Shish Barak are small dumplings made from unleavened dough, filled with a seasoned ground beef or lamb mixture and simmered in a savoury yogurt sauce. The filling is cooked with onions and flavoured with warm middle eastern spices, and the yogurt sauce is garlicky and often garnished with dry mint or cilantro. This levantine dish is a popular comfort food, but certainly not for weeknights. This authentic labour intensive dish is made from scratch but worth every minute!
Shish Barak: The Dumplings of the Middle East!
I find that every culture has its own version of a meat dumplings dish. Shish Barak is the one for the middle east. Or, to be more specific, it actually originates from the Levant, which are the countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria.
The name "shish barak", which is the Arabic name for the dish, may have originated from "chuchvara" or "joshpara", where "josh" means to boil and "para" means "bit" in early Persian language, prior to the 10th century. A variation of this dumplings dish exists across many countries in central Asia, as well as the middle east.
It always reminded me of another popular Turkish dish called Manti, which also features dumplings smothered in yogurt sauce, but it usually has the addition of a chilli butter sauce on top.
It is quite common in middle eastern cuisine to use savoury yogurt in many dishes, like in this eggplant fatteh, chickpeas fatteh, and this arabic style yogurt pasta. In fact, yogurt based stews are my favourite; I find the yogurt very easy to make and quite delicious when enjoyed in a savoury dish. There are some key tips to keep in mind to ensure the yogurt doesn't split, so ensure you read on.
4 Tips for Perfect Shish Barak
Because shish barak is a labour intensive dish to make, I'm sharing these tips to ensure you make it perfectly the first time. My Lebanese recipe developer, Razan, was quite detailed and thorough in her recipe, having grown up enjoying this dish. After testing her delicious recipe twice myself, here are the tips to keep in mind:
ONE: The shish barak filling must be very well seasoned, because it will be encased in dough. This means that it must have enough spices and salt to ensure it doesn't become bland when shaped and simmered in the yogurt sauce. Follow the directions in this recipe.
TWO: Ensure the dough is not too moist / wet. If the dough is too soft, it will be very difficult to shape it into dumplings. The best way to ensure you accurately measure the flour and water is to use a scale for the flour and a measuring cup for the water. And even then, ensure you adjust either ingredient because some flour varieties will need more or less water. After it is formed, when you touch it, it should be soft but not very sticky.
THREE: Roll the dough out very thin. As thin as you can, without the dough ripping. If the dough is too thick, the dumplings will be too thick and chunky in the final sauce, leading to a dumpling that does not have a good meat to dough ratio.
FOUR: The yogurt sauce must be made with cornstarch, which helps stabilize the yogurt and avoid it splitting. Some people also add an egg, which you can definitely do as well, but the cornstarch on its own works well. The cornstarch, water and yogurt must be whisked while the yogurt is still cold. Also, make sure you do not boil the yogurt; simply heat it to a gentle simmer.
How to Make Shish Barak From Scratch, Step by Step
Gather your ingredients for the dough, the filling, and the yogurt.
Here are some important notes for some of the ingredients:
- You may use a mixture of beef or lamb, or just beef. I tend to use lean ground beef.
- Onions must be finely chopped; red or yellow both work.
- For the beef seasoning, I love the addition of sumac, but if you don't have it, you can skip it.
- Seven spice is another key spice, but if you don't have it, simply use a 2:1 ratio of allspice to cinnamon to replace it.
- You can use all-purpose flour for the dough, but the biggest tip I have is to use a scale to measure it. Otherwise you may be packing in too much flour and the dough may be a bit dry.
Start by first making the dough, as it will benefit from 30 minutes of rest time (not to rise because there is no yeast - simply to rest so it is easier to work with).
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the flour, water, olive oil, sugar, and salt. Mix with a dough hook for 5 minutes until the dough starts to form. After 5 minutes, it will gather into a smooth ball. Cover it with a kitchen towel and rest for 30 minutes.
If you don't have a stand mixer, you can knead everything by hand. Start by mixing the flour with the salt and sugar, then rub the oil into the flour. Add the water as the last step, gradually, kneading until the dough forms.
While the dough is resting, make the meat filling. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, then soften the onions for 5 to 6 minutes. Add the beef and brown it for another 6 to 7 minutes.
Then add all the seasoning, the pomegranate molasses and the pine nuts. Leave some of the pine nuts for garnish at the end. Set aside to cool.
To start shaping the shish barak dumplings, flour your work surface generously. Then, cut the dough into two equal sized balls and work with one at a time.
Use a rolling pin to spread the dough out to a very thin layer. Then use a 2-inch cookie cutter, or a tea/coffee cup to make the circular dumplings. Simply press the cup into the dough and wiggle it around until it cuts the dough. Continue to do this all over the dough.
To fill and shape, start by spooning in about 1 to 2 teaspoons of the filling. The more filling you add, the harder it will be to shape it, so feel free to adjust the amount you use until you get used to the motions.
Fold the dough over the filling to create a half moon shape.
Pinch all along the sides of the half moon shape, to ensure a tight seal. Then, simply bring the two ends together and pinch to create a small tortellini shape.
Continue doing this with the rest of the dough. This is where the labour comes in! Maybe grab a few family members to help.
Once you finish filling in all the circular dough pieces, make sure you pick up the scraps of dough, form into a ball, and roll it out again to repeat the process.
