The first times I experienced kafta was walking in an open food market and just having that smell of grilled spiced meat fill the air, it was just too much! The cumin and mulling spices like cinnamon and clove in there, not to mention the onion, garlic and parsley… wow! It was just a true Pavlovian experience. And is every time.
Since then, I’ve made it myself countless times and often play around with the spices and ratios. The instructions below give guidance for making it in kebab form, but it is great as thin patties (put a couple in a pita with the other suggested fixings), or even as long cylinders on the grill without the use of a skewer.
As with so many of my recipes, you can follow it exactly, or you can use it as a kind of template and really experiment. For instance, sometimes I swap out the parsley for cilantro, which gives a totally distinct flavor, or use a mix, and maybe add some other garden herbs like oregano, thyme, dill, or hyssop.
Sometimes I use yellow onion, sometimes red, but the recipe calls for green. I usually use green to work alongside the generous amount of parsley I use, to give that beautiful appearance of green heavily throughout the meat. If you use a regular onion, you should use one small onion (or even half), finely mince and salt ahead of time, so that you can squeeze out all its moisture before combining it with the meat. This will really help the meat stay on the skewer.
The exact spices can vary a lot too. The recipe below uses my baharat spice mix, but sometimes I swap out or use additional spices too, such as cardamom, fenugreek, ground ginger, and more. If you follow this recipe as is, though, I am confident you’re going to love it!
If you don’t have your own baharat made by hand, there’s many delicious pre-made options. The exact spices and ratios may differ somewhat from my recipe, but I’m confident if you’re using a well-reviewed or suggested brand (such as a local Middle Eastern food market might carry and recommend), you’re going to love this dish!
The last thing is you can switch up your meats. My favorite is a 50/50 mix of fatty ground beef and lamb, but using only beef or lamb is great. You can use other meats as well, such as ground turkey or chicken, but then I strongly recommend mixing in a splash of olive oil and whole-milk yogurt to bring in some fats and richness, which this dish greatly benefits from. Beef should be a 15% fat content minimum.
The great thing is there’s a ton of flavor and very little prep or time involved. Once you have all the ingredients, you will simply mix them, and be ready to cook. If you want to allow an hour for the flavors to meld, it won’t hurt either (just be sure then to cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate).
Serves: 3-4 (1 lb. meat yields about 4 kebabs)
You will need:
- Kebab skewers (can use a standard thin variety but the more traditional wide variety allows the meat to have a better grip on the skewer)
- Medium-large mixing bowl
- Knife & cutting board
- Measuring spoons
- Garlic press
- Suggested: bowl of water
- 1 lb. ground lamb, beef, or a mix (or other ground meat of choice, note the advice above); choose a cut with 15% fat minimum
- 1 bunch parsley, stems removed & finely minced (~50g)
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-2 green onions, thin sliced (mince the whites)
- 2 TBSP baharat (Lebanese 7-spice)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Optional: 1/2 tsp Indian red chili powder; can sub with cayenne pepper powder ((I always add a 1/2 tsp Indian chili powder but can omit if you don’t want it to have a spicy kick; can increase to 1 tsp or more to taste, for a hotter version)
- 1/2 lime or lemon to squeeze on meat after cooking
- Salt & pepper to taste when serving
- Suggested: remove from the grill and place atop large flatbreads (such as Lavash or Naan) or pitas to soak up the juices, then break off pieces to make small wraps with pieces of the meat, along with my Lebanese salad and green tahini. Or serve in pitas with the tahini, hummus (here’s my delicious fermented version), and my Middle Eastern Salad.
1.) Prepare all the ingredients as indicated. Then combine in bowl with the meat, Mix thoroughly for several minutes, so that the spices are evenly mixed in.
2.) Divide the meat into 4 equal parts and roll each into a ball (each about 100-115 grams). For thin skewers: Shape the meat into a cylinder and press it down over the kebab, piercing the meat in the middle. With a gripping motion of the whole hand, work the meat downwards until it is evenly pressed. For wide skewers: Shape into a cylinder and place onto the upper end of the skewer in a sideways motion, pressing the meat over the cut that’s formed along its side. (Make sure the skewers are clean and free of grease.)
3.) Using the (suggested) bowl of water, keep your hands wet and firmly press the meat in a downwards motion until an even strip of meat is compacted onto the skewer. You may use your whole hand or pinch the meat between the thumb, forefinger and middle finger every 1/2″ or so. Flip the skewer and go back over the meat with this motion, to ensure it is firmly stuck to the skewers. Try to make sure the ends of the meat are pinched off so that there is no opening into the cavity.
4.) Bring the grill to a very high heat and place the kebabs over the open flame. For the first minute or so, frequently turn the kebabs, as much as once every ten seconds. After this time, turning every 30 seconds or so for the remainder of the cooking is recommended. Cook until meat is nicely charred but not burnt. Depending on the thickness of the meat, and the design and temperature of the grill, this usually takes anywhere from 4-8 minutes.
5,) Once the meat is cooked through, pull off skewers one by one, first pulling a bit from the top and then pushing from the bottom to remove it. It can be placed directly on a plate, or atop some flatbreads or pita which will soak up some of the juices.
6.) Squeezing a half lime or lemon all over the meat at this stage adds a great balance and pop of flavor. You may also lightly season with a few dashes of salt and pepper.