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Kofta: The Meatball No One Is Talking About

According to Wikipedia, “Kofta…is an Afghani, Azerbijanian, Balkan, Pakistani, Israeli, Indian, Iranian, Arab, and Turkish meatball or meatloaf.” Who knew that such a scrumptious meatball variation has been hiding in the Middle East for all this time?! Kofta (also spelled kufteh or koofteh) is by far one of my favorite Iranian foods. Not only is it an instant comfort food, but it also yields a rich history in Middle Eastern cuisine. Today, I’ve got a super simple version of kofta that’s authentic in flavor, but has also been modified for the modern working chef.

kofta cooked flickr

Image Courtesy: Flickr

The Origins of Kofta

So where exactly did kofta begin? While it’s pretty much impossible to determine the geographic origins in this dish, we can definitely draw a few conclusions about kofta and its role in Iranian cuisine:

  • Cheap Meat—This isn’t to say that the meat used for this dish is bad by any means, but chances are kofta was originally made with leftover cuts of beef and lamb that needed to be either cooked or thrown out. You wouldn’t grind filet mignon to make hamburgers, right? (Oh God I hope you wouldn’t do that) In other words, kofta is the kind of dish you make with scraps of meat. Translate this characteristic to your modern kofta by buying a decent, but not super expensive cut of meat. Ground chuck or ground turkey will be more than fine.
  • Stretching the Dollar—Traditional kofta mixes in white rice and yellow split peas. I interpret this as similar to the Italians adding breadcrumbs to their meatballs. Both techniques are easy ways to make the meatballs soft and tender. Both techniques also allow the cook to feed more people with less meat.
  • Winter Dish—I have a feeling that kofta was definitely made in the winter. This is the kind of dish you can let simmer slowly all day long, then dig into after an afternoon of raking leaves or shoveling snow. This is also the kind of dish that if you don’t have air conditioning (which traditional Iranian homes didn’t) will heat up your whole house. Colder months like fall and winter are a perfect time to savor kofta.
  • Hodgepodge/Kitchen Sink Dish—Ever wonder why so many different Middle Eastern cultures have kofta as part of their traditional cuisine? Because it’s a very versatile recipe that can be adopted to fit all sorts of constraints and regional ingredients. Traditional kofta in Iran is called kufteh tabrizi because the dish originates from a Northwestern province in Iran. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way to eat kofta! Even in Iran, there are multiple variations of kofta. I’ve eaten kofta that’s been stuffed with hard boiled eggs, walnuts, barberries, or even dried apricots. One time, I remember going to a party where the hostess stuffed an entire roast Cornish hen in each kofta. To say the least, they were huge. But it goes to show how although kofta is a very traditional Iranian dish, it can be adapted to variety of preferences.

Today’s Variation of Kofta

Today’s kofta recipe is by no means traditional. As many of you who keep up with WTAF know, I don’t eat many grains or legumes these days. My digestion is much better without them, and I feel great ever since going grain-free. That’s why I decided to ditch the rice and split peas and instead add grated onions and carrots. These veggies help the kofta stay moist and tender. They also add a healthy dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, and even some fiber. Did I mention probiotics love fiber?!

In terms of the spice mixture for this, I actually kept things pretty traditional. You’ll find pretty simple spices like cinnamon, mint, and turmeric in this dish. I know cinnamon and dried mint might sound weird together, but it yields a beautiful balance of warm and cool notes to the meat that tastes divine.

I stuffed the kofta with walnuts and dried barberries because frankly that’s all I had on hand. For those of you who aren’t familiar with fruits like barberries and/or currants, they’re the equivalent of a cranberry in Western cuisine. If you can’t find them at an international food store, you can substitute many different types of dried fruit. Chopped dried apricots, dates, figs, even golden raisins would all work. Remember, part of cooking is about following a recipe. The other part is about learning where to improvise and make a dish your own!

kofta raw

Print Recipe
Persian Style Kofta Meatballs Stuffed With Raw Walnuts and Dried Barberries
Prep Time 60
Cook Time 60
3-4 meatballs per person, makes about 13-14 meatballs
Prep Time 60
Cook Time 60
3-4 meatballs per person, makes about 13-14 meatballs
  1. Mix meat with grated onion, carrot, and spices. Mix with hands or a spatula until all ingredients are combined well.
  2. Grab a fist full of the meat mixture and shape into patty. Carefully add 1 tsp or so of the barberries and 1 walnut half to the center of the patty. Close the edges of the patty over the stuffing to create a spherical shape. This if your meatball/kofta.
  3. Arrange the kofta in a large dutch oven with a lid. Add a little oil to the pan if needed to keep them from sticking. Let the kofta cook on medium high-heat (lid closed) for 10-15 minutes. Check after 15 minutes and remove excess fat solids/oil. The koftas might break apart a bit. This is totally normal and actually yields a very beautiful presentation.
  4. Let kofta simmer another 40-45 minutes on low heat until cooked thoroughly. Add water as needed to keep the kofta from sticking. Towards the end, add the tomato paste and the lemon juice to make a thin 'sauce' for the kofta. Enjoy with rice, bread, or even on its own.
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