I’m generally pretty good when it comes to getting the right balance between being adventurous with food and applying common sense safety rules. So I can safely say that eating a lump of raw meat that’s presented as though a ham-fisted toddler has mistaken it for Play Doh is generally something I would avoid. But that’s before I tried çiğ köfte (pron: chee kufta) – literally translated as ‘raw meatball’.
We have our brilliant Airbnb host to thank for introducing us to the dish. Promising to give us a crash course on Turkish cuisine, he took us to a restaurant and promptly ordered one of everything off the menu – or at least that’s how it seemed. Man, the Turkish can eat! Sometime during the fourth or fifth wave of dishes the çiğ köfte was presented in a similar way to the picture below – dark red in colour and with a grainy-looking texture, finger marks clearly imprinted in the soft sausage-like balls. We used lettuce leaves as little çiğ köfte canoes to deliver the hell fire into our mouths like turbo charged yuk sung.
As we flushed a paler shade of tomato, our host explained that it’s the heat generated from the process of constant kneading that helps to ‘cook’ the meat. Mixed by hand in the traditional way çiğ köfte is a delicacy, partly because of the labour that goes into it and partly because it has to be eaten fresh. Some restaurants only use meat that has been slaughtered the same day.
Legend has it that the dish originated more than 4,000 years ago in Urfa when King Nimrod gathered all the available firewood in the area to make a huge execution pyre for the prophet Abraham – leaving none behind for cooking. Instead, a resourceful woman mixed raw venison with bulgur, tomato paste, herbs and spices and ground the ingredients together until it was ‘cooked’ with energy, and invented a national dish while she was at it.
These days, it’s generally made with lean high grade beef or lamb, but the crucial ingredient is isot, a dark maroon coloured, smoky-flavoured pepper that helps to give çiğ köfte some of its kick.
Funnily enough, the version most readily available now is actually vegan – most likely because of the food safety implications surrounding raw meat.
Since we became a little addicted to the stuff, we were happy to find places selling vegan çiğ köfte all over the city. Our favourite fix was the çiğ köfte durum, made from pickles, lettuce, sour pomegranate sauce and some unidentified ingredients, all wrapped up with the çiğ köfte in lavash bread. I loved watching the vendors assemble the wraps, reaching for various bottles, grabbing lumps of çiğ köfte and adding ingredients here and there, all with the fluid, practiced motions of pros.
The next time you’re in Turkey, I’d highly recommend you try some. Just make sure you have some Ayran on hand for some cool relief.