On holidays in Syria, freshly-butchered meat traditionally means one thing: kibbeh nayyeh. Made of finely ground raw meat mixed with bulgur, onions, mint, and spices, then drizzled with olive oil. Kibbeh nayyeh is a quintessential festive food of Syria.
In the old days, the Lebanese and Syrians used to kill an animal on Sundays and on feast days. Raw meat was eaten immediately. Lebanese traditionally relied on that freshness to help guarantee the meat’s safety. In the modern era, most of us don’t eat meat from an animal that’s just been slaughtered, but freshness remains key to good, safe raw kibbeh.
Kibbeh nayyeh stands for “raw kibbe”, kibbe being the patties made from ground meat, bulgur (cracked wheat) and spices. It is a rustic, authentic Lebanese dish of raw minced lamb. The secret to this much loved Lebanese dish is using only the freshest meat that is finely minced on the day, and it should be eaten the day it is made.
Although there are some versions of the dish that are baked or fried (such as kibbeh raas, quipe, kubba halab, or kibbeh bil sinieh), others (like Kibbeh nayyeh) are prepared and served raw.
What is the origin of kibbeh nayyeh?
Kibbeh nayyeh is said to have originated in the great northern Syrian city of Aleppo (Halab – حلب), one of the world’s longest inhabited urban conglomerations, and surely one of the most beautiful and historic cities in southwest Asia.
It is widely considered the national dish of Lebanon, with a heritage that likely goes back to the time of Abraham. Kibbeh nayyeh has that special quality of being both deeply old world while remaining consistently contemporary and relevant.
This tartare of sorts is popular all over the rest of the Levant, most notably Lebanon and Syria. However, you would not find this dish in, say, the small farming villages of the West Bank or Gaza, where people don’t like the idea of eating uncooked meat, associating it with the more cosmopolitan, urban and somewhat dandyish practices of the Lebanese and Syrians.
Made properly, kibbeh nayyeh exemplifies the essential, fundamental flavors of Levantine cooking: gamey lamb, mint & parsley, onions, allspice, hot peppers (optional) and olive oil. One bite, with a bit of toasted Arabic bread telegraphs the culinary traditions and flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean better than perhaps any other dish.
How to make kibbeh nayyeh
As a baseline, it is a mixture of extremely lean raw beef or lamb, trimmed of all fat, finely ground, and mixed with bulgur wheat. Regionally in Lebanon, kibbeh is seasoned in various ways, using herbs such as mint and marjoram and spices like cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, cumin, black pepper, salt, and even dried rose petals.
The meat is then shaped into an impressive large oval mound, to be immediately scooped up with pita bread and eaten.
Hygiene and fastidiousness are paramount to the preparation of the beef or lamb, from the equipment used to the careful removal of any fat or sinew.
First and foremost, Lebanese butchers will tell you kibbeh meat should always be ground to order on clean blades. Don’t even think about using the pre-ground meat in the supermarket display case.
In the eras before meat grinders, the Lebanese pounded the meat with a mortar-and-pestle. Today, kibbeh meat from the butcher should be ground first thing in the morning, on a sparkling clean grinder to avoid cross contamination, which is why trusted butchers will rarely take a same-day order.
Although some cultures that traditionally eat kibbeh served raw take steps to reduce the risk of illness such as controlling the temperature of the meat and freshly grinding it with clean blades, none of these practices can ensure that the meat being eaten is actually safe.
The only way to reduce the potential for foodborne infection from eating ground raw beef or lamb is to cook it completely through until the ground meat reaches 160 F as measured by a meat thermometer. No other method of preparation is safe or recommended.
While Lebanese people have been enjoying kibbeh nayyeh for generations, the United States Department of Agriculture issued a warning advising diners to think twice before consuming raw meat following a 2013 salmonella outbreak associated with the dish.
As with all issues of food quality, it is best to try kibbeh nayyeh at establishments with a good reputation for food safety (and deliciousness) among local lovers of the dish.
While there is a difference of opinion over whether beef, lamb, or goat makes the tastiest, most tender kibbeh nayyeh, cooks agree that the meat needs to be as lean and high quality as possible, without fat or gristle. Some cooks add ice cubes to keep the mixture moist and fresh as it’s worked.
Tips to make perfect kibbeh nayyeh
- Kibbe nayyeh needs to be served cold, so you need to keep the dish in the fridge until serving time.
