Colm O’Gorman: I'm making kibbeh as part of #IrelandcooksforSyria

The initiative is part of a global movement to preserve a war-torn country’s cuisine

 

A decade ago, Syria had just begun to grab the interest of food lovers, with food tours becoming a new feature of the country’s tourism industry. What excited many visitors was the diversity of Syria’s cuisine, which was itself an expression of a very multicultural country.

Syrian cuisine has evolved and developed over thousands of years of migration, trade and conquest. It is a reflection of its people, and of all who have passed through or settled in the country, be they Kurdish, Arab, Yazidi, Greek, Turkish, Palestinian, Armenian, Alawite or Assyrian.

The war that has devastated Syria has brought an abrupt end to such developments. It will be a very long time indeed before anyone travels again to Aleppo to savour the flavours of its food and its culture.

About half of Syria’s pre-war population, 11 million people, have been forced to flee their homes because of that brutal conflict. There are currently about 6.5 million people who are internally displaced, but still struggling to survive within Syria, and 4.5 million Syrian refugees outside the country.

Cultural riches

Over the past six years, the world has watched as Syria has been torn apart, its cultural riches torn asunder and its people devastated, with millions scattered to the winds, left to desperately seek shelter and protection in a world which often seems blind to their suffering.

By all accounts I’ve read, food brought people together in Syria. It’s the same everywhere in many ways isn’t it? The act of preparing and sharing food can be a wonderfully social thing. When we sit together and share good food and company, we often find the best of ourselves. We can reach beyond division or perceived difference, and come to understand each other in very simple ways.

It is for this reason that a group of Irish food bloggers decided to organise a day in solidarity with the people of Syria. A day when we would come together and cook Syrian food. A day to experience and share that country’s rich and diverse food culture.

What better way to get to know a people than to understand what, until the war disrupted their lives, was their everyday experience of preparing a meal for their families. It will also hopefully do a little to help keep alive a culture that is at risk of being destroyed by war.

Stuffed meatball

I’ve decided to make kibbeh. It’s a dish that is cooked right across the region, and has endless variations. It can be found all over Syria, and its key components are bulgur wheat, onion, spice and ground meat. It is effectively a stuffed meatball, though it is sometimes also prepared as a kind of layered meatloaf.

I chose this dish because, while it might appear a little complicated, it is a real pleasure to make. Mixing, shaping and then stuffing the kibbeh is quite meditative if you are cooking alone, but also fun to do with a few little helpers, so a great recipe to involve the kids should you wish to.

You can serve this kibbeh with warm pittas, a nice fresh salad and some thick yoghurt with a little sumac sprinkled on top and a swirl of olive oil. I opted to make a warm yoghurt sauce to go with them, which was delicious, and served warm homemade flatbreads on the side. Shop bought pittas are a fine substitute if you don’t want to make the bread.

I also made a side of Ful Medammes, a Syrian dish similar to hummus, made with fava or broad beans, and unblended. The recipe for that dish is on my blog at colmogorman.com.

Stuffed lamb kibbeh

For the dough:
500g minced lamb
375g fine bulgur wheat
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp allspice
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp of fresh chopped basil

For the stuffing:
240g minced lamb
80g of pine nuts
2 medium onions, finely chopped
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tsp of pomegranate molasses (if you don’t have this double the amount of lemon juice)
Juice of half a lemon
A good grind of black pepper
Sunflower oil to deep fry the kibbeh

Warm yoghurt sauce
500g thick Greek yoghurt
300ml chicken stock
300g baby spinach
1 medium onion finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp sea salt
2 tsp allspice
½ tsp sweet smoked paprika
A pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tsp cornflour
1 egg
Juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp chopped fresh mint
A small handful of chopped coriander
Sea salt and pepper to season

Method:
Soak the bulgur wheat in water for about 20 minutes, then rinse well. Now drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. I use a sieve lined with muslin cloth to do this, and roll the bulgur into a ball in the muslin to squeeze out all the water.

Mix the bulgur and all the other dough ingredients in a food processor. Blitz them well until you get a smooth dough-like consistency. If the mix seems a little sticky, add a small dash of cold water which will help bind it better. Transfer to a bowl and knead the dough for a few moments, then cover it with cling film and place it in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Next, on to the stuffing. Fry the chopped onions until they are soft, but haven’t taken on any colour. Add all the other stuffing ingredients and cook over a medium heat until the meat is brown. Set aside to cool.

Take your dough from the fridge and roll it into small balls, each about the size of a golf ball. This recipe makes about 20-24 kibbeh. A good tip here is to have a bowl of cold water next to you so that you can keep your hands a little wet and avoid the dough sticking to your hands as you make the kibbeh. Having your hands moist will also help you give the kibbeh a nice smooth finish.

Use your index finger or thumb to press a hole in the ball of dough, but not all the way through. Now widen the hole by pressing against inside wall of the ball, working all your way around until the ball is like a small, deep bowl with uniformly thin walls. This is really quite simple and you will get into a rhythm quite easily. Fill the bowl with a few teaspoons of the stuffing, and draw it closed, working both ends of the kibbeh into the shape of a pointed rugby ball. Repeat until you have made all your kibbeh. Set aside on a tray and prepare the warm yoghurt sauce.

Heat a little rapeseed oil in a heavy pan and fry the onion and garlic for the sauce until they are soft and translucent. Add the spinach, sweet paprika, the cayenne pepper and cook until the spinach has wilted. Add the stock, allspice and the lemon juice. Bring to the boil, and then remove from the heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the yoghurt, chopped mint, the beaten egg and the cornflour, mixed to a paste with a little water. Next, slowly add the hot spinach mixture from the pan, stirring well as you add each spoonful until the two mixtures are well combined. Add the salt and a good grind of black pepper. Taste, and add more seasoning if you think it is needed. Return to the pan and warm through on a low heat, stirring continuously. If the sauce splits a little, don’t worry, add a tablespoon of boiling water to the mix and stir gently to bring it back together. Just before you serve the sauce, sprinkle in the chopped coriander.

While you are finishing the sauce warm about one litre of sunflower oil in a deep pan, and bring to it 180 degrees Celsius. Deep fry the kibbeh until they are golden brown. Cook them in batches, draining them on kitchen paper when they are cooked.

Serve the kibbeh hot, with the warm sauce on the side and some fresh flat breads or pittas.

You will find more delicious Syrian recipes online if you search using #IrelandcooksforSyria.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. He also blogs about food and cooking at colmogorman.com

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