Kafta ~ Spiced Kebabs

Kafta, and kebabs, are ubiquitous in cultures across the Middle East. They’re now popular in North America too, because of their flavors and limitless variations. This version is made with your choice of ground meat, shaped perfectly for tucking into a pita, and drizzled with preserved lemon yogurt. But, as we said, your options are endless.

Eight kafta, or spiced kebabs, on a plate with a bowl of preserved lemon yogurt next to it and a bowl of rice beside it.

Adapted from Reem Kassis | The Arabesque Table | Phaidon Press, 2021

You would be hard-pressed to find a cuisine today that does not involve some version of a kafta or meatball, but the very first reference to finely minced well-seasoned balls of lamb meat dates back to a recipe in a tenth-century Arabic cookbook in which they were cooked and glazed in saffron and egg yolk. Although much has changed in terms of food since then, the ubiquitous kafta remains a rustic food prepared across cultures in similar ways. In Arab cuisine it is, at its most basic, ground meat mixed with onion and spices. Other additions like herbs and nuts also abound, but it is the shaping and cooking styles that are countless. From balls and discs to sausage shapes or flattened out in a pan, from fried or baked with tahini to simmered in tomato sauce or grilled over coals, where we call it “kebab.”–Reem Kassis

Kafta ~ Spiced Kebabs

Eight kafta, or spiced kebabs, on a plate with a bowl of preserved lemon yogurt next to it and a bowl of rice beside it.
The kebabs in this recipe are roasted in a home oven. The texture is wonderfully browned and crisp on the outside and juicy and fluffy within. The flavor in this recipe takes inspiration from springtime in the Middle East when dill and cilantro (coriander) are plentiful, creating a unique combo that is delicious with a side of rice or roast potatoes, or if you’re like me, wrapped up in unleavened flatbread.
Reem Kassis

Prep 45 mins
Cook 15 mins
Total 1 hr 10 mins
Entree
Middle Eastern
5 servings
532 kcal
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Ingredients 

  • Cooking spray
  • 2 pounds ground beef lamb, veal, or a combination
  • 2 ounces pita bread or white bread with crusts removed
  • 1 medium (7 oz) onion peeled
  • 1 clove garlic peeled (optional)
  • Small handful of fresh cilantro
  • Small handful of fresh dill
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baharat or Lebanese 7-spice blend
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper* (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Orzo rice, or flatbread, for serving
  • Preserved lemon yogurt sauce for serving

Directions
 

  • Preheat the broiler to high, set a rack above the middle of the oven, and lightly coat a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan with cooking spray.
  • Place the meat in a large bowl and keep chilled until ready to use.
  • In a food processor, combine the bread, onion, garlic, if using, cilantro, dill, salt, spice blend, Aleppo pepper, if using, and olive oil and pulse to a fine paste.
  • Add the mixture to the meat in the bowl and mix with your hands until fully incorporated. Shape the meat into fat sausages (about 2 oz | 57 g each) and arrange them on the baking sheet or roasting pan. Flatten slightly with your hand, then use the side of your finger to make three diagonal indentations atop each sausage.
  • Move them to the oven and broil until the tops are browned and you see some oil released and bubbling around the edges, and the internal temperature has reached 160°F (71°C), 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving. Serve with orzo, rice, or flatbread, and the preserved lemon yogurt sauce on the side.
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Notes

*What can I substitute for Aleppo pepper?

Aleppo pepper can be hard to come by—it only comes from a small area of the world, specifically in parts of Syria and Turkey. Also known as the Halaby pepper, it has a fairly mild, fruity flavor similar to raisins. If you can't get your mitts on any, you can substitute ancho chile or a mixture of sweet paprika with a pinch of cayenne.  

Show Nutrition

Serving: 1portionCalories: 532kcal (27%)Carbohydrates: 9g (3%)Protein: 33g (66%)Fat: 39g (60%)Saturated Fat: 14g (88%)Trans Fat: 2gCholesterol: 129mg (43%)Sodium: 528mg (23%)Potassium: 571mg (16%)Fiber: 1g (4%)Sugar: 1g (1%)Vitamin A: 408IU (8%)Vitamin C: 4mg (5%)Calcium: 55mg (6%)Iron: 4mg (22%)

Recipe Testers' Reviews

I’m a huge fan of kebabs, and I have developed my own version of this dish through the years. This one for kafta ~ spiced kebabs is nearly as tasty as my own. It really comes together rather easily and I made both the yogurt sauce and the meat blend earlier in the day to allow for the spices to meld before cooking. I made mine with a blend of lamb and beef, and as ground lamb tends to have a high-fat ratio, I would use a 90% or higher lean beef for the mix. I think I would have preferred a bit more of the Baharat spice blend, and probably another clove of garlic added to the meat blend.

These cooked up in 10 minutes, and as they rested, I made some skillet flatbreads to serve the kebabs. I placed a good dollop of the sauce on the flatbread, then added a few of the kebabs, and voila, sheer Middle Eastern flavor explosions. Traditionally, I use tzatziki when I make kebabs, and this lemon-dill yogurt sauce is a great alternative. If you're a fan of heat, you could also make a side sauce with mayo, harissa, garlic, and sriracha to help kick up the heat as I didn't use the Aleppo pepper because my better half is not a fan of spicy food, and that gives one the ability to prepare their dish to their own level of spiciness.

These kafta ~ spiced kebabs received accolades from all my tasters and lived up to the promise in the description. They were surprisingly light, fluffy, and juicy on the inside and browned on the outside. They weren’t as crispy as one might get from cooking on the grill, but satisfyingly flavorful.

The yogurt accompaniment added a great counterpoint to the kebabs with its slightly lemony, dill flavor. I served them with rice and pita bread alongside the yogurt and provided harissa for those craving heat, as well as a green salad. The options allowed everyone to indulge their cravings and either make a combo of pita with kebab, yogurt, etc. or plate the kebabs with rice.

More please! I had high hopes for these kafta ~ spiced kebabs but never did I imagine they would rival the beef kebabs from our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. The kebabs are super easy - combine, form, and broil. I used beef, leftover bread in the freezer, Aleppo pepper, and I made my own baharat spice mix. The amount of heat from the Aleppo pepper is just right. The kebabs are not spicy. Forming the kebabs was fun and easy. (I could see kids enjoying the responsibility of Chief Kebab Former.) When broiling, I moved my pan from side to side to ensure even cooking and even browning.

This recipe has flavor for days. We enjoyed it with an herb salad and warmed naan. One thing's for sure—sales for beef kebabs will be down at our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. We're making these at home!


Originally published May 23, 2021

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