- When ready, make the kibbe mix into balls the size of a baseball and line them up along your serving dish.
- Spread the kibbe on the dish with your hands or spoon, until it’s no more than ¾ inch thick. Make some patterns on it if you wish.
- Add tons of high quality olive oil on it.
- Serve with optional sides including: mint, radish, green peppers, green chili peppers, hot peppers, green onions, white onions.
- Kibbe nayyeh can be eaten with a fork or wrapped in pita bread.
What are the variations of kibbeh nayyeh around the world ?
In Korea, yukhoe, which also means “raw meat” is a dish of very thinly sliced raw beef, usually mixed with sesame oil, soy sauce, and pine nuts, and served with a raw egg cracked over the top. Sometimes it’s accompanied with julienned bae (Korean pear).
It was one of many dishes brought to the Korean Peninsula by invading Mongols in the thirteenth century. As beef was a commodity, it was associated with aristocracy. Every part of the cow was used, even the blood and bones. The fattier cuts were grilled, but the leaner cuts were eaten raw after fortifying them with sesame oil and egg yolk and sweetening them with pear.
The Japanese prepare popular dishes with highly marbled raw wagyu, a word which translates to “Japanese cow”. Most common are beef tataki (filet that is seared but still very rare, marinated and thinly sliced like sashimi) and what is called tartare.
Raw beef is prized in Ethiopia, with a history that goes back centuries. Kitfo is a popular dish of chopped raw meat, seasoned with mitmita (hot red pepper powder), cardamom, and niter kibe (clarified butter stewed with spices).
This is only one of many Ethiopian raw beef dishes and the one best-known in the diaspora. Kitfo comes from Ethiopia’s Gurage, a group which makes up about 2.5 percent of the population, yet the dish has spread to the rest of the country and beyond.
There is a widely held myth that steak tartare originated with Mongol horsemen, who according to a 2005 New York Times article swept across Central Europe eight hundred years ago. The most common tale is that Tatar horsemen would place a slice of horsemeat beneath their saddle in the morning and retrieve it, tenderized by the pounding, to eat raw for dinner.
The article went on to debunk this theory with further research, which suggested after a day under a sweaty saddle, this meat would have been inedible.
Nevertheless, today’s steak tartare, raw ground beef topped with a raw egg yolk with accompanying capers, chopped onion, and parsley, originated in French restaurants in the 1950s and is still a fixture on French menus.
Wherever you stand on eating raw meat, historically, there is evidence that it was considered good for you, dating back to the sixteenth century. In these cultures (and many others), raw beef signaled freshness, and it was a rare treat, and something to be celebrated. Naturally, it became absorbed into other celebrations and life cycle events.
Enjoying raw meat may not be for everybody, but it has widespread relevance in our world. Many nationalities have raw meat dishes in their cuisines, dishes that are deeply etched in their cultural history and identity.
- 1 lb lean leg of goat or lamb (without fat, frozen 2 weeks prior)
- 1 cup fine bulgur
- 1 scallion
- ⅓ green bell pepper
- 15 leaves fresh mint
- 10 leaves fresh marjoram (mardakoush)
- ½ teaspoon 7 spices (Lebanese spice blend)
- ½ teaspoon Cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Freeze meat for at least 2 weeks before working (to age it and help eliminate any contamination of raw meats).
- Place frozen meat in the refrigerator for 1h30 to thaw halfway.
- When the meat is half thawed, place in a chopper with 5 large cubes of ice, ground cinnamon.
- Chop it very thinly. Drain it and set aside in the refrigerator.
- Place the bulgur in a small bowl and rinse with cold water. Then drain and squeeze very hard to remove as much water as possible. Set aside.
- Finely chop the green bell pepper, mint, marjoram, scallion, salt, Cayenne pepper and 7 spices in a food processor and mix well. Set aside.
- Place the minced meat in a large salad bowl and add the wet bulgur and the mixture of pepper and mixed spices, and mix well with the hands for 3 minutes.
- Form a large patty with all the meat and flatten it by giving it the shape of the serving dish about 3 inches thick.
- Using a knife or fingers, make decorative patterns on the top of the meat.
- Drizzle the olive oil over the entire surface of the meat.
- Sprinkle with slices of hot pepper, chives, pine nuts and a few mint leaves.
- Serve immediately with pita bread.