Kibbeh Nayeh, the raw truth

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.…”

Kibbeh Nayeh

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.

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48 Responses to Kibbeh Nayeh, the raw truth

  1. “…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…” I love that simile, Maureen. You grasp your father’s/Abood’s Foods
    philosophy in two brief sentences. Brava!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      xo Toni, thank you.

      • Stephen Maroon says:

        Hi Maureen,
        Love your story and the photos. Your comeback story is admirable and impressive. I also has a similar upbringing in Waterville, Maine with with Sittoo and my mother who recently passed. In fact, the meat shop looks like the one that was one block from Sittoo’s home!

        Dad loves kibbeh nayeh so much that we rush to the restaurant when he arrives and before he leaves our home in Maryland. Keep up the good work and educating the public about our wonderful cuisine.

        • Maureen Abood says:

          Your family sounds very special and very familiar, Steve. Great to see you here–thanks so much and best to all of you!

      • royce says:

        I too love your article! I am a WASP and married into a Lebanese family. Being from Louisiana I thought the wife to be was French. (LaHood) And soon I knew I was in a lovefest for Lebanese cooking and Kibbeh Nayeh was my favorite. My father in law was a master at preparing this dish. He was a grocer so they had a commercial meat grinder. Everything was made just like your Dad. Precious memories how they linger.

  2. Christine Hogan says:

    We called the sauce Humpsa it has to have tomator paste diluted with the meat, onions and pine nuts over the kibbee niyah….grandma shaker’s recipe cathy breit has it!

  3. Bill Bechhold says:

    I’ve only had it made with lamb. This will be a new experience for me. Must be similar to Steak Tartare, only better. I wish there was a good butcher in this area. I’m starting to crave it.

  4. Anne Lasher says:

    I Love it! So interesting that my Dad always made the kibbee as well, Mom assisted and made the househ. I do have a hard time reading your blog before lunch, somehow my salad with chicken on top seems really boring.

  5. This is such a beautiful post! I’m part Lebanese (and Italian and Slovak), and some of my best memories are of making traditional food with my dad, especially kibbeh nayeh and stuffed grape leaves. It’s been years since I ate kibbeh nayeh because my husband isn’t a fan, but I just found a source for lovely grassfed lamb that is so tender and lean and flavorful, I feel like I’m required to make a batch of kibbeh nayeh for myself.

    I just discovered your blog today via an email from my 100% Lebanese third cousin, and I’m so glad to have found you. Going to explore your archives…

    Thank you for sharing your memories and being a catalyst for me to remember mine.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Melissa, how special to receive your comment! Thank you for reading and taking time to write. You lamb so spectacular and kibbeh-ready!!! Let me know if you do make some kibbeh nayeh. I wish I could come over and have some!! I’m very curious about your web site too and can’t wait to check it out.

  6. Farid Fahara says:

    The Best

  7. Freeman H Smith says:

    I have been eating kibeeh nayeh for over 50 years, having started when I was in undergraduate school
    at Pitt..And for one of my marriages, I married into a Lebanese family or at least the father was true blood..There I learned how to make nayeh, both beef and lamb, tho I prefer lamb as I believe it has more
    flavor than beef…Your recipe is right on….exactly the same as my father-in-law taught me how, absolutely
    outstanding..Sometimes I will add a little chopped basil for a little different flav, I always return to the lamb with just a few of the same spices that you have articulated..I’m salivating just thinking about it now..I MAY HAVE TO QUICKLY RUN TO THE STORE !!!

  8. Vetteman says:

    I have been eating Kibbeh Nayeh since I was old enough to feed myself. It beats greasy meatloaf. Any unused Nayeh is baked the next day and cut into squares. Goes very well with pita bread oil and your favorite beer. It is a dying tradition amoung young American Lebanese families. Because of that I have showed all of my eight grand children how to make it.

  9. My cousin Stephen Maroon sent me the link to your blog. He made a comment too. Love Kibbeh nayeh.
    People don’t quite understand unless they are brought up on it. thanks for sharing this!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thank you Kim! Great to hear from all of you!

    • JE Buckingham says:

      @Kim Maroon – Most people in the U.S. don’t quite understand because we have been taught since birth that raw meat is poisonous, remember?

