Mountainous balls of stuffed, fried beef, flat trays of oven-baked meat pie, fresh, raw minced goat collecting pools of olive oil: kibbeh – one of Lebanon’s national dishes – is as diverse as the country’s geography.
The fundamental elements of kibbeh are lean meat (or meat substitute), scoops of cracked bulgur wheat and salt, according to taste. What happens next depends on where you’re staying for dinner.
Kibbeh is grilled, fried, baked, boiled or served raw. It’s made from whatever meat is available – goat, lamb, beef – but only the leanest cut bought directly from the local butcher.
“There’s no bad kibbeh, only bad meat. The quality of meat changes the quality of the kibbeh,” said Maria Doueihi, who regularly cooks for Beirut’s Tawlet, a buffet-style restaurant that brings in cooks from around Lebanon to prepare their local fare.
Doueihi hails from the northern town of Zghorta, which claims the title as the country’s kibbeh capital. “It’s our national dish, but people come to Zghorta from abroad just to eat kibbeh,” she said. “We’ve had three presidents of the republic come from Zghorta, but still people talk about kibbeh when you say Zghorta.”
Traditional Zghorta kibbeh, or kibbeh Zghortawiyeh, is characterized by its large size and round hat shape. The kibbeh is stuffed with various ingredients, sometimes garlic and dried mint, sauteed onion and meat or animal fat taken from the tissue around the kidney.
Kibbeh is deep-fried in many regions of Lebanon, but don’t let Zghorta’s healthy grill marks fool you. Chunks of animal fat melt inside the tennis ball-sized kibbeh, and create what Doueihi described as a Molotov cocktail of flavor. Local kibbeh recipes depend in large part on what ingredients have been traditionally available.
For example, Zghorta’s raw kibbeh – a dish called kibbeh nayyeh – is made from goat because the animal roams the mountainous north. “The goat goes up, up, up to the top of the mountain to eat the freshest herbs and drink the purest water,” Doueihi said. Because of this, locals believe goat meat has the freshest flavor, and they keep the preparation minimal to emphasize its clean taste.
To the minced meat, Doueihi adds bulgur, salt, a little pepper and ice to marry the ingredients, she said. Indeed Doueihi’s goat meat kibbeh nayyeh was absent of the gaminess sometimes present in local beef or lamb, which also contain more fat.