Kibbeh Nayeh and Auntie Osmat’s Secret Recipe
Kibbeh nayeh is a dish made of fresh beef or lamb meat that is minced with onions, walnuts and fresh mint and mixed with bulgur and spices. The dish is served raw and as an appetizer.
One August, a few summers back, I ate a mango a day. The mangoes were from Egypt, I don’t recall the exact variety but I do remember that they tasted like no mango I had ever tasted before. I never found those mangoes again, but I still cling to their meaty, fleshy, intoxicating flavor and hope thatone day I’ll stumble upon them again.
There are certain foods that can redefine one’s perception of taste and flavor; such foods have changed my palate and, subsequently, my life. The mangoes clearly set a bar, truffles (not the chocolates) are another example. As for kibbeh nayeh, well, kibbeh nayeh is a dish that changed my life, twice.
I met kibbeh nayeh for the first time the year I graduated from college; I was 20 and had such a timid palate that I ordered steamed rice at sushi restaurants. I was with my family at our mandatory Friday lunch at a Lebanese restaurant tucked away in the old and lush neighborhood of the Second Circle in Amman. The restaurant was bustling, as it usually is; people were chatting away, nibbling at crisp vegetables arranged in platters on each table. Diners were tearing into freshly grilled tender meats that slid off the skewers with a sizzle, and the waiters were careening around, carrying colorful trays loaded with mezzes of hummus, fattoush, tabbouleh, and kibbeh nayeh garnished with fresh mint and pine nuts. As the waiter placed the kibbeh on the table, I couldn’t resist trying it. I don’t know what came over me that day because kibbeh is a delicacy I usually enjoy fried, not raw. I still don’t know if it was hunger or the color of the kibbeh, but I devoured the whole plate and asked for more.
That day, all I ate was kibbeh nayeh; I sampled it with mint leaves, white onion quarters and fresh garlic cream. I drowned it in olive oil and sprinkled it with pepper. I tried it with tabbouleh on top and with hummus on the side. I went crazy with the combinations and I couldn’t get enough. I was in love.
On that Friday, kibbeh gave me courage and changed the way I look at raw meat. It sent me on a journey to discover new dishes, tastes and textures. Sushi? No problem! It has been five years since I started my culinary journey and I’ve relished every second of every dish.
A few weeks ago, my auntie Osmat agreed to share her famous kibbeh nayeh recipe with me. We started off in the kitchen with nothing more than a piece of beef fillet, an onion, a handful of fresh mint, a few walnuts, bulgur, a jar of mixed spices, marjoram, salt, ice and of course, a food processor. The walnuts, she told me, give the kibbeh a moist buttery texture, the telling sign of a good kibbeh. At one point auntie Osmat looked at me with a stern face and said “and now comes the secret, please listen carefully, when making kibbeh nayeh you need to remember three little words: ICE, ICE and ICE. I can’t tell you how important the ice is.” Auntie Osmat’s concoction was creamy, with a delicate crunch; it maintained its pinkness which I later learned is something most restaurants simulate with red food coloring because they seldom serve their raw kibbeh fresh off the processor.
At 25, I tasted kibbeh nayeh for the first time, again. This time it changed me because I appreciated its simplicity and how much better it was when eaten fresh. It changed my life because it was no longer elusive like the mangoes: I could make it myself. That day, I ate her kibbeh for lunch with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil and freshly baked pita bread, I ate it with mint and spring onions and savored every bite.
Serves 10 – This recipe can be scaled down
- 1 kg fresh beef fillet (well-trimmed and cleaned of all fat)
- 1 large white onion or 2 small white onions (you can use yellow or red onions as an alternative)
- 1 handful green mint
- 2 cups cracked wheat (coarse bulgur)
- 7 walnuts
- 7-8 ice cubes
- Salt (to taste)
- 1 heaped teaspoon marjoram
- 1 heaped tablespoon kibbeh spices OR (see below):
- 1 tsp cinnamon - 1 tsp mixed spices - 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper - ½ tsp ground cloves - ½ tsp cumin
Cut the beef fillet into cubes and roughly chop the onion into quarters. Place the cubed meat, chopped onion, green mint and walnuts into the food processor. Add a few ice cubes and a pinch of salt to the ingredients and start the processor. The ice keeps the meat cool and fresh and does not allow it to develop a stench, while the salt helps mince the meat faster. After running the food processor for 30 seconds, add the remaining ice cubes and continue mixing until the mixture is smooth. At this point, the meat should be a bright pink and creamy.
While the mixture is in the food processor, wash the bulgur in cold water and strain all liquid out using a fine sieve. It is important that you do not soak the bulgur so as to maintain its crunch.
After the bulgur is washed and the mixture is minced, place the meat mixture in a large bowl. Add the bulgur and spices and mix well, ensuring that all the ingredients are combined. It is preferred that you knead the meat and bulgur with your hands, however, a wooden spoon or a few seconds in the food processor can also do the trick.
- The meat you use must be FRESH. Anything out of the freezer or that has been sitting around too long will not taste good and will probably be unsafe to eat raw anyway.
- Make sure your food processor can handle all the ingredients. If it is small, make the kibbeh in batches, starting with the onion, mint and walnuts. Mince the meat in batches and combine in a large bowl.
- Moisten the food processor bowl and place it in the freezer an hour before making the kibbeh. This will help keep the kibbeh even cooler thus maintaining its freshness.
- If you are using a fattier cut of meat, decrease the quantity of walnuts used.
- Always add the spices during the last step of preparation. If you add them while the meat is in the processor, they can alter its color.
- Kibbeh nayeh is usually served with olive oil drizzled on top in addition to a mint and spring onion garnish. It is eaten with pita bread and onion, and sometimes with garlic cream.