On the Lamb : Oh You Kibbeh


In most places around the world, lamb is fried, stewed or roasted. Only in the Fertile Crescent is it made into a sort of delicious structural material called kibbeh (in Egypt, kobeiba ; in Turkey and Armenia, kofte ). This is a mixture of lamb, onions and bulgur wheat pounded into a smooth paste suitable for forming into various shapes. In Iraq, rice often substitutes for bulgur, and Near Eastern Jews often use matzo meal.

The traditional method takes about an hour. The meat, onions and grain are put into a mortar, often carved out of a block of stone several feet high, and pounded with a pestle the size of a small baseball bat until you can no longer tell one ingredient from another. In a Lebanese village you hear the slush-slush-slush of kibbeh being made all afternoon long. We who have other things to do with our afternoons can make passable kibbeh in a meat grinder, or very good kibbeh indeed if we have both a grain mill and a food processor.

The paste can be served raw ( kibbeh nayyeh ) with pita toast points, but it will have to be made from the very best cuts of lamb, with all fat and connective tissue removed, to be palatable. As an inherently expensive food, kibbeh nayyeh is a way of showing honor to guests. It occupies the same place on a banquet table in the Near East that caviar does in this country, and just like caviar, it has its detractors who say it isn’t worth the expense.

Kibbeh is often baked in a siniyyeh , the shallow pan used for baking baklava--in fact, you could think of kibbeh bi-siniyyeh as a sort of meat baklava, complete with filling (but mostly meat, only partly nuts). And just like baklava, it’s sliced into diamond shapes and moistened with melted butter before baking. Sometimes a thin tomato sauce or a layer of mashed potatoes replaces the butter.


The most popular way of using kibbeh is in football-shaped meatballs ( qras kibbeh ), the size of an egg or larger, usually made with the same stuffing as baked kibbeh. These can be grilled ( qras mishwiyyeh ), deep-fried ( qras maqliyyeh ), poached (the Armenian Harput kuefta , the Turkish bulgur koftesi ) or cooked in a vegetable stew. Already cooked qras kibbeh may be added to tomato and eggplant stew, garlicky yogurt sauce, a sauce of pomegranate juice or tahini sauce.

KIBBEH BI-SINIYYEH Basic Kibbeh mixture Kibbeh Filling 1/2 cup melted butter

Spread 1/3 Basic Kibbeh mixture on bottom of 3-quart baking pan and cover with Kibbeh Filling. Top with remaining basic kibbeh mixture. Slice through mixture at intervals of 2 inches, then slice crosswise at 2-inch intervals at 60-degree angle to first cuts. Pour melted butter over pan and bake at 350 degrees until cooked through and browned on top, about 45 minutes.

QRAS KIBBEH Basic Kibbeh mixture Kibbeh Filling Oil for deep-frying, optional

Divide Basic Kibbeh into 12 equal pieces. Keeping your hands moistened with cold water, hollow out each lump with your thumb--your thumb should fit hole snugly, because if walls of meatball are too thin they will break in skillet--and then put about 1 teaspoon of Kibbeh Filling in hole. You should have dug hole deep enough that you have more than enough kibbeh to cover hole. Twist off excess and mix into more balls, or use to extend meatball’s football-type point. Deep-fry or grill until rich brown, about 10 minutes per meatball. Serve with yogurt or tahini sauce, pita bread and green onions.

Basic Kibbeh 1 pound lamb 1 large onion, chopped 1/2 teaspoon black pepper or ground allspice 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups bulgur, smallest grade available Ice water

Grind lamb, onion, pepper and salt in meat grinder. Rinse bulgur quickly in running water, drain and add to meat mixture. Grind through small blade of grinder 5 to 6 times, until perfectly smooth. Add 1 or more teaspoons ice water if needed to keep mixture smooth and grindable.

Alternatively, grind unrinsed bulgur in grain mill as fine as possible, like sugar. Puree lamb, onion, pepper and salt in food processor, about 2 minutes. Gradually add bulgur to food processor until thoroughly mixed. Remove and squeeze through kibbeh mixture and remove sinews. Makes 6 servings.


Each serving contains about: 616 calories; 1,005 mg sodium; 97 mg cholesterol; 46 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 25 grams protein; 1.01 grams fiber.

This recipe makes enough filling for one recipe of baked kibbeh (kibbeh bi-siniyya). For stuffing meatballs (qras kibbeh), half of a recipe would be plenty. Any excess can be used as garnish.

Kibbeh Filling 1/2 cup oil 1/2 pound onions, chopped 1/2 pound ground lamb 1/2 cup pine nuts or sliced almonds 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper or ground allspice 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

In skillet saute onions in oil until tender. Add meat and saute until lamb is brown, about 5 minutes. Pour off excess fat, saving some to fry nuts in separate pan. When nuts are light-brown, stir into meat with salt, pepper and cinnamon.