When people hear I grew up in Deal, N.J., I’m often met with shock: “You don’t look Syrian.” It’s true, I’m about as Syrian as Albert Einstein (after all, we both have roots in Germany and the same hair style in the morning). While I may not be Syrian, like anyone who’s spent a chunk of their childhood in Deal, I know what a good kibbeh tastes like.
Kibbeh, sambusak (the Middle Eastern answer to a calzone), and lachmagine (a sweet Middle Eastern meat pizza) earned their own food group in Deal. They’re like tiny heart attacks that fit in the palm of your hand and make your whole body quiver with delight. One bite and you’re sinking your teeth through the crisp bulgur based dough and into the delicious ground beef hidden inside. As a friend to kibbeh-eating professionals, I even knew the secret of squeezing a bit of lemon juice to throw the flavors over the top.
A legendary cookbook from my old hometown, Aromas of Allepo by Poopa Dwek, describes the classic Syrian dish as a good way to judge a cook’s true culinary skills. Poopa writes that the women of Aleppo were known throughout the Middle East for their kibbeh-making prowess and hostesses would be judged by their nimble and mystical “kibbeh finger,” which showed their ability to create the perfect meat-filled torpedo.
The thing is, the kibbeh I just described is good, but despite the intense amount of work put into them, they aren’t great. The flavor of most kibbehs are pretty simplistic and have difficulty overcoming the taste of the oil they’re fried in. Worse, most kibbeh come from your local supermarket. Pale as albino ghosts (remember, we’re not actually Syrian), when my family served kibbeh we didn’t have a bubbe to call for the recipe; instead, we headed for the frozen food aisle. Those kibbehs, tightly wrapped and lovingly made by a machine, were like dog food wrapped in thick dough. A glorified corn dog, shove a stick in it and people might walk around Coney Island munching on them. Instead of taking you and your taste buds for ride, it makes you want to tug on someone’s sleeve and ask when you’re leaving. Most people end up serving these tasteless frozen kibbehs and many don’t know what they are supposed to taste like.
This recipe is nothing like store bought kibbeh—for one thing, its flavor profile belongs in the Far East not the Middle East. Instead of wrapping up some bland meat in simplistic dough seasoned by a deep freeze, I ramped up the meat’s flavor and covered it in sushi rice. In this recipe you don’t taste oil, you taste the wonders of Japanese cuisine. For a nice twist, I coated it in panko breadcrumbs so you get the ever-so-yummy crunch that fresh kibbeh is known for.
There are really three elements to the dish, the rice, the meat, and the dipping sauce. They balance themselves out, so don’t skip any part of them. Agemono means fried foods in Japanese and there is no lack of them. This fresh take on kibbeh is based on Japanese cuisine as it flirts with the heavily fried classic Syrian dish. Creating this delicacy is no small feat and is a bit of work, but you won’t have any difficulty making them disappear.
Not Your Bubbe’s Kibbeh
Makes about 30
2 cups of sushi rice
2 cups of water
2 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
2 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 lb ground beef
3 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 cup cilantro, diced
1/4 scallions, diced
1/2 tbsp ginger
Salt and pepper to taste
Panko bread crumbs
3/4 cup sake
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
3/4 tbsp ginger
1 1/2 tbsp corn flour
3 medium bowls
1 large bowl
1 frying pan
1 large Pyrex
1. Boil 2 cups of water over a medium high heat.
2. Add the rice and cover it, allowing it to cook for 20 minutes.
3. Once it’s cooked, let it sit off the flame with its cover for 10 minutes. Once the rice is cool, toss it with the rest of the rice ingredients.
4. While you wait for your rice to cool, combine the filling ingredients in a large bowl.
5. Now start working on forming your kibbeh agemono. Fill one bowl with water, this water will help prevent the sticky sushi rice from staying on your hand. Fill a second bowl with your eggs and beat them. In a third bowl, place 1/2 tbsp of ginger with a cup of panko breadcrumbs. You will need to refill your breadcrumbs bowl, and when you do, be sure to keep the ginger to panko bread crumbs ratio. I recommend setting up your bowls in a row in order to keep things neat.
6. Make a train of bowls. Start with the water, then the rice, the meat filling, eggs, and then the breadcrumb mixture. This way you will have an easier and quicker process when shaping your kibbeh agemono.
7. Dip your hands into the bowl of water.
8. Cover the palm of your hand and part of your fingers with a flat and cohesive layer of rice. It should almost look like your hand is covered with a carpet of sushi rice.
9. In the middle of your rice, place a small ball of your filling.
10. Close your hand, as if you are making a fist. By doing so, you should be covering the filling with rice. You may need to pinch the ends slightly. Squeeze the kibbeh slightly to make sure it’s secure.
11. Dip your freshly shaped kibbeh into the eggs, and then coat it generously in Panko bread crumbs. Set each kibbeh aside until you are done making all your kibbeh.
12. Repeat these last few steps until you run out of filling or rice. Make sure to always stick your hands in the water because if you don’t, your sushi rice will stick to you and not the meat. Don’t worry if the first few look a bit sloppy, there’s a small learning curve with these. You need to find a way that’s comfortable for you to operate in order for them to be shaped nicely.
13. Fill a large frying pan with oil over a medium high heat.
14. Once the oil is hot, fry your kibbeh until they are golden brown on each side.
15. While you wait for the oil to heal, cover a Pyrex with paper towels. These will soak up some of the unnecessary oil.
16. Next, make your dipping sauce: Start by heating a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Place all of the sauce’s ingredients into the pan except for the corn flour.
17. Gradually whisk the corn flour into the sauce. Be sure to do this carefully in order to prevent it from clumping together. Continue to whisk the sauce until it simmers and thickens, which should take about ten minutes.
18. Serve the sauce and kibbeh hot, and watch people happily burn their tongues on them.
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