Last summer, our friend Afaf threw a surprise birthday dinner for my sister Janet. The food was amazing, especially the traditional Arabic dishes that I’d never had before. The homemade hummus was so good that I can never eat store bought again!
Earlier that day I went to Afaf’s house to help prep for the dinner, and I was especially intrigued by her baked kibbeh. Afaf explained that it was an Arabic dish made with “meat dough” that was filled with cooked meat and onions, then topped with MORE meat dough and baked. She also used the kibbeh to form balls stuffed with meat filling, then deep-fried them! I probably ate ten of those tasty balls before the party even started.
From Wikipedia: Kibbeh is probably best known as a 7 to 15cm long torpedo-shaped bulgur shell stuffed with a filling based on spiced minced lamb and fried till brown. British soldiers in the Middle East during the Second World War used to call these kibbeh “Syrian torpedoes”.
Baked Kibbeh is a mixture of chopped beef, bulgur, onion and Arabic spices. After buttering a baking dish, the meat dough is pressed down first, then filled with a layer of cooked meat and onions. It’s then topped with another layer of the meat dough. Next it’s scored with a knife into diamond shapes about one or two inches in length, topped with pine nut and butter, then baked in the oven until done.
The Arabic word kubbah (urban Syrian: kebbe) means “a ball”. Various transliterations of the name are used in different countries: in English, kibbe and kibbeh. In Armenian it’s kufteh. More on Wikipedia
Ever since that first dinner I couldn’t stop talking about the kibbeh. Especially to my friend Bob, who likes to eat the same types of food that I do. “Wait until you try it… it’s a MEAT dough, filled with more meat”! Over the past few months we tried to organize an Arabic cooking day with Afaf, and last Saturday we finally had it scheduled. Unfortunately Bob came down with a stomach flu and couldn’t be there.
Janet, Afaf and I spent the afternoon cooking and eating… then eating and cooking. My niece Kindal and her friend Hannah also helped out. It was a fun day learning about special Arabic spices, the many ways pomegranate is used and learning hands-on how to make the KIBBEH!
It’s sort of like making a pizza dough in the food processor, but with raw meat and bulgur wheat. Afaf has her butcher grind up the meat to her specifications, so there isn’t too much fat in the “meat dough”. (Recipe and Photos below)
We made enough so I could take a full pan home that evening. I gave my husband Peter a slice, then cut up individual pieces, wrapped each in wax paper and popped the bag in the freezer. One is marked “save for Bob”, but we’ll see how long it lasts! The kibbeh is GREAT with eggs (sort of like a hash) and perfect to stuff in a pita. It’s also simply delicious with a side of salad and the kids will love it topped with ketchup.
Needless to say, kibbeh is my new favorite meat dish, and I’m hoping Afaf will teach more Arabic cooking classes next year!
My very first introduction to Arabic culture was, funny enough, at an El Torito restaurant here in Los Angeles. It was back in 1985 while I was out bar-hopping with my friends, and I met a dashing (seriously he was dashing) Arabic college student named Nasser. He held court during happy hour in the back corner of the bar, and throughout the evening there were all sorts of girls stumbling and drooling over him (including myself). Nasser definitely paid more attention to blondes, so I was surprised when he called the next week and asked me out to dinner.
A funny thing happened after that first date. It turned out to be our last date. Maybe it was because I ate all his food at dinner (I still do that), or maybe he really did prefer blondes, but we never “dated” again. The best part of all was that Nasser and I became friends.
Most of the time we just hung out and watched Arabic movies. Nasser and his friends didn’t drink alcohol, which I admit, was strange at first. Instead it was coffee or a yoghurt drink (called Ayran). For meals we’d munch on tasty shawarma (pita sandwiches), kofta (minced meat), nuts and fruits. It was pretty cool being treated as “one of the guys”, especially when I realized that Nasser had lots of girlfriends coming and going. It was SO easy for him to pick up on women. And since he DIDN’T drink alcohol, staking out a happy hour bar with him was ridiculously funny to watch. He had the same smooth moves down every time.
Cooking with my friend Afaf made me think of my old friend Nasser. It made me remember how fun it is to dive into a new culture, even if it’s here at home. Of course the easiest way to experience a new society is through food, and living in Los Angeles is like being given a huge unwrapped gift of food culture.
So come on people… Let’s get cooking!
RECIPE for Afaf’s Baked Kibbeh
1 pound of uncooked ground sirloin beef (make sure it’s very low in fat so it can be worked into a dough)
1/2 pound of bulgar
1 pound of ground beef (for the filling)
1 onion, diced
1 – 2 teaspoons of salt (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
1 tbsp Seven Spices- or “Kibbeh spices” (available online)
Preheat oven 350 degrees F.
Brown 1 lb of ground meat with onions.
Soak bulgar in room temperature water (about 20 -30 min.) squeeze out excess water
Roast pine nuts until dark brown (dry, or using butter)
Once the bulgar is ready, add it in bowl with remaining ground uncooked ground sirloin. Add spices. Mix these ingredients very thoroughly (using hands- blender optional) as if kneading dough for a minimum of 15 minutes and must become dough-like. If it is too thick, drizzle some water into mix.
Coat bottom of metal 9×13 pan with butter. Gradually pat bulgar-meat mix in thin layer on the bottom, spread evenly and pat until smooth.
Take cooked meat and onions then mix in pine nuts. Spread evenly over bottom layer. Pat gently into meat layer with spatula or spoon.
Add top layer of bulgar-meat mix in thin, even layer. Wet fingers if too sticky. Smooth surface and edges. With a wet knife, cut to make your choice of design (diamond is most common which is made by cutting straight across in one direction and diagonal in the other)
Dot unsalted butter on top, place in oven, uncovered for 30-40 minutes. Broil for 5-10 minutes towards end to brown top. Cut again before serving.
Kindal & Hannah in Afaf’s Kitchen
Janet, Kindal, Hannah, Afaf, Jo