Köfte means meatball and in its simplest form, it’s made from minced lamb or beef mixed with some spices and onion. But throughout Turkey, there are many, many different kinds of köfte. Maybe even hundreds.
To distinguish between the different kinds, the word Köfte is often combined with the name of a place or region, a specific ingredient or both. So there is the well known Inegöl Köfte, Izmir Köfte, Kadın Budu Köfte (‘Women’s thighs’), Mercimekli Köfte (Meatballs with lentils) and so on. In fact, each region in Turkey has its own recipe for making the ‘perfect’ Köfte, to which each household then gives its own twist, a skill which passes down from mother to daughter. The making of a nicely-formed, savoury köfte is even a highly sought-after talent!
The word Köfte comes from the Arab word Kufta and is known in the Middle East and Southern Asia under names which are related to it (Kafta, Kafteh, Kofta). In its simplest form, meatballs are made from minced lamb or beef, mixed with ingredients such as bulgur (a kind of wheat grain), rice or bread, eggs and spices such as cumin, mint and paprika. The main ingredients often also include onions, garlic and fresh parsley.
One of the best known and also the most remarkable kinds of Köfte is the Ciğ Köfte, which means ‘raw meatballs’. Originally, Ciğ Köfte is made from finely minced raw, lean meat which is mixed with bulgur, onions, parsley, tomatoes and all kinds of spices. They say that the addition of spices and thorough kneading of the meat results in the dish effectively being ‘cooked’.
All over Turkey you can find shops where they sell Çiğ Köfte. However, since many years now, it’s no longer allowed for them or even in restaurants to use raw meat as an ingredient. The çiğ köfte you can eat here is the ‘vegetarian kind’.
The story goes that at the time of the prophet Abraham there was a hunter who had killed a deer. He went home and asked his wife to prepare the animal for dinner. The problem was that the wider neighbourhood didn’t have any wood for making a fire. In order not to disappoint her husband, the woman cut a piece of meat from the leg of the deer, where the meat is the most tender and lean. Next she started to mince the meat using a rock. Then she added bulgur, pepper and salt, fresh onion and parsley. She kneaded the mixture into oblong ‘balls’ and so the Ciğ Köfte was born.
The raw – and extremely spicy – meatballs are usually served and eaten with a leaf of lettuce. One of the most important ingredients directly associated with Ciğ Köfte is ‘isot’, a dark red paprika powder with its own unique flavour.
Another well known kind of Köfte is Içli Köfte, literally ‘stuffed meatballs’. Making Içli Köfte is a tedious job that takes some time. That’s why it is often served on special occasions. Içli köfte is best made – and eaten! – in the south-east region of Turkey.
Recipes (we tried them ourselves!)
Turkish meatballs (Köfte)
2 slices of white bread, soaked in water
150 ml of oil
75 g flour
500 g minced lamb or beef
One medium-sized onion
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp chopped mint
3 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp cumin
Squeeze the water from the bread and mix it with all other ingredients in a large bowl. Knead everything thoroughly. Next make little balls from the mix, the size of a walnut. Dip them in the egg and flour and fry them in the oil until they are nicely browned on all sides. You can also barbecue them, in which case they are known as Köftes Izgara (grilled). Serve the Köftes with rice and lettuce.
Raw Meatballs (Ciğ Köfte)
500 g lean beef or lamb, minced three times.
(Tell the Turkish butcher that the meat is for Ciğ Köfte, then they know what you mean)
250 g very fine bulgur (you can buy bulgur especially for Ciğ Köfte in the supermarket)
500 g spring onions (taze soğan)
2 onions (soğan)
2 medium-sized tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato puree (salça) (or if you wish, pepper puree (biberli salça))
1 sprig of parsley (maydanoz)
1 1/2 tbsp salt (tuz)
1/4 tbsp black pepper (kara biber)
1/2 tbsp hot paprika (pul biber)
100 g Isot (a Turkish spice, resembling pul biber, but darker in colour, almost black)
1/2 tbsp cumin (kimyon)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 head of cos lettuce (marul)
Rinse the bulgur and allow to drain. Chop the onion, peeled tomatoes, green part of the spring onion and parsley finely. Sprinkle the bulgur onto a large flat dish and add the pieces of normal onion, tomato, salt, tomato puree, black pepper, paprika, Isot and cumin, kneading the ingredients together thoroughly with your hands. This will take about 20 minutes. Now add the meat and continue kneading. Kneading by hand will take more than an hour. The idea is that the meat is mixed so vigorously with the spices that it effectively ‘cooks’. If you like, you can use a food processor for this stage, but it will detract from the charm of making Ciğ Köfte! Kneading should result in a smooth, coherent paste. If you think the mix is a bit too dry, you can carefully add some olive oil. But it shouldn’t become sticky! The Ciğ Köfte is mixed sufficiently when you no longer find any grains of bulgur, indicating that they all are well ground. Now make oblong balls about 5 centimetres long by hand. Serve – immediately after preparation – with cos lettuce and lemon.
İçli Köfte (Stuffed Meatballs)
300 g fine bulgur
700 g minced lamb or beef
½ tbsp paprika
½ tbsp cumin
1 sprig parsley
2 tbsp creamy butter (tereyağ)
500 g pine nuts
50 g dried currants
100 g walnuts (chopped)
Oil (for frying)
Rusk crumbs or crumbs of old bread
Finely chop the onions and parsley. Melt the butter in a pan and fry the onion and pine nuts on a low heat until they are golden brown. Now add half of the meat together with the dried currants. Fry until the minced meat is completely browned and there is no remaining liquid. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped parsley, salt, black pepper and crushed walnuts. Allow to stand.
Now rinse the bulgur and allow to drain. Add the paprika, cumin, salt, a glass of cold water and knead all the ingredients thoroughly together by hand for about half an hour. When the bulgur turns into a kind of paste, add the rest of the meat and continue kneading for 15 minutes.
Use the mix to make little balls which fit in the palm of your hand. Make a hole in the balls with your index finger and hollow them out a little. Now fill each ball with the nut mixture and close them into a kind of oblong shape. Next add 6 glasses of water and salt to a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Put the Köfte in the water as soon as it boils and continue boiling for 15-20 minutes. Remove them from the water using a spoon and allow to cool. Dip them one by one in a mixture of egg and breadcrumbs and fry them in the oil until they are golden brown.
This article was published in Hello Alanya Magazine April 2007 and updated online in August 2017