Middle Eastern Delicacies Make Grand Entrance in American Markets
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
As a child growing up in the United States, there were very few Middle Eastern restaurants, except for a couple of good-quality falafel shops. Hummus wasn’t even considered cool then, just some creamy beige paste my parents slathered on my pita sandwiches to the shock and horror of my classmates. Fast forward a few decades and Arab restaurants have proliferated around the country, with lines of people snaking around the block to feed their cravings for kebabs, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush. Hummus has been kidnapped and hijacked with offensive flavors like gingerbread, chocolate mint, and yes, even cherry cheesecake. Vegan YouTubers obsess over tahini and douse the proverbial liquid gold on everything from oatmeal to sweet potatoes to tofu. Shakshuka, dukkah, za’atar, knafeh, and now even kibbeh has a prominent place on Trader Joe’s supermarket shelves.
Since Trader Joes keeps a laser sharp focus on food trends, you know Middle Eastern food has arrived when something as obscure a delicacy as kibbeh is now part of their frozen food collection. Traditionally kibbeh is made from finely ground meat, cracked wheat (bulgur), onions and spices. Between the grinding and mixing of the meat, bulgur and spices, and the shaping of each croquette, this is one of the more time consuming specialties to make. So, a shortcut would surely bring relief to many who love kibbeh but don’t have the time to make it.
The word kibbeh itself is an ancient Akkadian word that was introduced into Aramaic. This originally Assyrian dish is now a staple all over Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. There are hundreds of different types of kibbeh incorporating ingredients from lamb, fish, chicken, potatoes, rice, lentils, seafood, and even pumpkin. But the quintessential and most popular flavor and shape is the deep-fried croquette made with lamb in the shape of a football. This is the version Trader Joe’s chose for its product line.
So how does the Trader Joe’s version of kibbeh stack up against the traditional home-cooked variety? The mass-produced croquette lacks nuanced additions that make the flavors and textures pop, like onions and pine nuts. The onions provide a lightness, sweetness and moisture to an otherwise dense and meaty appetizer. Trader Joe’s spices are also a bit off, with heavy notes of coriander and cumin instead of allspice and a dash of cinnamon. However, looking at the final product as a whole, Trader Joe’s has done a fine job of turning a niche specialty into an easy and accessible treat for today’s busy lifestyle. At the moment the packaging says “Middle Eastern-inspired,” which doesn’t give this product its due credit. No one says sushi is “Japanese-inspired” or lasagna is “Italian-inspired.” If Trader Joes wants to profit off this popular dish, it would be nice if they acknowledged and credited the people behind this food by understanding the cultural history. Kibbeh is unmistakably Middle Eastern, not just “inspired.”
To see a kibbeh tasting and review through the lens of two Arab food experts, click on the video below:
You can of course create your own exceptional quality kibbeh at home. As an alternative to the football shape, there is also a variation called “Kibbeh Suniyeh,” where the kibbeh is baked casserole style. Two crunchy yet moist layers of seasoned ground meat and bulgur wheat envelope a filling of braised meat and pine-nuts. The ingredients are basically the same, the only difference is the method. The following recipe includes the techniques for both the croquette and casserole styles.
To see a video tutorial on this click here:
3 cups of bulgur wheat (the finest kind, #1) 3 cups hot water
1 pound of ground beef 1 pound chili cut lamb
½ onion pureed 2 cloves of garlic
2 small onions diced 2 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp cinnamon Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp olive oil 2 tbsp melted for brushing the top
½ cup pine nuts sautéed for 2 minutes in 1 tbs. olive oil
3 tbsp melted butter, divided
Boil three cups of water and pour over the bulgur wheat in a large bowl. Set aside for 30 minutes. In the meantime, heat 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in a large skillet. Add the chile cut lamb, salt and pepper to taste, and sauté until browned. Add the onions and garlic and continue to sauté until the onions are soft and all of the liquid released from the meat has evaporated. Mix in the pine nuts. Set lamb mixture aside. Now it’s time to drain the bulgur wheat. Drain the bulgur and squeeze out all of the water with a towel. In about three batches, place the bulgur and ground beef in the food processor and blend until it makes a paste. If you have a large enough food processor you may be able to do this all at once. Place the meat mixture in a bowl, and add the pureed onions, salt, pepper, allspice, and cinnamon. Work with your hands until the ingredients are incorporated. If you want to make a kibbeh casserole, butter a 13 by 7 inch baking dish. Take half of the ground beef mixture, and spread on the bottom. Then take the lamb filling and spread that on top. Finally take the other half of the ground beef layer and spread that over the filling. Brush the top with the remaining 2 tbsp melted butter, and bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until the top is browned.
To make the kibbeh croquette style, separate the beef “dough” into 3 inch balls. Roll each one into a football shape, then poke your finger through one end, scoop about 1 tbs. of lamb filling in the middle, and pinch the other side closed. Once you have made all of the kibbehs, use about 2 cups of vegetable oil (like sunflower or avocado oil) in the deep fryer, and heat until a piece of bread bubbles and floats at the top. Deep fry the kibbeh 5 at a time until golden brown, place on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve immediately.
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the YouTube cooking show called Feast in the Middle East, and cookbook author. For more authentic and classical Middle Eastern recipes, you can now purchase her brand new cookbook: “Feast in the Middle East, A Personal Journey of Family and Cuisine” by clicking HERE:https://secure.mybookorders.com/Orderpage/2189
To check out her cooking video tutorials and other recipes follow Blanche on
Facebook: Blanche’s Feast In the Middle East