They may be known as kibbeh or içli köfte or a myriad of different names but as it is with Middle Eastern cuisine, it is never that simple of a deal. The focus of this text is going to be the bulgur-shelled version rather than just the “köfte” - meatball - part of it all.
What is İçli Köfte?
Made with thin bulgur and a combination of spices for an outer shell, it is stuffed with minced meat, and then either boiled, fried or baked – all depending on which variation is desired.
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Pinpointing the exact start of this masterful delicacy is made harder by the fact that throughout history the dish has had a variety of versions and names. The “köfte” part of the dish (the inner part that is) alone means more than meatballs. “Kibbeh” in Middle Eastern countries is “köfte” in Turkey, but “kefta” a close-sounding cousin in Lebanon means minced lamb, prepared as either balls or plastered around a skewer. (1)
The early Turks mingled a lot with the Arabs (2) over the Abbasid food ways and naturally took on some of their dishes. While some made their way into Ottoman kitchens throughout the years, some stayed confined to the southeastern regions such as Diyarbakır, Mardin and Gaziantep. Only around the 19th century do we start to see records by Mehmet Kamil, author of the first printed Turkish cookbook, and Nedim bin Tosun outlining “İçli Köfte” as a dish served in the Ottoman palace. (3) The mixing of the cultures – even within Turkey alone – is worth noting as interviewees in a study said that the Arabs and Kurds of the southeast, such as in Mardin, have borrowed from each other but the tastes are distinct, with each creating their own take on the dish. (4)
But, of course, there are earlier records of the shelled meatball by the famous explorer, traveler and author Evliya Çelebi in the 17th century. In his travels in the southeastern regions he had a dish that was described as stuffed meatballs, with explanations outlining them as “kubbe” or “içli köfte”. (5)
While many countries in the Middle East serve these in a wide variety of versions, some making it a main dish, the Turkish version is more reserved for meze, as a snack or as a taster. The dish would be paired with a variety of other meze such as “haydari” or “acılı ezme” with the main dish being a kebab or something similar. (6)
The word kibbeh comes from the Arabic “kubbah” meaning “dome” or “ball”, a word that is in use in Turkish as “kubbe” for domes.
Köfte comes from the Persian “küfte” meaning finely chopped meat. The “içli” part of the dish means “with stuffing”.
İçli Köfte: Bulgur-shelled meat packages, also known as kibbeh
For the shell
- 400 gr thin bulgur
- 150 gr broken bulgur thicker than thin bulgur, thinner than whole bulgur
- 1 tsp cumin
- red pepper flakes salt, coriander
For the Filling
- 400 gr minced lamb
- 5 onions
- 1 bundle parsley
- 2 tbsp pepper paste
- clarified butter
- salt black pepper
- Pour hot water over the ingredients for the shell, barely covering it and close it off with a lid letting it soak in.
- Meanwhile sauté the minced meat and add a bit of clarified butter and finely chopped onions to it.
- Roast them together until the onions soften.
- Add the pepper paste, spices and salt and adjust them by tasting.
- Turn the heat off and let it cool.
- Knead the outer shell ingredients until it becomes a formable dough.
- Take dough about the size of a walnut and wet your hands before starting to shape it.
- Insert the wet thumb into the ball of bulgur and carefully press around it while supporting it in your hand making a small bowl.
- Fill with the meat stuffing and carefully close the outer shell again.
- Boil these köfte in salty water, and if desired with a bit of lemon juice, until they start to float.
- Remove from the water and serve hot.