Meatballs and Rice in a Middle Eastern Way

This preparation popular in Lebanon and Syria was not always so. In the eighteenth century Damacenes, like all Syrians, preferred wheat and switched to rice and other grains only when wheat became too expensive or was in short supply. But rice was a relatively pricey import from Egypt and was considered a luxury and never established itself as a regular feature of the daily diet. In medieval times, meatballs were called called tardīn in classical Arabic, really thin patties rather than balls, or kebabs, which today means chunks of meat grilled on a skewer. The meatballs were made by pounding the meat in a mortar called a jūrn, called a jāwan hajar in a tenth-century Arabic cookbook from Iraq or by being cut up very fine with a knife. The meatballs themselves are today called kafta (or kufta), a word that derives from the Turkish word köfte. Don’t let the long list of ingredients deter you from making this delicious dish; they are not an indication of difficulty, but rather of flavor.

Rice Pilaf with Meatballs
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Rice wtih Meat
Cuisine: Arab
Serves: 4
  • For the sauce
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • ½ pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 dried red chile
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
  • For the kafta (meatballs)
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground allspice berries
  • For the rice
  • 1 cup long grain rice
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  1. Prepare the sauce: in a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring, the onion until light golden, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, reduce the heat to medium, and cook 1 minute while stirring constantly. Add the carrot, flour, tomato, tomato paste, chile, and water. Stir well and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to medium-low and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg. Reduce to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and pass through a food mill or sieve. Remove 1 cup sauce for the rice and reserve the remaining sauce in a skillet that can hold all the meatballs.
  2. Preheat the broiler.
  3. Prepare the meatballs: in a bowl, mix the ground lamb, flour, egg yolk, salt, cinnamon, white pepper, nutmeg, and allspice until well blended. Divide into small walnut-sized meatballs. Arrange them on a broiling tray and broil until golden brown and sizzling, 5 minutes. Remove the meatballs and transfer to the reserved sauce in the skillet and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until bubbling furiously, 10 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 5 minutes.
  4. Combine the sauce reserved for the rice and the ½ cup water in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the rice, bring again to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and stir in the salt. Cover, reduce to low and simmer until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, without stirring or lifting the cover, 12 to 15 minutes. Arrange the rice on a serving platter and sprinkle with parsley and serve the meatballs separately with the sauce.


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