Shami is often referred to as a meat patty, though realistically it is more about herbs and ground walnuts than it is about the meat. Throughout Iran, you will find a multitude of Shami varieties using different types of meat, often with added chickpeas, yellow split peas, or red lentils.
This version from the Caspian Sea region was one of my favorite dishes when I was growing up. Though I had no idea of the effort that went into preparing them, I knew there was something very special about these patties. There was nothing ordinary about them: Mom used her finger to poke a hole in their centers, so they came in a form you’d more often associate with a bagel or a donut. And all the herbs transformed the meat into something incredibly tasty, rich, and aromatic. I can still remember the scent that would emanate from the kitchen, signaling that mom was cooking Shami again!
The Story of Shami
Quite a few years ago I was researching this dish for one of my local Persian cooking classes. Every book I looked through and every recipe I read highlighted the complexity and the subtlety of techniques, and above all the importance of using a meat grinder. These were very common in Iranian kitchens, unlike other equipment such as blenders, electric mixers, and food processors.
Meat and onions, and sometimes chickpeas, yellow split peas or red lentils, would initially be cooked in a pot with water, and then various herbs and turmeric would be added as the mixture continued to cook. Once cooked fully, any excess liquid would be strained out. Along with walnuts, the mixture would then get pushed through a meat grinder to create a homogeneous, rich, creamy and herbal meat paste. A few eggs would then be added for binding, and the mixture would be formed into patties.
I have never owned a meat grinder, and frankly haven’t found myself pining for one. So when it came time to try out this recipe, I wanted to simplify it and looked for shortcuts. I would be teaching this class to non-Iranians, who would likely approach food, cooking, and the time spent to create a dish very differently than how my grandmother and traditional Persian culture would dictate.
I bypassed what I now know to be the most crucial part of this cooking process by skipping the initial cooking of the meat along with the herbs. I used ground meat, and added chopped herbs and ground walnuts along with the appropriate seasonings. I quickly formed the mixture into patties, put the signature hole in the middle, and proceeded to fry them. There was a familiarity to the appearance and the aroma, but while they actually tasted great they were just not Shami! Essentially they were herbed hamburgers without the depth of flavor that is only achieved when the meat cooks together with the herbs.
I reached out to my mother, aka my personal Persian food Google search. She was visiting family in Iran at the time, so we ended up having a video chat, quite a novelty years before we all got on Zoom during this pandemic. I explained my clever shortcuts, and showed her the patties being fried. Suffice to say, she did not approve of my methods!
These days I do at least cook meat, onion and herbs together first. I still don’t own a meat grinder, but turn to my food processor as a substitute, and it gets the job done. Small amounts of the cooked meat, onions and herbs are placed inside the food processor one batch at a time and pulsed until a semi-ground meat texture is achieved. It’s a compromise between honoring the rituals and working with what you’ve got!
While it’s okay to look for shortcuts in cooking, this was a great reminder of how some work out fine, but others leave you shortchanged on texture or flavor.
One final observation: Shami is similar to the word Sham, which means dinner in Farsi. Maybe these hearty meat patties used to be served only at dinner time. In any case, I make Shami for lunch or for dinner, but I still appreciate and honor the wisdom and traditions of my elders who took such pride in nourishing their families without shortcuts!
- 1.5 pound beef, chuck roast or round
- 2 onions, quartered
- 2 1/2 cups water, adjust as necessary
- 2 bunches fresh parsley, the tougher end of the stems removed
- 2 bunches fresh cilantro, the tougher end of the stems removed
- 8 green onions, or about 1/2 cup green Nira
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, ground
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, ground
- 1 cup walnuts, ground
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup oil, adust as needed for fying
- Place the beef, onions and water in a large pot and bring to a gentle boil.
- Simmer on low heat, covered, for 1 hour.
- Add the herbs, 1 teaspoon of salt, the pepper and turmeric, and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes.
- At this point, there should not be a substantial amount of liquid left in the pot.
- Using a colander, strain the mixture and press lightly to extract as much moisture as you can so that the meat mixture is not too wet. Set aside.
- Place the walnuts in the food processor and pulse until you have a fine ground. Remove and place in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
- Place the meat and herbs mixture in batches in the food processor and pulse until you have a roughly ground meat texture. Take extra care to not over process while also making sure there are no pieces of herbs or chunks of beef visible.
- Remove and add to the ground walnuts in the mixing bowl.
- Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the eggs, and mix well with your hands.
- Begin forming the meat patties by removing roughly 3-4 tablespoons of the mixture and rolling them into a ball. Using the palm of your hand, press the ball down to form a patty that is no thicker than 1/2 inch.
- Using your finger, push a hole through the center of the patty to create a patty that resembles a bagel. Continue until all the patties have been properly formed.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add enough oil to fry the patties about 4 minutes on each side.
- Remove from the pan and place on paper towels to remove any excess oil. Repeat until all the patties have been fried.
- Shami is served with Persian steamed rice or flatbreads, along with a platter of fresh herbs and a side of yogurt.