Not long now before I go off again on my Syrian adventures. I have to say, I love going to Syria. I love the souks, the people, the sites and, of course, the food. And one of my favourite places to eat there is at my friend Lena Toutounji’s House. Her food is just exquisite, as is her home and her hospitality. I still remember my first lunch there. I had heard a lot about Lena and her cooking from friends in Beirut, and of course from her brother, Pierre Antaki, who took me there. I was very excited at the idea of the lunch and true enough, it was totally memorable, for many reasons. The grace with which Lena received us. Her lovely old butler, all dressed in white. And the menu, which that day consisted of a gratin of desert truffles and a version of kibbeh that I had never had before: tiny little balls with pointed tops (kibbeh kubab means domed kibbeh; the dish is also known as Iraqi kibbeh) with the most luscious spicy filling inside. As I helped myself, Lena warned me not to bite into the kibbeh balls or else my crisp white shirt would be splattered with red fat.
The filling is made by mixing chopped up fat from the tail with grated onion and pepper paste (an Aleppo speciality) and seasoning the mixture with cumin, salt and pepper. Once the balls are made, they are arranged in a baking dish and a knob of butter is placed on each before they are baked in a hot oven until slightly crisp. One of the best dishes you will ever taste. Unfortunately Lena does not do measures, so, all I can offer you here is my recipe for kibbeh and let you work out the quantities for the filling, if you can get tail fat that is. Not to worry if you can’t. You can use butter instead. Not quite the same but it should work.
I always get my meat already ground, from a good butcher making sure I ask for the best part of the leg for the kibbeh. And be sure to use very fine burghul, otherwise the meat mixture will be too coarse and not so easy to shape. Makes 50 balls
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
500 g finely minced lean lamb from the leg
200 g fine burghul
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
salt to taste
small bowl of lightly salted water
1. Put the quartered onion in a food processor. Process until finely chopped, then add the meat and process until mixed well. Wash the burghul in two or three changes of cold water, drain well and add to the meat. Pulse a few times. Transfer the meat mixture to a bowl.
2. Prepare a bowl of lightly salted water and have it at hand.
3. Add the cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt to taste and mix with your hand, dipping your hand every now and then in the salted water to moisten both your hand and the kibbeh, until the spices are well incorporated. Knead the meat mixture for about 3 minutes, until you have a smooth paste. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
4. Divide the kibbeh into 50 balls, each the size of a small plum.
5. Lightly moisten your hands in the salted water and place one meat ball in the cup of one hand. With the index finger of your other hand burrow a hole into the meat ball while rotating it – this makes the hollowing out easier and more even. You should produce a thin meat shell resembling a topless egg. Be careful not to pierce the bottom or sides of the meat.
6. Put 1/2 teaspoon of Lena’s stuffing inside the meat shell, gently pushing the stuffing in with your finger, and pinch the open edges together with your fingers, pinching it upwards to create the pointed top. Put the finished ball on a non-stick baking dish. Continue making the balls until you have finished both meat and stuffing. Place a knob of butter over each kibbeh ball.
7. Preheat the oven to 200º C. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until crisp and lightly golden. Serve hot.