This recipe makes close to 60 to 70 dumplings. Its perfect for cooking half and freezing the other half for a second meal.
Place the shaped dumplings on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes at 400F. You can broil them for a few minutes to get more colour before removing.
Once the shish barak are baking, work on the yogurt sauce. In a large pot, combine the yogurt, water, cornstarch and salt. Whisk, while the yogurt is still cold, until no lumps are seen.
Place the yogurt on medium heat and whisk often. The aim is to heat the yogurt but only to a very gentle simmer. Do not boil it.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet, melt the butter and sauté the garlic and cilantro until the garlic is golden and fragrant. The cilantro is optional, and I am not a big fan, so I skipped it. But it is a traditional addition.
TIP: Some people use dry mint instead of cilantro. And some do not use any herbs at the end. Use whatever you like. I often go for parsley or mint.
Once the yogurt is warm, add the friend garlic and cilantro, along with all the shish barak. Stir and allow the dumplings to simmer in the yogurt sauce for about 10 minutes. The aim is to just combine all the ingredients, since the dumplings are already baked.
To serve, ladle the shish barak along with the yogurt sauce into bowls. Garnish with more pine nuts and cilantro. You may also serve it over rice.
There are two methods to cooking shish barak. One, which is described in this recipe, is to pre-bake them before placing them in the yogurt sauce. The other is to skip the baking step and drop them into the yogurt straight away. This method results in a gooey and soft dumpling texture, and also requires allowing them to cook in the sauce for at least 20 minutes. I like pre-baking for a more chewy texture, but both are traditional methods.
Shaping the dumplings is the most time intensive step. I have heard a lot of people attempt to use pre-made wonton wrappers. I believe this will work just fine, but the texture might be slightly different.
Storage and Make Ahead Instructions
To make shish barak ahead of time, you can shape the dumplings and freeze them after baking. Simply allow them to cool, then place them in freezer bags. Freezing after baking ensures they do not stick together.
When ready to use, thaw the dumplings at room temp, then drop them into the yogurt sauce. You can also freeze half the amount this recipe makes for a future meal.
As for leftovers, you can place the shish barak along with the yogurt in an airtight container and refrigerate. The yogurt sauce will thicken as it sits, because the dumplings will continue to absorb the sauce. This is completely normal. Simply heat in a microwave or in a small pot over the stove top to enjoy again the next day.
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Authentic Shish Barak From Scratch (Dumplings in Yogurt Sauce)
For the Dough
- 3 cups (360g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoons sugar granulated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¾ cup warm water plus more if needed
For the Filling
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large red onions finely chopped
- 350 grams ground beef (80/20) or mix of lamb and beef
- 2 teaspoons salt plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon sumac or 4 teaspoons
- 2 teaspoons seven spice
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts divided
For the Yogurt
- 1.5 litres plain yogurt
- 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 head garlic minced
- 1 cup cilantro chopped, plus more for serving (or replace with parsley or dry mint)
For the Dough
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour, water, olive oil, sugar and salt until it forms a smooth ball, about 5 minutes. Or knead by hand for 10 minutes. If the dough is sticky, add a dusting of flour and continue to knead until smooth. Cover and allow the dough to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
For the Filling
- Heat up the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and cook the onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef along with the salt, black pepper, sumac and seven spice. Cook until browned, about 7 minutes. Fold in the pomegranate molasses and half pine nuts. Set aside to cool.
To make the Dumplings
- After 30 minutes the dough should be light, stretchy and tender. Cut in half. Flour your countertop and roll the dough flat to a thin layer. Use a 2-inch cookie cutter or a small coffee cup to cut the dough into circles.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of the beef filling into the circular piece of dough and fold over into a half moon shape.
- Pinch the edges tightly to ensure it is sealed.
- Then, overlap the two ends together, making it look like a tortellini.
- Place the dumplings onto the prepared baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, then broil for 3 minutes until lightly browned.
For the Yogurt Sauce
- In a large pot, add the yogurt, water, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk until no clumps are seen. It's important to whisk while the yogurt is cold, before turning the heat on.
- Turn the heat to medium and stir frequently with a whisk until the mixture starts to thicken, about 10 minutes. Do not bring the yogurt to a boil. Just heat it through to a gentle simmer.
- In a small skillet, melt the butter over low heat and saute the garlic and cilantro until fragrant.
- Pour the garlic, cilantro and butter over the yogurt and whisk to incorporate.
- Add the baked dumplings into the yogurt sauce and simmer in the sauce for 10 minutes. No need to cook for longer since the dumplings are already baked.
- Serve the shish barak in bowls, with the yogurt sauce, garnished with the reserved pine nuts and more fresh cilantro.
- More or less water may be needed for the dough depending on the flour type you are using and on the environment around you. It is more advised to add the water little by little until a smooth dough forms, and to avoid an overly wet / moist dough.
- Another way to cook the dumplings is to drop them while raw in the yogurt and allow to cook together for 20 minutes or until they float. This way the dumplings are gooey and soft. I prefer the baking method.
- The baked dumplings can be frozen for up to 3 months.
- Fresh cilantro can be substituted with 3 tablespoons of dried mint.
- The consistency of the yogurt will change once chilled, as the dumplings will absorb some liquid. It will thicken, which is completely normal.
- Tahini is not traditionally used in this recipe, but does add richness to the yogurt. If you want to use it, add 1 tablespoon to the yogurt sauce.
- You can also serve the Shish Barak over rice.