I never knew I was eating raw meat. Or maybe it was just that I didn’t think that “raw” was something worth noting. I simply knew it was good, and that it was among a short list of dishes that my father, Camille, made an appearance in the kitchen to make rather than to just eat. He loved to describe his kibbeh-making method to an audience, usually his wife and five children, just as they plunged their pita bread into the mounds on their plates.
“You have to know the butcher, and how to talk to the him,” he began. “He may say he knows how to grind kibbeh meat, but I still tell him: grind it first thing in the morning when the blades are clean.” Then my father stopped talking to see who was listening. Once everyone’s attention was back on him, he resumed. “Grind it twice. No fat or gristle. I don’t want to see any white.” The first finger he was using to instruct would then go up over his lips in a pursed shush to indicate how much he meant what he’d just said. “He should pack it thin so the meat stays red. No fat. No gristle.”
My father and his siblings—Helen and Hilda, Hannibal, Fredric, and Richard—grew up with a mother who named them for greatness, and she must have decided that even in her humble Lebanese house, greatness would eat well. She and her daughters made at least three different main dishes for supper, since the boys all had different ideas about what sounded good. That she indulged these varied tastes would dismay anyone who tries to put dinner on the table each night.
My father and his brothers gained their meat expertise at the meat counter in the family grocery, Abood’s Foods. They tasted the meat raw to be certain it was good, with nothing to hide behind. This was not unlike their approach in life as well. So it was there that Dad’s craving for raw meat was born, along with his desire to manage all things meat-related in his own household. This photo is of my Uncle Hannibal, ready to take your order back in the day.
To make his kibbeh, Dad would go into the kitchen and roll his white dress-shirt sleeves up above the elbows, washing his hands like the surgeon his son would become. My mother happily became my father’s sous-chef when he came into the kitchen to cook; she placed the tunjura, an enormous bowl, on the counter and pureed the onion.
When my father took the meat from their butcher’s paper, he tasted it. He did this with virtually all red meat brought into the house. He especially liked to take a piece of tender raw lamb, salt it and tuck it into a thin piece of pita bread with a slice of sweet onion. “You die and go to heaven,” he said. My mouth waters to think of my father eating a piece of raw meat and onion, smacking his full lips together as he chewed and swallowed big.
To prepare the raw kibbeh, the bulghur must first be rinsed and soaked with cold water. “Fine grade bulghur is what you want,” my father instructed, referring to the size of the cracked wheat granules. Even when I was a small child, he talked to me as though I’d be making the kibbeh that afternoon and had better follow his instructions carefully.
Mixing the kibbeh is much like kneading dough. I wrote a poem in college about making kibbeh, describing how one pulls and pushes the meat together until it is combined. We had to read our work aloud to the class and I when I did, another student asked me, in front of the class, if I’d make kibbeh with him over the weekend. And he wasn’t talking about food. My father would have been proud if he’d known that I had no idea that there was innuendo of that sort in my poem. All I could say amid the roar of my classmates once I realized what I’d done was that Lebanese cooking is a sensual experience, and apparently one cannot do it well without tapping into some primal impulses. And no, there would not be a kibbeh-making date over the weekend.
Combine your bulgur and meat, and add measures of pureed onion and a little cold water. Salt, pepper, cinnamon, a pinch or two of cayenne: proper balance of seasoning is essential to good kibbeh. “There is no measuring the spice,” my father said. “You add a little at a time, then taste it and add a little more.” He’d make an arous as he kneaded the meat, a small bite of the kibbeh held on the fingertips, and hand a bite to everyone in the house to taste. We all weighed in. More salt, more cinnamon, one more taste, perfect.
Once the meat was mixed, my father was done cooking. He washed his hands while my mother formed the huge mass of meat into an oval on a platter, making the sign of the cross on the meat with nana, spearmint from her garden, and serving it with slices of sweet white onion. “Faduluh!” my father called in Arabic: “Come to the table!” Everyone came, we prayed, and just as we began passing the kibbeh, he started his story, “You have to know the butcher, and how to talk to him.…”
The ratio of cracked wheat to meat is 1:1, so you can adjust quantities easily. I always make much more raw kibbeh than we are going to eat because I want to bake or fry it the next day. This recipe is for a manageable 2 pounds of meat, but I make as much as 5 pounds to provide for day 2 of kibbeh-love. The meat is ideally ground by the butcher; technique to grind it yourself is below. And just because we do love meat with meat, there is a method below for househ, a browned beef, onion, and pine nut combo that is often served atop the kibbeh nayeh. Plenty of people use other spices for their kibbeh, including cumin and allspice. My sister-in-law Silvia’s family always includes pureed red bell pepper.
2 cups fine bulghur (#1 grade)
1 cup sweet onion, coarsely chopped, plus 1 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1-2 tablespoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 teaspoons salt
2 lbs. eye of round beef, trimmed of all fat and gristle
2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
3-4 tablespoons high quality olive oil
Rinse the bulghur in cold water, drain, and cover to ½ inch with cold water. Soak for ½ hour, or until the bulghur is softened.
Either ask the butcher to grind the meat for you (three times on clean blades), or grind it yourself. To grind meat, slice the trimmed meat into rectangles, about 4×2 inches. Season lightly with salt and pepper and freeze for 30 minutes. Grind the meat once on the fine/small holes on the grinder, or twice on the large holes.
Puree the 1 cup coarsely chopped onion with 1/8 cup cold water. Place the water in the blender first, then the onion, so that the blades don’t get stuck under the onion. You may need to stop and stir the onion so that it gets caught by the blades.
To combine the kibbeh meat, keep a small bowl of ice water nearby to keep hands wet and cold. In a large bowl, knead the meat with the pureed onion and about half of the cracked wheat. If there is any visible water left in the cracked wheat from soaking, squeeze it out of the wheat before adding it to the kibbeh. Dip hands in water as you knead, adding about ¼ cup of the water in total; be careful not to add too much water to the kibbeh or it will become mushy rather than simply soft. Add the wheat ½ cup at a time until it’s fully incorporated. Season with salt, pepper, cayenne and cinnamon, tasting and adjusting the seasoning.
To serve, flatten the kibbeh on a plate and indent a design with your fingertips. Drizzle with olive oil and top with the finely chopped onion and mint. Serve with thin pita bread and labneh (thickened yogurt). Toasted pine nuts are an excellent garnish too.
Kibbeh is often served topped with househ (browned ground beef and onion with pine nuts). Saute a medium yellow onion, chopped, in olive oil until soft. Add ½ pound of ground beef from chuck, and season with salt, pepper, and ½ teaspoon cinnamon. Cook until browned, breaking the meat up with the edge of a metal spoon. Squeeze half of a lemon over the meat, and toss with ¼ cup or more toasted pine nuts. Place a spoonful over the kibbeh when it is served on your plate.
Advisory: kibbeh nayeh is addictive. You may want to assign a designated eater who will stop you from taking yet another serving when you know you’ve had more than enough.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.