Köfte get around – they respect no national boundary, and they can be made with anything, from meat, fish, vegetables or even cheese. There are, without exaggeration, hundreds of kinds köfte with varying names as they move from culture to culture or even recipe to recipe. However, the concept of köfte is so generic that one cannot source it to any one location – as long as humans have chopped, ground, or pounded meat into conveniently-sized portions, köfte have been around and been known by various names. The earliest mention of ground balls of meat – essentially what köfte are – that I am aware of is in the 4th century Roman cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, by Caelius Apicus.
Içli köfte is Turkish for stuffed meatballs, and I am sure that translation killed the romance, mystique, and exoticism of this recipe! Now that any potential for aantel-ing has been thoroughly butchered :-), Istanbul has some spectacular içli köfte, though I have to admit, Elâzığ has some serious harput köftesi. Içli köfte is almost identical to the Sicilian arancini, which itself was brought in by the Arabs. Anyway, the term köfte has two plausible origins: some say it comes from a Turkic dialect in which the term means ‘small ball,’ while others claim that it comes from the Persian کوفته (kufteh) which means ‘to beat’ or ‘to grind.’ Thankfully, etymological battles do not take away from the taste!
Basically, the diversity in köfte comes from six core choices:
- the minced meat used – lamb or beef
- the onion – grated or chopped
- the cooking style – fried, grilled, or baked
- the variety and combination of spices
- the type and amount of oil or butter used if fried
- the amount of fat on the meat
Some common variations of köfte you will see in Turkey are:
- Kuru köfte – Kuru means dry, and this version is called so because there is no dressing or sauce, just kneaded and pan-fried rolls of minced meat, bread (soaked in water and squeezed), cumin, egg, garlic, onion, parsley, pepper, and köfte baharı (spices mixed for meatballs).
- Dalyan köfte – A base of the kuru köfte mixture is made and patted into a large chapati-like shape. It is then rolled with carrots, peas, and sometimes hard-boiled eggs in the center and baked in the oven. It is then sliced and served.
- Izgara köfte – It is prepared as kuru köfte but without eggs, and is grilled.
- İzmir köftesi – Add potatoes to kuru köfte and cook with tomato sauce in a pot on the stove or in an oven.
- Şiş köfte – It is the same preparation as kuru köfte but is wrapped around a skewer and grilled (preferably on a charcoal fire).
- Tekirdağ köftesi – It is almost identical to kuru köfte but rather than use soggy bread, Tekirdağ köftesi uses small, dry pieces of bread.
- Sulu köfte – It looks like soup; small balls of kneaded minced meat, ground wheat or rice, onion, and parsley are cooked in a sauce of butter, tomato paste and water. Some add small cubes of carrots and potatoes to the “gravy” as well.
- Ekşili köfte – Also called terbiyeli köfte, it is prepared in the same manner as sulu köfte. The difference is the additional sour (ekşi) taste. A mixture of eggs, lemon, yoghurt, and flour is used to get the sour taste.
- Çiğ köfte – Fat-less minced meat kneaded with ground wheat (ince bulgur), onion, tomato, cumin, paprika, pepper, mint, coriander, cinnamon. Red pepper paste is an optional ingredient. Beware – this is a raw dish, served with lettuce, and is ordered as a starter.
- Harput köftesi – Small balls of kneaded minced meat, wheat, onion, parsley, pepper and sweet basil cooked in a sauce of butter, water, tomato, and an option of red pepper paste.
- İçli köfte – Roast minced meat, onion and walnut with a coating of wheat, flour, egg and red pepper paste. Generally served as a starter. It looks like a big egg and is mostly fried but can be boiled as well. İçli köfte is served with lemon and parsley.
- İnegöl köftesi – Balls of very thoroughly kneaded minced meat, onion, pepper, and sodium bicarbonate are cooked in the oven. Few spices are used to accentuate the taste of the meat.
- Kadınbudu köfte – Big balls of kneaded and roasted minced meat, onions, and boiled rice are fried after being dipped in a batter of flour and eggs.
- Mercimek köftesi – A vegetarian dish made of red lentils and ground wheat kneaded with onion, parsley and tomato paste. It is served with lettuce on the side, in which it is usually wrapped and eaten.
Okay…now that you are a Köfte Grandmaster, perhaps we should get into our tasty morsel, the içli köfte! For all that talk about this being a mere stuffed meatball, making the bulgur shells is not the easiest task for a culinary n00b.
- Beef or Lamb – 500g, doubly ground
- Bulgur – 3 cups, finely ground
- Onion – 3, large
- Coriander leaves – 1 cup
- Egg – 1
- Walnut – 100 grammes
- Flour – 2 tablespoons
- Butter – 2 tablespoons
- Red pepper paste – 2 tablespoons
- Cumin – 1½ teaspoon
- Paprika – 1 teaspoon
- Tomato paste – 1 tablespoon
- Salt – 1½ teaspoon
- Black pepper – 1 teaspoon
- Vegetable oil for frying
Preparation time: Overnight marination + 60 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
- Chop the onions and coriander leaves very finely; crush the walnuts
- Sauté the meat in the butter for about three minutes and then add the onions. Continue until the meat and onions are both thoroughly browned.
- Take the meat and onions off the flame and add the coriander leaves, walnuts, and spices. Mix thoroughly. Make sure the meat remains crumbly and does not stick together in a big lump.
- Once cooled, cover the mix tightly and refrigerate overnight for marination.
- For the shell, take the bulgur in a pot and add boiling water to it until the bulgur is completely covered but only just. Remove the meat from the fridge before you start so that it has time to reach room temperature by the time it is needed.
- Wait until the water cools, allowing the bulgur to expand. Once the water has cooled down, start kneading the bulgur. Do this until the water has disappeared, and then add the egg, flour, the tomato paste, and salt to the mix.
- Continue kneading until the result is a nice and soft dough. This step is essential for the consistency of the shell – if you do not want your köfte to crumble later when you fry or handle them, make sure to knead well. This step usually takes some 15-20 minutes for me. Some food processors have a kneading attachment/function which may make your task easier, though I have only tried it with chapati dough and never for köfte shells.
- To make a köfte shell, take a small amount of dough in your hand and roll it into a ball. Then flatten it against one palm, as if you were clapping. Now with your thumb, gently create a small depression in the dough patty. Refer to the images below (kindly provided by Hürriyet Daily).
- Using the depression as a pivot, slowly rotate the dough in your hand while simultaneously applying pressure to it and gently cupping your palm. If done properly, the result should look like a small cup. If you find that your hands are too dry to ease the dough into a cup, a drop of vegetable oil should help.
- Fill the bulgur cup with the meat but leave enough room at the top so that you can seal the top. Gently push the dough inwards and pinch it shut. A little water should help the köfte remain shut. The final product should be about eight centimetres long and four centimetres wide.
- Repeat until all the meat is finished. This recipe should make about 12-15 köfte.
- Finally, heat some vegetable oil to about 180°C; there should be enough oil for the içli köfte to be completely submerged in the oil.
- Fry the köfte until they are golden brown.
- Serve with a little garnish…perhaps a slice of onion, some lettuce, and a couple of sticks of carrot.