If you’ve ever traveled to any major city across the globe, you’re familiar with the enticing aroma and inviting atmosphere of street food vendors. These vendors sell authentic local cuisine in a ready-to-eat, grab-n-go form. In the Middle East, food vendors specialize in street delicacies like Greek gyros filled with meat and wrapped in pita bread, deep-fried falafel, and, grilled skewered treats like kofta kebobs. But, do you know the rich background of where delicacies like these come from? Kofta, for example, has a rich history and once you learn about it, your backyard BBQs won’t be the same.
The Origin of Kofta
Every food comes from somewhere. Kofta is no exception. The first kofta recipes come from some of the earliest Arabic cookbooks ever discovered. Early recipes show us that kofta originated as a lamb dish. Think rich minced lamb and Middle Eastern spices rolled into balls the size of an orange and then glazed in egg yolk and saffron before cooking. Since these early recipes, kofta has evolved and continues to evolve as new cultures and new chefs give it their own twist.
What is Kofta?
The word “kofta” actually comes from the Farsi words kōfta and kōftan. Kōfta refers to rissole, a circular ball of savory, minced meat stuffed inside a pastry. Kōftan is a verb meaning “to grind” or “to pound.” From there, we get kofta, a meatball-like dish containing minced meats.
Of course, kofta is a bit more complicated than your everyday meatball. In fact, it isn’t necessarily a ball at all. There is loaf-shaped kofta, finger-length kofta, kofta patties and kofta kebobs (or kabobs if you prefer). This dish also spans across numerous continents and shares a plate with a wide range of sauces and side dishes. From the spelling to the protein to the mix of spices, kofta takes on a new form wherever it travels. Like to experiment with spices and flavors? Use kofta as a vessel during your culinary journey.
Am I Spelling This Right?
Kofta. Kefta. Kafta. Kufta. The list goes on and on. Given the number of kofta variations across the globe, it’s no surprise that the word itself has so many different variations. In fact, certain cultures actually have a preferred spelling. In Jordan, they pronounce the word as kafta while in Morocco they prefer kufta. Ask for kufta in Israel and you’ll be served a dough dumpling instead. Here, you’ll need to ask for kofta if you’re expecting something resembling a meatball. No matter how you want to say it or spell it, kofta will always be a delicious, culturally rich dish that’s easy to replicate at home.
What are the Different Types of Kofta Recipes?
Every culture has its own kofta recipes. Some recipes incorporate meats like lamb, pork, or beef while others go strictly vegetarian with potatoes and peas. You’ll find kofta throughout Indian, Balkan, Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian cuisine. Everywhere you go, it’ll taste a little different, but it’s still the same basic dish: minced or ground meat/veggies mixed with spices. No matter what flavors you enjoy most, you can find a kofta that pleases your palate. There are easily hundreds of kofta variations out there; start with a cuisine that you’re already familiar will help ease you into this new dish. Here a few ideas to get you started:
Mizrahi Jewish cuisine in Israel has its own kofta variety. Its meat kofta contains a minced meat mixed with herbs and spices. Similar to the Italian meatballs that you’re probably familiar with, Israeli kofta is cooked in a tomato-based sauce. It falls on the sweet side though as they add date syrup, pomegranate syrup, or tamarind syrup along with beans or veggies. On the other hand, their fish kofta has a kick to it. It pairs minced fish with nutty coriander, dried bell and chili peppers for heat, onion, pepper, and salt. Balls are formed and the fish kofta then gets cooked in a chickpea or white bean tomato stew. Yum!
In Albania, you can find dedicated kofta eateries called qofteris, named after qofte, the Albanian word for kofta. They keep qofte simple, serving it with fresh raw onions, bread, and a glass of beer.
India’s twist on kofta makes the dish vegetarian friendly. Leaving chicken and beef behind, Malai Kofta in India puts potatoes and veggies front and center. This vegetarian kofta highlights common Indian spices and comes served in creamy, mild gravy with a sweet flavor. Of course, you can find plenty of meat kofta options in India, but it depends on the region.
Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro serve up ćufte or ćufteta. In this region, you’ll come across different beef, pork, fish, and lamb kofta variations. Most commonly, the minced meat gets mixed with onions, breadcrumbs, eggs, and seasonings, making it quite similar to Italian meatball preparation. However, their red roux paprika sauce gives them a flavor totally unique to the Balkans.
In 2005, a private food company discovered that Turkey has not one, not ten, but 291 different types of kofta. That would be one large cookbook! Explore Turkish koftas to discover just how much this dish has to offer. In the mood for soup? Turkey’s sulu köfte is a tomato-based stew full of beef kofta, rice or bulgur, Middle Eastern spices, and onions. Vegetarian kofta options in Turkey include Batirik koftesi, a vegan variety that substitutes out eggs for tahini, and ciğ köfte, a bulgur-based kofta served rolled up in a lettuce leaf.
Like Turkey, Egypt too is home to a number of different types of kofta. They’re especially known for their deep fried shrimp kofta. A more classic version using ground beef and lamb finds its way onto the menus of many Middle Eastern and Egyptian restaurants in the United States and abroad. Maybe you’ve even tried it before. Its easy-to-please flavors include onions, garlic, parsley, and a Middle Eastern spice blend called Baharat. This classic Mediterranean dish is skewered and grilled, creating a mouthwatering beef and lamb kofta kebob.
