Recipe and Photography by Giselle Kennedy Lord
Adapted from an afternoon with Aida Ajaka in Buenos Aires
I was essentially raised on kibbi. The women of my Lebanese-American family cooked this most quintessential of Lebanese dishes for the lion’s share of our holidays and family gatherings. But while kibbi is a prominent mainstay of Lebanese cuisine, it is not unique to Lebanese food culture. The long-standing tradition of kibbi is shared by neighboring countries throughout the Levant, like Syria and Palestine, and belies their shared Ottoman history. Kibbi is a recipe that developed before the Empire was broken into the countries we now know in the Eastern Mediterranean. It belongs to none and within all of those present-day borders.
There are seemingly countless ways to prepare kibbi. It is ground to a paste in a jidurn and prepared raw. Multiple layers are pressed into baking dishes and scored into small diamonds. Some choose to shape the mixture into small spheres and stuff them with seasoned meat and pine nuts. But kibbi, at its most basic and its roots, is characterized simply by the combination of minced meat and bulgur. Bulgur is native to the Levant and is an unsurprising mainstay of cuisines of the Middle East. The type of meat and additions to the dish are, of course, tied to the landscape in which they are prepared, as are all recipes and food traditions. Kibbi has made its way to impressively diverse communities around the globe as family recipes have moved with people and are adapted to their new homes just the same as the cooks. And so there are stories to tell about tradition, origin, and migration in the nuances of the world’s kibbi recipes, and this recipe is part of Aida’s story.
Aida makes kibbi much the way my family does, which is the version I have most commonly seen and experienced. The recipe here is a version of Aida's preparation when I captured her story for “Kibbi and Kinship.” It includes beef and bell peppers, the signature and distinguishing ingredients of many Argentine kibbi recipes. It is a testament that food traditions immigrate and adapt right along with the people that carry them. Sahtein!
Serves 2-3 people
1 cup of dry bulgur
1 medium onion
1 bell pepper
1 pound beef
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon seven-spice mix
Stainless steel bowl
Cheese grater of food processor
Small casserole dish
A very sharp knife
A bowl of ice water
Turn your oven on to 375º Fahrenheit, and butter a small casserole dish generously.
Place the bulgur in a large bowl and pour just enough almost-boiling water over it to cover. Let sit until the wheat softens, about 10 minutes. (Alternately, pour room temperature water over the bulgur and allow it to soak for about an hour). Once soft, use a cheesecloth or your hands to squeeze as much moisture as possible out of the soaked bulgur. Set aside.
Grate or process the onions. The cheese grater is more laborious for this step, yes, but it the runnier result allows the meat and onion to meld in a magical way. Chopping these thoroughly in a food processor is a perfectly good option. You want them minced and a little watery but not puréed.
Remove the stem and seeds from the bell pepper and chop into very small pieces.
Prep a bowl of ice water to dip your hands in occasionally. Make it very cold. This will keep the meat cold (very important) and also keep it from sticking to your hands.
Combine the bulgur, onion, bell pepper and beef in a stainless steel bowl (this also helps keep it cold). Start working it all together with your ice-cold hands. When these four ingredients begin to come together, add your salt and seven spice mix. Keep mixing with your hands until everything is well incorporated. Use your thumb and forefinger to roll a small piece of the kibbi mix into a ball. If it holds together, you are ready for the casserole dish.
Use the palm of your hand (after you dip it in that ice water again) to press the mix into the casserole dish. You want to actually press it in there with the weight of your palm so that it becomes fairly dense and will hold together in baking. Repeat until you have used all of the mix.
Rinse your knife in that ice water and begin cutting the kibbi from one corner of the dish to the other. Replicate lines in the same direction about two inches apart. Begin the same pattern again from the middle of the shorter side of your dish. You are cutting all the way through to the bottom of the dish so that you will have small diamond-shaped pieces when you finish, and the butter you’re about to put on top will make its way into the crevices. This part is rumored to be a little tricky, use the photo as a reference.
Place several small pieces of butter on top of the kibbi, at the corners of the diamonds you just made.
Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until you know it’s done because it smells just right.
Serve with something fresh and slightly acidic. I love to eat kibbi with hearty spoonfuls of plain yogurt on top. Sometimes I make my mother’s cucumber salad by adding chopped cucumber, dried mint, lemon and garlic to the yogurt for an even more refreshing side.
About Giselle Kennedy Lord
Giselle is wild about chickpeas. She holds an MLA in gastronomy from Boston University and was named James Beard National Scholar Northwest in 2018. Giselle first pointed her camera at food and its people over a decade ago, she tells culinary stories about the Lebanese diaspora in the Americas, and works for Slow Food USA.