Middle Eastern grocery stores. The variety found in most large chain supermarkets is one of the coarser ones, so for this recipe it’s important you source the fine one, which can be purchased online or from any Middle Eastern grocer. It comes in both white and brown variations, but either works, as does a combination of the two.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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