      I was not “brought up on it” but rather “brought into it” as the American bride of a Greek-Lebanese and as a young woman who was fortunate enough to have had a mother-in-law who was a superb cook equally of both Greek and Lebanese food. My nex-husband and I have not been together now for 25 years, but I still crave Zenobi’s food, her loving touch, and her matriarchical approach to the extended family. Indeed, I still try to emulate her cooking and, much to my dismay, have never been totally successful. Now, however, after finding your blog, Maureen, I feel as though a huge part of my life has been restored to me through the gift of your recipes. I look forward to reliving the best part of that long-ago marriage!

      Thank you for your work and the sharing of what most people, in this country at least, were not lucky enough to be “born into” but can be lovingly “brought into” – just as you do for us in every post. As we cognocenti realize, once tasting the Lebanese cuisine, it will never be forgotten: only craved forever.

      Looking forward to learning from you, Maureen!

      JE Buckingham

      • Maureen Abood says:

        Wow! Thank you so much for sharing that, JE. You have a remarkable insight about our food and culture, and I’m just delighted to know you will be here with me reviving a cuisine that has meant so much in your life. Please keep in touch!

  10. ric says:

    I found your site and this page when searching ‘kibbeh’. My ex hipped me to most Med & ME dishes but not this one. I could not believe it would be raw. I found the name of the dish in a an AP article about tainted burger in Detroit. Obviously someone did not follow Fathers instruction to only ‘grind in the morning with fresh clean blades”
    I love your expressive writing style! Its easier to write when we speak of those we love isnt it?
    thank you

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thank YOU, and may you one day try the delight that is (fresh, clean) raw kibbeh!

    • Kathryn Lucas says:

      Wait a second, there: it wasn’t Detroit (which has a very robust Lebanese contingent all of whom would know better than to serve store-bought raw ground beef in their kibbeh); it was in the suburbs (Macomb County) where this kibbeh atrocity took place.

      Just wanted to set the record straight. The best kibbeh I’ve ever had in my life was served in a restaurant in Detroit, and I wouldn’t want Detroit’s reputation for outstanding Lebanese fare to take the fall for this suburban restaurant’s gross irresponsibility. Detroit has enough problems to deal with. Bad Lebanese food is not one of them.

  11. Jinean Najjar says:

    I have never heard of Kibbeh Nayeh before and I can not grasp the fact that people eat raw meat. This sounds really interesting but I don’t think I will be trying it any time soon.

  12. B. A. Cart says:

    I have been eating kibbeh nayeh since I met my wife as a junior in high school. I am now 66 years young. We are still preparing this at home and my adult children (3) are now making it in their homes. My wife’s father was Lebanese and his recipe was pasted down for generations. Great family tradition!!!

  13. my wife was a 7 day advenist when we married. she was 17. did’nt know how to fry a burger. she’s 53 now and craves kibbeh nayeh. my wife and kids love cucy, luban, grape leaves, hummos, and when we were married, and cooked, or not cooked arab, there was no silverware on the table, except for the fork in the kibbeh and the spoon in the huswa. green onions, black olives, oil, and plenty of cold beer. Yella, eat.

  14. Claire says:

    Good Morning Maureen,
    Your recipes and stories are wonderful! We just moved home to be with my Lebanese dad and at 45 years old, find myself cooking Lebanese food for the first time. I spent many days and nights with my Sitti Selway and my aunts “helping” but was only allowed to stir and taste! I have a few of their old recipes with notes but was so nervous and unsure of cooking Kibbeh Nayeh for the first time that I thought a quick check online was in order. Your website has been invaluable to me! One quick look turned into hours later and finding myself still reading your stories and recipes. Thank you for giving me (and everyone lucky enough to find you!) a place where the love and joy of the Lebanese people comes shining through with food and family.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      How kind, how beautiful–thank you Claire. I’m so touched to know that my site is meaningful for you and that you are making all of our wonderful foods at home with your father. Keep in touch as you keep cooking!

  15. michael says:

    try this Maureen…no cinnamon but use cumin and allspice to taste instead.(more cumin than allspice)..also puree one medium red (not green)bell pepper with the onion..and add to the meat mixture…originally from Detroit and this is a superb flavor….lamb or beef or a combo will work..I prefer all beef top round

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Wonderful! My Argentine relatives use red bell pepper too–delicious!

