Kufta, the Kebab of Love

Every country has street meat.

I remember giving a 12 or 13-year old Iraqi boy a $5 bill for falafel (ok, it’s not meat, but hey- it’s amazing), which he would run to us as fast as he could. Down the street to the falafel stand, back to us, then back to the stand with more bills. The falafel was fantastic, nestled with lettuce, tomato and sumac in distinctive diamond teardrop shaped pita bread. I heard a rumor once that this falafel stand in Hwar Rajab was then-Iraq commander General Petraus’s favorite in all of Iraq.

Our interpreter Ricky was surprised I knew what sumac was. He had tried explaining the spice to another American, who thought it was the American poison sumac and that the Iraqis were trying to poison him. Iraqi sumac is different. It’s a ground red berry, gritty and lemony. I was delighted to find a jar in a Indian market.

Sumac is an essential ingredient in another quintessential Iraqi street food: kufta kebab. Most Iraqis just call it kebab, which confuses Americans who expect chunks of meat or vegetables (Americans can be lax about naming street food). In Iraq, a ground meat sausage on a stick is kebab, chunks of meat on a stick is tikki, and shaved, roasted ground meat is shawarma. Kebab is my favorite- it’s ground fatty lamb, seasoned to perfection and grilled until the fat melts and drips out, leaving behind a lace of meat and spice.

I deconstructed kebab while in Iraq, badgering Ricky to get more details about the recipe. I’ve made it a few times here, where it’s hard to get fatty lamb. I usually use a mix of fatty hamburger and lamb to get the texture close to right. The original recipe didn’t have garlic in it, but garlic and lamb seem like such a good fit.

Kufta Kebab

* 1 lb ground lamb
* 1/2 lb ground beef (at least 15% fat)
* 1 medium onion, finely chopped
* 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
* 2 cloves garlic, minced
* 5 tbsp sumac
* 1 tbsp coriander
* 2 tsp fresh thyme
* 1 tsp cumin
* 1 tsp each salt and pepper

I prefer to have whole spices whenever I can. Here, I used a mortar and pestle to crush coriander seed, then to make a paste of garlic and thyme with a little salt. Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly. Add an egg if the mixture falls apart too readily.

Once mixed, grab about a golf ball sized lump of meat and start shaping it into a cylinder. Squeeze and stretch it until you have a sausage shape about 8 inches long and half an inch around. Thread the meat onto a skewer. I have some flat metal skewers that I use when grilling- I used bamboo here for the oven.

The authentic way to cook kebab is over a wood charcoal fire, but you can do 12-15 minutes in a 400 degree oven as well. Cook to your desired doneness- the USDA says you should cook lamb to 170, but I think that’s lamb torture. The fat should mostly melt out and the meat should brown.

Serve as-is on the stick, as part of a wrap with lettuce and tomato, or atop a salad. I used leftovers to make a salad with olives, chopped parsley and kebab that was wonderful. The sauce below goes equally well as a salad dressing.

Serves 6-8 as written- I like to have leftovers.

<h3>Sumac Yogurt Sauce </h3>

* 1/2 cup yogurt
* 1 clove garlic, minced
* 1 tbsp honey
* 1 tbsp lemon juice
* 1 tsp sumac
* 1 tsp fresh thyme

Mix all ingredients thoroughly and drizzle over kebab.

Last picture, I promise.

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Filed under Recipes

14 responses to “Kufta, the Kebab of Love

  1. Andrea Bennett

    Tasty! I want to go to the Indian Market with you guys some time…I am scared to go by myself the for the first time.

  2. aprillini

    Awesome! now to find that sumac.

  3. My taste buds are jealous. How were the leftovers?

  4. Mmmmmmmmm. Lamb kebobs. Sounds delicious. Any suggestions for a substitute if we can’t find sumac?

    • Mm. I was going to mention that, but I forgot. If you can’t find sumac (also called sumak, sumag or summaq), trying replacing it with 1tsp fine lemon zest, 1/2 tsp lemon juice and a dash of fine ground pepper for every tablespoon of sumac. It’s worth it to find the real stuff if you can.

    • Anonymous

      Try lemon zest…:-)

  5. I miss your writing at Acute Politics, and I am glad you are safe at home in the USA and that you are still writing.

    I just forwarded the balsamic braised brussels with pancetta recipe to my wife.


  6. Pingback: Kufta, Part 2: « Acute Cuisine

  7. TD –
    I’m really glad to know you’re writing again. I just happened to find the link from your other blog in my RSS reader.

    I had the exact same issue with the texture of the meat when I made doulma. U.S. lamb is just too lean. But my butcher sold me a half-pound of lamb suet for about 60 cents. Just call ahead, they can save it when they take down the lamb they get delivered.

    For a batch of doulma, this works well: 1/4 lb ground lamb, 1/4 lb 80% lean ground beef, and about 1/4 cup chopped lamb suet.

    Now I have to get some sumac so I can try this kufta.

  8. i found sumac at http://www.nutsonline.com its very cheap and they send it very quick. I also ordered Zaahtar from them, it was great!

  9. Very awesome post. Really.

  10. Julia

    I live in Paris with my boyfriend who is originally from Baghdad. He left in 1980 and has been living in exile in France ever since. His dad owned a sidewalk kebab grill throughout the 1960s right near Shorja in central Baghdad and made those delicious lamb kebabs that you’re talking about here. I made the recipe you posted and, of course, my boyfriend was very happy. He brings back the spice – zaatar – from Amman but I haven’t tried sumac. I love Middle Eastern food….so tasty.

    • Awesome! High praise indeed- I’m glad the kebabs were a success.
      (I love zaatar too- I have a salmon recipe that uses it that I should post)

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