Jewish Journal

As Jewish as Meatballs

by Michael Israel

July 8, 2013 | 10:07 am


If I were to say that meatballs are as classic of a Jewish dish as brisket and kugel, you would probably call me crazy. Typically, meatballs are associated with cozy Italian restaurants, with checkered tablecloths and oversized bottles of Chianti wrapped in wicker. I say meatball and you think spaghetti. The truth of the matter is, when I say meatball you should think Jewish albondigas!

Albondiga is the Spanish and Ladino word for meatball. According to Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (EJF), meatballs originated in medieval Persia and later made their way to Spain, where they were found on the Shabbos and holiday table. After being expelled from Spain, Jews brought meatballs to the New World, where they have become a classic American dish. Jews have had a long and diverse relationship with meatballs, and this week I am serving up my variation of a classic Jewish albondiga.

Unlike the normal American-Italian meatball preparations served with spaghetti and tomato sauce, I have decided to honor the Persian roots with my albondiga recipe. Gil Mark’s mentions in his book Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that one of the classic Sephardic souring agents used in meatball recipes was tamarind. Tamarind, also known as an Indian date, is the fruit of a tall tree that grows in North Africa and Asia, and can be purchased in a few different forms. I prefer to buy tamarind paste for its ease of use. When used properly, tamarind adds an addictive sourness to a dish. In my albondiga recipe, I use coconut milk to balance the acidity. Along with tamarind, I use classic North African spices like coriander and cumin to give the dish a Sephardic identity through its aroma. Lastly, I have decided to make a large meatball that can handle slow cooking for a long period of time. By cooking the dish low and slow, I am able to create deep and complex flavors that come together as one harmonious mouthful.

It is easy to have tunnel vision when it comes to food, especially Jewish food. Often times, when Jews make food for Shabbos or a holiday we simply do what has always been done. I believe that recipes are essential for preserving traditions. In order for these traditions to live on, we must lend our own contributions. This week, I intend to honor past preparations of albondiga while presenting it in a way that is my own, with the hope that I can contribute to the survival of our traditions. If you are interested in tasting this nouvelle style meatball, I invite you to come to Fress this Thursday night at the Wine Expo in Santa Monica. Hope to feed you then. 

Coconut-Tamarind Albondigas
serves 6

3C            Challah, cut into 1” cubes
1.25lbs   Ground Beef (preferably 80/20 chuck)
3 ea        Eggs, beaten
3 ea        Garlic, minced
1 bu        Italian Parsley, chopped
½ t           Kosher Salt
¼ t           Coriander, Ground
¼ t           Cumin, Ground
1 ea        Onion, diced
1T           Tamarind Paste
2 can      Coconut Milk (about 28oz)
¼ C         Olive Oil

1. In a small mixing bowl, cover the challah cubes with enough water to cover.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the ground beef, eggs, garlic, parsley, salt, coriander and cumin.
3. Remove challah from water and squeeze to remove as much excess water as possible, add to the meat mixture and gently combine until smooth. With wet hands, form the mixture into 6-8 meatballs the size of baseball.
4.  In a Dutch oven style pan (rondeau), over medium high heat, add the olive oil. Brown the meatballs on all sides, then remove from the pan.
5. In the same pan, add the diced onions and sweat for 5 minutes. Then add the tamarind and cook for another 2 minutes. Then add the coconut milk and season with a generous amount of salt.
6. Place the meatballs back in the pan, and simmer covered on low heat for 1 ½ hours.

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Michael Israel is the Chef and Owner of the M.O. Eggrolls food truck in Los Angeles, California where he lives with his wife Emily. In 2005, Michael graduated from the Culinary...

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