I always laugh when the mother in law in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is flabbergasted that her son in law doesn’t eat meat. A Lebanese version of that would be: “You don’t eat no Kibbeh? Kiff ya3neh? Ba3milak kibbet batata? Tayeb kibbet la2’tin? Shou? El borghol bya3milak nafkha! Ma a3m bifham!” (What do you mean? Shall I make you a potato kibbeh? How about a pumkin kibbe then? What? You feel bloated after eating bulgur? I don’t get it!)
Fruit, vegetables, rice, and bread out-weigh the amount of meat eaten in the average Lebanese meal. However, the national dish, kibbeh consists of ground lamb, beef, or goat meat that is kneaded in spices and soaked bulgur. The word is derived from the Arabic kubbah meaning ball.
The traditional preparation of kibbeh nayeh (raw meat) is a true culinary experience. The village women with strong arms rhythmically pounding the meat and sea salt, in a jorn (a large stone mortar). In regular motions they would beat the meat with a modakka (a heavy solid wood pestle). The process is time consuming and strenuous. When the meat is perfectly smooth, they’d run a knife through it and the blade would catch any unwanted bits such as sinews. This ‘de-veining’ process as it was called, was an essential step before combining the meat, by hand, with mashed onions, a hint of mint, pepper and rinsed bulgur. With the advent of the electric grinder and food processor this ancient method of kibbeh-making has all but stopped, except in some rural villages.
Kibbeh comes in different shapes and sizes: some are round, some are small, some have meat, and some are vegetarian. Kibbeh can be poached, fried, grilled, baked, or eaten raw. Kibbeh’s mixture of meat and wheat was most likely born centuries ago from necessity, adding bulgur yields double the meat and feeds a bigger family.
Interestingly, depending on the region and its topography, how the kebbeh is being prepared and with what varies differently. It depends on the land and which animal, herbs, and spices naturally grow on it. Zghorta’s kibbeh nayyeh (raw meat) is made from goat because the animal roams the mountainous north. Yet in coastal towns like Tripoli, some use plentiful meats like fish to make kibbeh and follow the same process.
Here is a list of kibbeh dishes from the North to the South:
- Kibbeh A’raas: shaped like an oval pingpong ball stuffed with a filling of spiced, minced beef or lamb, onions, and pine nuts fried until brown. British soldiers in the Middle East during the Second World War used to call these kibbeh “Syrian torpedoes”.
- Kibbeh bi Laban: same as above but cooked in a yogurt sauce with rice over low fire.
- Kibbeh bi Kishek: fermented milk and bulgur that’s been ground into a powder, prepared mostly in the Bekaa Valley.
- Kibbeh Zaghartawiye: (the rolls Royce of Kibbeh) from Zgharta, is the size of a tennis ball, shaped like a hat, stuffed with various ingredients, sometimes garlic and dried mint, sautéed onion and meat or animal fat, grilled on fire.
- Kibbeh saniyeh: is made of a mixture of finely ground meat (lamb or beef), bulgur, onion, mint and spices pressed into a flat baking pan. This dish consists of two layers (top and bottom) with a ground meat/onion/pine nut mix (hashwi) in between. Then it is scored with a knife into diamond shapes.
- Kibbet batata: potato kibbeh prepared in the Bekaa, especially Ein Zebde and Saghbine. It’s made from potatoes and bulgur, stuffed with yogurt, meat or awarma and fried or grilled until very crispy.
- Kibbet la’tin: pumkin Kibbeh
- Kibbeh arnabiyeh: eaten in Beirut, with tahini and citrus fruits sauce
- Kibbeh jnoubieh: raw meat with bulgur dipped in a herbal mix called tihwishe (literally meaning gathered herbs) composed mostly of a herb specific to the area Mardashoush.
- Kibbet Samak: fish kebbeh, in costal towns like Tripoli. The minced fish and bulgur is shaped into balls, stuffed with onions or pine nuts, and fried.
- Frakeh: typical of the South area. It’s raw meat with a local blend of spices called kammouneh. The word comes from the Arabic word for cumin mixed with aromatic spices and herbs (Marjoram, wild mint, basil, rose petals, wild cress, geranium leaves and others), and bulgur, which result in the green, spicy mix called Frakeh.
- Kibbet Hommos: In the north, made with chickpeas
- Chouf region local villages prepare the kibbeh sauce with thick labneh yogurt and awarma, a preserve of lamb mixed in its own fat.
- Vospov Kofte: In Burj Hammoud, they serve up moist balls of red lentil kibbeh alongside onions, parsley and seasoned with sumac.
- In Saida, Kibbeh is stuffed with butter, hot pepper, and walnuts.
- Kibbeh nayeh: raw meat close to steak tartar. Usually prepared with goat meat and its preparation is kept minimal to emphasize its clean taste. To the minced meat, they add bulgur, salt, a little pepper and ice to marry the ingredients and it is eaten with fresh onions and some mint leaves.
Kibbeh is not simply a dish, but a fraction of time and region that stands still in everyone’s memory. It’s a stamp of every area’s geography. It’s a beautiful culinary journey that one can take from the south all the way to the North on how food slight nuances vary from different regions, becoming a culinary national pride and a labor of love.