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The wild ceremonies surrounding a Turkish 'meatball'

By?Paul Benjamin Osterlund,?
Paul Benjamin Osterlund Plate of ?i? k?fte made with raw meat (Credit: Paul Benjamin Osterlund)Paul Benjamin Osterlund
?i? K?fte is one of the most popular dishes in Turkey (Credit: Paul Benjamin Osterlund)

One of the country's most popular fast-food items, ?i? k?fte is traditionally associated with wild and rowdy gatherings in south-eastern Turkey.

Those unfamiliar with Turkish cuisine may be unaware that one of the country's most popular and ubiquitous dishes, found in thousands of kiosks throughout the country, is ?i? k?fte. Although this literally translates to "raw meatball", it has another surprise; more often than not, it's made from entirely vegan ingredients.?

?i? k?fte traditionally contains a mixture of raw minced beef, bulgur wheat and a cornucopia of spices and greens. But when the dish was banned from sale in 2008 in accordance with EU health codes, most producers switched to a meat-free version made from bulgur and nuts wrapped in flatbread with rocket, parsley, iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a drizzle of pomegranate syrup. Over the past two decades, numerous chains have popped all over Turkey serving this cheap, fresh, healthy and tasty snack, making it a favourite among students and anyone looking for an affordable bite on the go.?

?i? k?fte comes from Turkey's south-eastern provinces, and it is particularly associated with the cities of Ad?yaman and ?anl?urfa and a traditional gathering known as a s?ra gecesi where guests sip tea, engage in conversation and dine to a chorus of musicians playing local folk tunes. These ceremonies, which sometimes also involve alcohol, raucous loud music and dancing, have gained broader cultural significance throughout Turkey over the years, particularly as south-eastern cuisine has spread to Istanbul and other large cities in Turkey's west. The centrepiece of the often wild and rowdy evening is ?i? k?fte, which is prepared on the spot by a master chef who arduously mixes and kneads the ingredients by hand for an hour or longer until the proper consistency is achieved.

While the numerous chains that sell mass-produced ?i? k?fte are banned from using raw meat, mom-and-pop establishments, who make them fresh, are still licenced to do so, and travellers interested in trying the traditional type should seek them out. An excellent place to start is Mahir Lokantas?, a highly acclaimed restaurant in the heart of Istanbul's central ?i?li district, which serves an impressive daily rotation of regional dishes from throughout Turkey. Owner and chef Mahir Nazl?can, who hails from the south-eastern province of Diyarbak?r, is particularly known for his excellent renditions of classic dishes from his part of the country – and one of these includes the original version of ?i? k?fte.

Getty Images Most places in Turkey now sell a meat-free version made from bulgur and nuts (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
Most places in Turkey now sell a meat-free version made from bulgur and nuts (Credit: Getty Images)

“The most important part of ?i? k?fte is that the meat that goes inside it must be high quality ground beef that is free of fat and tendons. Also, we use fine brown bulgur. Of course, you must use organic spices, and the tomato and pepper paste cannot come from a market, it must be homemade because the smell and taste is directly reflected in the ?ig k?fte,” Nazl?can says.

?i? k?fte myths

A commonly repeated misnomer is that the chef hurls a fistful of ?i? k?fte at the ceiling and if it sticks, then this means it is done and ready to serve. Regional experts refute this, noting that the s?ra gecesi typically takes place in someone's home and it would be very rude to throw food at the ceiling.

Mahir Lokantas? opens at noon and there is normally a line out the door for much of the day, but Nazl?can was gracious enough to invite me an hour beforehand to taste some of his ?i? k?fte and explain its secrets. We started with a simple-but-delicious breakfast of soft, mozzarella-esque cheese from Diyarbak?r, sliced tomatoes and peppers, black olives, extra virgin olive oil and warm, chewy, hand-shaped flatbread fresh from the oven. This gave our stomachs a firm foundation as we waited for the ?i? k?fte.

“It must be kneaded well for an hour. What we refer to as raw meat actually becomes 'cooked' during the kneading process,” Nazl?can said. This is an essential part of its preparation that gives diners the reassurance that the dish is safe to eat.

Soon enough our plate arrived, a colourful platter of greens topped with the hand-shaped morsels of ?i? k?fte. We each grabbed a piece and nestled it in a formidable chunk of iceburg lettuce, squeezed a liberal dose of lemon juice on top, and dived in. The flavour wasboth rich and light, with notes of umami, spice and acidity. It did not taste like raw meat, and the hour-long kneading process fused the myriad ingredients into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. While it was not overwhelmingly spicy, it still packed a punch. Nazl?can noted that the most crucial part of the spice blend includes a secret mixture known as "seven-variety", which is composed of seven spices, in addition to high-quality isot (spicy black Urfa pepper flakes).?

We were both full and I took half of the ?i? k?fte to go, where I enjoyed it at home over the course of several days as it keeps well and retains its flavour while refrigerated. No one should ever think of throwing something this good at the ceiling.

Getty Images The mixture must be kneaded for around an hour to "cook" the meat (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
The mixture must be kneaded for around an hour to "cook" the meat (Credit: Getty Images)

?i? k?fte recipe

by Mahir Nazl?can

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

1kg fine brown bulgur wheat

600g of fat-free, tendon-free beef mince

3 grated tomatoes?

1 white onion

6 cloves garlic

1 tbsp black pepper

1 tbsp cumin

1 tbsp "seven-variety" (as this is a secret spice blend it can be replaced with any herbs/spices according to taste

2 tbsp red pepper flakes

2 tbsp black Urfa pepper flakes?

2 tbsp tomato paste

2 tbsp red pepper paste

250ml olive oil

250 pure pomegranate sauce (Mahir uses the Punica brand from ?anl?urfa)

1 tsp salt?

Greens:

Finely chopped green onion, parsley and fresh mint leaves to taste

Instructions:

Step 1?

With the exception of the greens, the pomegranate sauce and the olive oil, mix all the ingredients together and knead it firmly for close to an hour.

Step 2

Add the remaining ingredients and knead for an additional 10 minutes.

Step 3

Form small finger-shaped pieces of the ?ig k?fte and serve alongside iceberg lettuce, rocket and lemon wedges.

BBC.com's?World's Table?"smashes the kitchen ceiling" by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future.

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