Kebabs are ground meat or pieces of chicken, beef, or lamb that are skewered and typically cooked over glowing hot charcoal. One of the signatures of great kebabs is a lengthy marination process in which ingredients such as yogurt, fresh citrus, onions, and spices build in flavors and tenderize the meat.
This is Kabob Barg, one of the most tender and satisfying styles of kebab in Iran. It is quite different from other styles, because it uses a particularly delicate cut of meat, such as filet mignon, ribeye, or sirloin. Barg is the Farsi word for leaf, referencing the thinness of the meat in this kebab style.
Preparing the kebabs
The meat is first butterflied and cut into thin layers, followed by the classic tenderizing technique of pounding the entire surface of the meat with the blunt edge of the knife. The tenderized pieces are then marinated for a minimum of 2 hours or as long as overnight in a combination of onion juice, freshly squeezed lime juice, and a small amount of saffron water.
Saffron, a mainstay in Persian cuisine, is used in both sweet and savory dishes, and is one of the critical elements of this kebab, offering its unique flavor, scent, and color. Traditionally, saffron threads are ground into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle, and then bloomed in a small amount of water.
Cooking the kebabs
The traditional, preferred method of cooking kebabs is to use long metal skewers which are suspended directly over hot charcoal without a grill grate, so that there is no cooking surface for the meat to stick to.
Gas grills can also do the trick with a slight modification. Place a brick or square metal pipe on each side of the grill to create a ledge to rest the skewers on. The bricks or pipes must be at least 1.5 inches high to ensure that the meat skewers will not touch the grill grate.
Serving the kebabs
Kabob Barg is normally served with an assortment of grilled vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers; heaping amounts of steamed basmati rice; some pickled vegetables; a handful of fresh herbs; and yogurt. This may be a plain, tart yogurt or one of many mixed yogurt dishes that have cucumbers and mint or minced shallots blended into the yogurt mixture.
These days, I prepare Kabob Barg mainly for special occasions when I want to share this remarkable dish with friends and family. What stands out most to those trying these kebabs for the first time is how incredibly tender, succulent, and flavorful they are. This is, of course, no accident!
I don’t recall whether this type of kebab was prepared at home when I was growing up in Iran, perhaps because it was more traditional to eat kebabs at restaurants. These days, when traveling and visiting new Persian restaurants, my eyes always glance over the selection of kebabs as a force of habit.
- 1 large onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, ground
- 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron, mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
- 2 pounds filet mignon
- Grate the onion using a food processor or a hand grater. Place the onion in a fine mesh strainer over a mixing bowl and squeeze out all the juice from the onion. Discard the pulp.
- Add the remaining ingredients except the meat, and mix well to form the marinade. Set aside.
- Place the filet mignon on a cutting board and using a sharp knife cut it into equal size pieces, each about 3-4 inches long. You will likely have about 6 pieces.
- Carefully begin to butterfly the first piece by making 2 horizontal cuts from opposite sides. The first cut should be one third of the way down from the top, and should extend about three quarters of the way across the piece. Be sure not to cut all the way through.
- Flip the piece over and make the second horizontal cut from the opposite side to the first cut. This should again be one third of the way down from the top, extending about three quarters of the way across the piece. At the end, the filet piece will be in the shape of an S, which when flipped open will be about one third of its original thickness.
- Butterfly the remaining filet pieces in the same way.
- Using the blunt edge of your knife (with the cutting edge pointing up), begin tenderizing the meat by pounding the knife all the way across each butterflied filet piece. While you don't want to push all the way through the meat, you do want to exert enough force to properly tenderize it. The meat should be about half its original thickness after this process.
- Place the tenderized filet pieces in a shallow pan, and pour the marinade over them.
- Cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or preferably overnight.
- After the meat has marinated, prepare your charcoal or gas grill well in advance of grilling to make sure that the grill is hot and ready by the time you have skewered the kebabs.
- Remove the filet pieces from the fridge and place them on a cutting board to begin the skewering process. Flat and long skewers are necessary for this style of kebab.
- Place one hand on the top of the first filet piece, and gently and carefully push a skewer through the meat until it is firmly secured. Repeat until all the kebabs have been skewered.
- Place the skewers over the grill and cook the kebabs for 6-8 minutes depending on the temperature and strength of your gas grill. Be sure to rotate the skewers frequently for even cooking. You will notice that as the kebabs cook they will get firmer and no longer droop over the skewers.
- Serve Kabob Barg with grilled vegetables, flatbread of your choice, or a pot of steamed basmati rice.