The Story

Syrian Finger Food

Ground meat and spices hidden inside fried dough.

By Lindsay Sterling

An Iraqi mother who lives with her husband and three kids in a Portland recently taught me how to make a Syrian food called kibbeh. Kibbeh are made of bulgur wheat, onions, spices, and ground beef or lamb, formed into the shape of lemons and deep-fried. Asraa, my teacher, learned how to make them from a Syrian friend when she was living in Syria after she fled Iraq.
First she soaks fine bulgur wheat in water. Then she saut├ęs ground beef and onions with salt and freshly ground green cardamom. Other spices that are commonly used are allspice, cinnamon, cumin and pepper. Once the meat is cooked, she mixes in toasted pine nuts. She then puts the bulgur through a meat grinder along with chunks of yellow onion and cubes of beef. Pale pink spaghetti-shaped extrusions push out of the holes of the grinder. She kneads these into dough.
Then one by one she assembles a dozen lemon-shaped kibbeh. In one hand she makes a ball of dough about the size of a small lemon. She presses into it with her pointer finger, creating a long cavity where her finger was. She spoons ground meat into the cavity, then she closes the dough around the meat filling and bounces the packet in the palm of her hand until it becomes the shape of a lemon. When I try to make the kibbeh, they come out lumpy and asymmetrical. She shows me how to use a couple fingers dipped in ice water to smooth any lumps out of the sides. Try as I might to make mine just like hers, my kibbeh are a lot bigger. We hold up our hands against one another’s to compare the size and laugh. My hands are two inches bigger than hers. I’m 5’8” tall and she’s probably 4’8”. We make a whole platter of these lemon shapes, and then deep fry groups of them on medium low heat so that outside of the kibbeh turns golden brown and crispy.
Kibbeh originated somewhere in the Levant. From there, the food has spread with emigrants all over the world to places like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina. Serve kibbeh with a sprig of mint, and fresh salad of cucumber, parley, lettuce tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil.
After we cook, we talk about life. I asked the couple how the Syrian friend who taught the dish is doing in Syria now. Her husband answers, “She’s okay, but she’s scared. Only four hours of electricity, no phone, no internet, no good water.” After sharing that Asraa is one of eleven siblings in Iraq, her husband explains that in Iraq it’s common to have a lot of kids in a family. “There,” he says, “if you only have six kids, people say, ‘you tired, old man?’” One of the things he loves about the U.S is that, “In America, if you have a million dollar or one hundred, same thing. Nobody big. Nobody low.” All people are created equal.
Making kibbeh myself at home, I use my KitchenAid mixer and meat grinder attachment. Since most home cooks don’t have a meat grinder, I ask Fayez how people might make kibbeh, to which he replied, “Come to my store, I grind it for you.” He grinds meat into kibbeh dough regularly for customers at Al Sindbad market, 710 Forest Avenue, Portland, ME 04103, 9am-9pm, (207) 879-4469.

For the recipe or to learn in a live cooking class, click at right.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2013