Essential Middle Eastern Spices
Spices make all of the difference. That’s why lamb kofta in Egypt tastes totally different than the lamb kofta found in the Balkans. Subtle changes in spice give the dish a whole new flavor. To achieve a Middle Eastern spice profile that’s destined to be a hit at your next outdoor barbeque, explore the following essential Middle Eastern spices. Choose a few that you like to start building up your Middle Eastern pantry and creating delicious kofta creations.
Arabic 7 Spice
Also called Bokharat, the Arabic 7 Spice blend packs a full dose of Middle Eastern flavors. Its eight spices--yes, there are actually eight of them-- include black pepper, paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. This warm, aromatic mix will fill your kitchen with rich scents and your food with rich, zesty flavors. Mix it into kofta dishes, dry rub it onto chicken, or add it to your soup.
Cumin comes in seed and ground spice form. It’s aromatic and bitter, adding an undertone that compliments the heat in curries and the strong flavors in savory meat dishes. Middle Eastern beef and lamb kofta recipes rely on cumin to add a little punch of spice.
It might sound a little weird, but the coriander plant has a bug-like smell. That’s why historians suggest that its name comes from the Greek word for insect, koros. Despite its buggy origins, ground and whole seed coriander has a pleasant flavor with some citrus tones. Whole seeds taste better toasted, but you’ll need to change them up before adding them to a dish. Ground or lightly crush toasted coriander seeds to make them easier to work with. Use coriander with meat rubs and curries or to make your own Arabic 7 spice blend.
Sumac comes from the dried, crushed berries of Rhus coriaria bushes found in the Middle East. It shares a name with the poisonous sumac plants found in North America, but sumac the spice is totally safe to eat. Offering a deep reddish color and sour, lemon-like taste, sumac adds a little zing and fun to any Middle Eastern dish. Use sumac to give your favorite hummus recipe a hint of salt and lemony flavor.
Another Middle Eastern spice mix, za’atar, blends together thyme, sesame seeds, and a third spice. Jordanian and Lebanese cuisine have a reddish colored blend because their third spice is sumac. In Beirut, the blend has a much lighter color because they include white thyme flowers. Other regions commonly add cumin or oregano. Not only does za’atar have a tangy flavor rich in aromatics, but some believe it actually makes you more alert. Sprinkle za’atar on a pita with some olive oil or use it to flavor kofta or grilled chicken.
Some label clove as one of the world’s most powerful flavors. Its strong, sweet flavor has an astringent taste to it. This versatile Middle Eastern spice has a lot of uses too. You’ll find cloves in ketchup, gingerbread, chai tea, and meat rubs. Love the rich taste of meat? Combine clove with garlic or cinnamon and then rub it on chicken, beef, or lamb. This spice combination greatly enhances the flavor of these proteins. Add some to your kofta recipe, but don’t add too much! To some palates, clove tastes hot and even a little overpowering.
Like kofta, aniseed has a few different names: aniseed, anise seed, anise, or anis. It’s one of the world’s oldest spices and comes from the Middle East. If you’ve ever tried black licorice, you know this spice. Anise gives black licorice that distinct taste that everyone loves or hates. If you love it, you can add it to sausage kofta or Middle Eastern desserts and breads.
How to Cook Kofta Kebobs
Middle Eastern kofta kebobs are traditionally grilled, but you shouldn’t let poor weather or a lack of a grill stop you from giving a kofta kebob recipe a go. All over the world, people use different techniques to cook kofta. To create the grilled taste indoors, use an electric countertop grill or grill pan to replicate those eye-pleasing black grill lines. Or, forget grilling altogether. It’s easy to find kofta recipes that ask you to simmer, broil, deep fry, or bake kofta. Still want to eat them off the skewer? Just slide in the skewer post-cooking for easier eating.
Kofta Cooking Tips
Follow along with some of our kofta kebob cooking tips to make your cooking experience a little easier and more flavorful.
Tip 1: Use a food processor to mince first any onions or garlic that you plan to add. Then, add your spices and protein directly to the food processor to finish the job.
Tip 2: Get more flavor by warming up the spices with a tablespoon of olive oil on the stove until they sizzle.
Tip 3: Are you a planner? Avoid stress on the day of your backyard BBQ by preparing your kebobs the night before or morning of. Put the raw kebobs on a baking sheet, cover them with foil or plastic wrap, and refrigerate them until it’s time to grill.
Tip 4: Add a little flour to your mixture to help the kofta keep its log, patty, or ball shape.
Ways to Enjoy Kofta Kebobs
One rule of thumb shared by all kofta-eating cultures is this: don’t eat kofta alone. Whether it’s paired with bread or rice, thrown in a tomato sauce, or added to a salad, kofta tastes better when it’s dressed up. Pull your kofta kebobs off the grill, place them in a pita, and drizzle on some tzatziki sauce for a refreshingly cool and tangy flavor. For a sit-down meal, you can balance out your meat-heavy main course with rice or bulgur and a salad of fresh greens, tomatoes, and grilled peppers. You can also dip your kebobs into a simple and creamy hummus to cool down your dish and highlight the protein and Middle Eastern spices.