BEIRUT: Mountainous balls of stuffed, fried beef, flat trays of oven-baked meat pie, fresh, raw minced goat collecting pools of olive oil: kibbeh – one of Lebanon’s national dishes – is as diverse as the country’s geography. The fundamental elements of kibbeh are lean meat (or meat substitute), scoops of cracked bulgur wheat and salt, according to taste.
What happens next depends on where you’re staying for dinner.
Kibbeh is grilled, fried, baked, boiled or served raw. It’s made from whatever meat is available – goat, lamb, beef and even fish – but only the leanest cut bought directly from the local butcher. Some recipes forgo meat altogether, opting for rich vegetable or legume purees like pumpkin, potato or chick pea.
“There’s no bad kibbeh, only bad meat. The quality of meat changes the quality of the kibbeh,” said Maria Doueihi, who regularly cooks for Beirut’s Tawlet, a buffet-style restaurant that brings in cooks from around Lebanon to prepare their local fare.
Doueihi hails from the northern town of Zghorta, which claims the title as the country’s kibbeh capital.
“It’s our national dish, but people come to Zghorta from abroad just to eat kibbeh,” she said. “We’ve had three presidents of the republic come from Zghorta, but still people talk about kibbeh when you say Zghorta.”
Traditional Zghorta kibbeh, or kibbeh Zghortawiyeh, is characterized by its large size and round hat shape. The kibbeh is stuffed with various ingredients, sometimes garlic and dried mint, sauteed onion and meat or animal fat taken from the tissue around the kidney.
Kibbeh is deep-fried in many regions of Lebanon, but don’t let Zghorta’s healthy grill marks fool you. Chunks of animal fat melt inside the tennis ball-sized kibbeh, and create what Doueihi described as a Molotov cocktail of flavor.
Local kibbeh recipes depend in large part on what ingredients have been traditionally available. For example, Zghorta’s raw kibbeh – a dish called kibbeh nayyeh – is made from goat because the animal roams the mountainous north.
“The goat goes up, up, up to the top of the mountain to eat the freshest herbs and drink the purest water,” Doueihi said.
Because of this, locals believe goat meat has the freshest flavor, and they keep the preparation minimal to emphasize its clean taste. To the minced meat, Doueihi adds bulgur, salt, a little pepper and ice to marry the ingredients, she said.
Indeed Doueihi’s goat meat kibbeh nayyeh was absent of the gaminess sometimes present in local beef or lamb, which also contain more fat.
In coastal towns like Tripoli, some use plentiful meats like fish to make kibbeh and follow the same process of mixing the minced fish and bulgur, shaping it into balls, stuffing them with onions or pine nuts and frying them.
Popular kibbeh preparations also cook or mix the meat in flavorful sauces derived from locally made condiments. In the Bekaa Valley, villagers make kibbeh in kishk – fermented milk and bulgur that’s been ground into a powder.
In the mountainous Chouf region east of Beirut, local villages prepare the kibbeh sauce with thick labneh yogurt and awarma, a preserve of lamb mixed in its own fat.
Kibbeh’s mixture of meat and wheat was likely born centuries ago from necessity.
Joumana Accad, a local foodie, wrote in her popular blog Taste of Beirut that adding bulgur yields double the meat.
Centuries ago, even 30 years ago, families were much larger, averaging four children per family as recently as 1980. Kibbeh likely originated from a need to stretch a cut of meat to feed more mouths, Accad said.
With time, a number of kibbeh recipes have become so ubiquitous that their origins are harder to trace.
In restaurants around Beirut, the most common recipe molds the beef-bulgur paste into oval balls stuffed with sauteed onions, meat or toasted pine nuts and cooked in the deep fryer.
Another widespread preparation of kibbeh is the oval meat balls served in a yogurt sauce with a small amount of cooked rice – kibbeh bi laban.