      • michael says:

        thanks..Im full blooded Lebanese grandparents who were originally from Lebanon… Family on mom’s side now in Grosse Pointe..Dads side all in Stockton California

  16. anice schervish chenault says:

    This makes me so happy! I love the way you describe making the kibbe and how everyone in the family has to taste and say what it needs to be “just right.” That’s exactly the way my dad makes it. My Sito passed away at 92 this past spring. In her honor, I’m making all the family recipes for my wine club dinner this weekend. I’m pregnant with our first (whom we’re calling Lubee until s/he is born) and I can’t wait to pass on our tradition.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Lubee! That is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard! Baby will arrive knowing already the love of the Lebanese!

  17. Chris says:

    GOOD RECIPE….only wish we had the old butcher shops. I tediously remove every tiny bit of white in my round roast (act of true love said my Lebanese grandma-in-law). I then do all the grinding very early in the morning with ice. Rule per grandma-in-law for perfect texture.
    I normally serve kibbeh with pita and chopped onions during cocktail hour. A 2″4″ loaf.

    Leftover raw meat: I roll small golf ball size burgers, flatten into a football shape.and freeze.

    To freeze; Put all the football shape balls on a cookie sheet- put in freezer until frozen. Put in freezer containers until needed.

    Fry; DO NOT DEFROST meatballs.. 1′-2″ of favorite frying oil. Place frozen kibbeh balls in room temperature oil. Bring up the heat with frozen meat and normal oil until it begins to bubble. Keep at a steady temperature.for browned meatballs.
    Serve with tabbouleh, yogurt or sour cream , small Lebonese tomatoe based cabbage rolls.

    I prefer so much more lemon and mint than I am finding in most recipes. Taste!

    ENJOY Lebonese food…it is so flavorful and healthy. My 4 daughters wait for the days that I have the time to cook this food as it should be cooked.
    Merry Xmas and a prosperous new year.

  18. Jim Thibodeau says:

    This is exactly how my sitty and mom make it.

    Your account of how your father tasted the meat reminds me of the Saturday mornings I’d go to the Eastern Market with my sitty. We’d go into the meat packing warehouses and buy a leg of lamb, along with hearts and tongue and liver… anyways, once home, we’d cut the meat sampling it along the way (raw) and skewering some of the pieces for laham mishwe that we’d cook over open flames on the stovetop. It was always sooo good. And , of course, the time spent with her learning how to cut meat and what to look for and all that…. priceless. Miss her lots.. she’s with God now teaching him the finer points of making kibbee nayeh.

    Thanks for the recipe and the story.

    Peace and all good…

  19. Mary says:

    Question: I’ve always wanted to try lamb nayeh, but don’t know which part to use. The leg? Also, I grind my own meat, so I’m thinking there seems to be a lot of gristle, fat and membranes in the leg to deal with, but I’m going to give it a try.
    We call the filling hashwee, and usually I use lamb meat, onions and pine nuts. but when I fry the “footballs”, I add cream cheese and lemon juice to the mixture. It is delicious!
    I know I’m being repetitive, but I love your site!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thanks so much Mary, and great question–the lamb does take some doing to remove all of the fat. You can use loin instead of leg. Cream cheese in the footballs sounds so wonderful and different, somewhat like adding labneh. I will try it, thank you!

  20. Rima says:

    Maureen, i’m sitting here crying my eyes out as I read over and over your beautiful relay of what seems to have been a very warm, happy upbringing. My fondest memories are those of my siblings and I helping mum in the kitchen with traditional Lebanese dishes like wara2 3einab, malfouf, kibbe and ftayer to nane a few. When mum would make kibbe naye (and still does), our favourite part was the little kibbe balls she would give us to taste… And the cross on the kibbe… Ok i’m bawling my eyes out now. Thank you so much for writing so beautifully and eloquently about not only a Lebanese dish, but a Lebanese ritual xo

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Rima, that’s beautiful and I’m touched that my stories are connecting you to yours. Our shared culture is an incredible gift. Many thanks.

  21. brian m says:

    Kibbeh reminds me of French steak tare tare…but better. I am lucky to have a good middle east butcher that makes this Saturday morning. He always gives me more bulgur to mix in more if desired. He also gives me a garlic aioli.

    Yes you are right the stuff is very addictive. I unfortunately eat too much of it when I buy it.


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