However you spell or pronounce them, Kebabs, Kebobs, or Kababs are meat dishes that take pride of place alongside other dishes in Persian cuisine. They are typically small pieces of seasoned whole or ground beef, lamb, chicken, or seafood that are generally skewered and grilled.
Mention “Ka-bob” (the Farsi pronunciation) to an Iranian, and it inevitably evokes deep and sentimental memories and associations to this widely popular element of Persian cuisine. Kebabs are prepared and served throughout the cities, whether at a posh establishment, a local food cart or a grand bazaar. The sights, sounds, and aromas of Kebabs being grilled are all so familiar, and Kebab houses are often referenced as landmarks for giving directions.
There are many clear reasons why Kebabs are so tasty: the addition of spices, lengthy marination with grated onions, and grilling over hot charcoal to name a few. What is perhaps less obvious is how using simple but good quality ingredients in conjunction with creative techniques can also be a significant contributor to creating the proper texture and flavor profile. In my cooking journey, learning to embrace simplicity while gaining the knowledge of various traditions and techniques has been exceptionally rewarding.
More on the topic of techniques later.
Kebabs are generally grilled with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, or other vegetables. They are then served with slices of flatbread and heaping amounts of steamed rice smothered in butter and egg yolks, and topped with tangy and brilliantly-colored Sumac. Fresh herbs and raw onions are the most common side dishes.
My fondest memories of Kebabs in Iran are of restaurants along the side of the road while vacationing by the Caspian Sea. Also, at home, frequently on Fridays, my father would grill Kebabs on our small table-top gas grill. My mother would have already prepared a large pot of rice while we eagerly anticipated the completion of the grilling process. Fridays are particularly special in Iranian culture as it is our weekend, and consequently, there were special programming for kids on TV! Sometimes, I was allowed to have my Kebab in front of the TV, a rare but much-cherished occasion!
Kebab details and techniques
- When it comes to animal protein, I am always a big proponent of good quality grass fed meat, and sustainable and humane practices.
- It is always best to use fresh and not previously frozen ground meat that is 80 to 85% lean. This ratio of meat to fat creates an optimal texture for the meat paste to adhere to the skewer while still remaining moist.
- Kebabs can be made with beef, lamb or equal portions of both.
- Perhaps one of the most important aspect of making Kebab properly is the kneading technique. Knead the meat much like you would knead a dough! The meat and other ingredients are kneaded for about 5 minutes to create a highly homogeneous and somewhat sticky paste that properly sticks to the skewer and hold its shape while grilling.
- The traditional and preferred method is to suspend the Kebabs directly over hot charcoals without a grill grate, to prevent the meat sticking to the grate and falling off the skewers.
- Gas grills will also do the trick with a slight modification. Place a couple of bricks or square metal pipes on opposite sides of the grill to create a ledge to rest the skewers on. The bricks or pipes need to be at least 1.5 inches tall to make sure that the meat on the skewers will not touch the grill grate. These can be purchased at your local hardware or home improvement stores.
- Alternatively, Kebabs can be cooked in an oven. Place the metal skewers over the edges of a baking sheet and broil on high heat, about 4 minutes on each side.
- Lastly and perhaps one of the most important steps is to pay attention to the rotation process. Once the skewers have been placed on the grill, they will need to be rotated within 15 seconds. This quick rotation step ensures that the meat begins to cook evenly on both sides and prevents the meat from falling off the skewers. Once each sides has been grilled for 15 seconds, continue to grill the Kebabs about 4 minutes on each side.
It’s no secret that Iranians and other Middle Easterners love their Kebabs, and sometimes a focus on Kebabs in Persian restaurants eclipses other dishes. Fortunately, that trend is beginning to shift, and now more attention is being given to all the glorious stews and rice dishes that add to the complexity and flavor of Persian cuisine. Either way, I’m happy to be sharing this simple but delicious Kebab that highlights some of the specific cooking traditions and techniques.
- 1 medium onion, grated and juice squeezed and saved
- 1 pound ground beef or lamb, 80-85% lean
- 1 teaspoon salt, adjust to your taste
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, ground
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, ground
- 1 teaspoon sumac, optional
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon onion juice
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 onion, quartered
- 4 roma tomatoes
- 2 green bell peppers, quartered
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Grate the onions and remove the juice by lighting pressing it through a fine mesh sieve. Save the juice for later.
- Place the grated onion in a medium sized mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients.
- Thoroughly knead the mixture for about 5 minutes to create a smooth paste-like consistency. This is a very important step to make sure the meat proteins have been properly bound and to ensure the meat paste will stay on the skewers.
- Place the mixture in the fridge for 30 minutes for proper marination and resting time.
- If using a charcoal grill, be sure to start the coals about 30 minutes before grilling the Kebabs. If using a gas grill, be sure to have the grill turned on for 15 minutes before grilling to bring the temperature towards 450°F. See notes for specific grilling recommendations.
- Begin by dividing the meat mixture into 4 equal pieces. Each piece will then need to be shaped into a 4-5 inch long oval shaped pieces.
- Using the spare onion juice, dampen your hands as necessary and place the oval shaped meat paste against the edge of the wide metal skewers.
- Slowly stretch and squeeze the meat paste along the skewer until you have a 6-7 inch long Kebab that is roughly 1/2 to 2/3 inch thick.
- Make sure to thoroughly squeeze the edges of the meat paste around the skewer to ensure you have a solid piece of kebab that is firmly attached to the skewer.
- Using your thumb and index finger gently press into the meat mixture to create uniform indentations that are about 1 inch apart. This step creates a traditional design as well as further ensuring the meat paste is firmly pressed into the skewers.
- Place the skewers directly over the flame and flip them within 15 seconds of placing them on the grill. Grill the meat for another 15 seconds before flipping back.
- This quick flipping ensures that both sides of the meat begin cooking immediately and ensures the meat stays on the skewer.
- Grill the Kebabs for about 4 minutes on each side, taking extra care to not over cook them. The Kebabs should be visibly darkened and seared while still remaining juicy on the inside.
- Baste the Kebabs on both sides right before removing them from the grill. Place the skewers on a serving platter.
- To remove the Kebabs from the skewer, place a large enough piece of flat bread on one hand and press the kebab out away from you on to the platter.
- Since vegetables take longer to grill than the Kebabs, plan on grilling them first.
- Slide each cut vegetable along the 1/4 inch metal skewers and brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
- Place the vegetable skewers over the grill and cook until the vegetables are properly grilled.
- Remove from the grill and set aside on a platter.
- Serve the Kebabs with Persian flatbread, steamed basmati rice, butter, sumac, fresh herbs and raw onions.
- It is also traditional to mix a single egg yolk along with butter right into the steaming hot rice which is then immediately mixed to create a creamy and rich rice.