This recipe has its local variations as well. Around Beirut, restaurants often use typical cow’s milk yogurt. But in the north, cow’s milk yogurt is always eaten cold and the dish is prepared with goat’s milk yogurt instead.
The most common recipe for baked kibbeh pie – kibbeh bil saniyyeh – calls for two layers of meat paste packed into a baking sheet, with a stuffing in between of sauteed onions, meat and roasted pine nuts.
Kibbeh has also given rise to a number of myths; the most intriguing is the origin of vegetarian kibbeh hileh – meaning “trick kibbeh.”
Saint Theodore – or Mar Tedros in Arabic – worked as an army general for the Romans during the period of Christian persecution, circa 300 C.E. The legend, according to the experts at Beirut’s farmer’s market, Souk el-Tayeb, has it that Theodore sent word that a Roman army raid would take place on a Friday, the day Christians abstain from eating meat.
Locals invented vegetarian kibbeh to appear like regular meat kibbeh in order to trick the Roman army, as the presence of “meat” at the dinner table Friday would act as proof that the families weren’t Christian.
A common, modern recipe for vegetarian kibbeh – especially popular now during Lent – substitutes pumpkin for meat.
In the north, locals prepare vegetarian kibbeh with chick peas. In the Bekaa Valley, kibbeh is made from potatoes and bulgur, stuffed with yogurt, meat or awarma and fried until very crispy.
Here in the capital, native Beirutis eat a preparation of kibbeh called kibbeh arnabieh. The meat balls are oval shaped and mixed in a tahini sauce flavored with citrus fruits.
Even Lebanon’s sizeable Armenian community has its own version of raw vegetarian kibbeh: vospov kofte. In Beirut’s neighboring municipality of Burj Hammoud, Armenian cooks served up moist balls of red lentil kibbeh alongside onions, parsley and seasoned with sumac.
In the south of Lebanon, things begin to heat up.
Sidon’s traditional kibbeh consist of oval balls of lamb or beef stuffed with butter, hot pepper and walnuts.
Outside the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Teta Latifa’s kibbeh is not complete without a local blend of spices called kammouneh. The word comes from the Arabic word for cumin, but that ingredient is buried in the full gamut of other spices, fresh herbs and bulgur which results in the green, spicy mix.
In a food processor, Latifa’s daughter Hajje Fatima stuffed handfuls of fresh mint, parsley, green onion, red onion and marjoram – all grown fresh in her backyard. She sprinkled in salt, bulgur and a healthy spoonful of a dried spice blend of almost everything in the pantry, inconveniently also called kammouneh.
Hot pepper was thrown into the mix after it was blended and each family member had a suggestion for how much spice to add – not too hot, not too mild.
Even the process of mincing the meat varies from north to south.
A traditional instrument for pounding meat into paste sat outside on Latifa’s veranda. The flat marble slab, called a blatta, is used specifically in the south, while the north uses a giant stone mortar and pestle.
Like most things done the traditional way, hand-minced kibbeh has a better flavor, Latifa’s family explained, though the 75-year-old mother of more than a dozen children now opts for a food processor in her old age.
What cannot be replaced by machine is the typical southern preparation of kibbeh nayyeh, called frakeh, an odd-shaped blob of kibbeh squeezed together with fresh kammouneh and still baring the finger prints of its maker.
Latifa’s kibbeh, fried or raw, consists of lean beef mixed with sheep’s fat to enhance the flavor, Fatima said.
“If the fat was from the cow it would not be good,” Fatima said.
Whether Doueihi’s Molotov kibbeh bombs from Zghorta, small beef meatballs drenched in yogurt or Latifa’s raw green frakeh, the variations in kibbeh are dictated by regional – rather than religious – tradition, said Jihane Chahla, quality control manager at Souk el-Tayeb, a sister business to Tawlet restaurant.
“Whenever we announce there’s kibbeh, people are very interested. It’s a major element,” Chahla said. “You can’t have Lebanese mezze without having kibbeh.”