Growing up in Dubai, Dad would sometimes surprise us with a feast of Lebanese food on Fridays (our day off).
I’d wait impatiently whilst he drove to the little place 10 minutes down the road from us, prepping the ONE soda that my parents allowed me per week (chilling the glass in the fridge, slicing a piece of lemon to top the whole thing off. Yup. I went through that kind of trouble over a diet Coke. At that age, I thought everyone did it. Telling, huh?)
Once the food had arrived, we’d pile our plates high with generous dollops of smooth hummus, pleasantly bumpy babaghanoush, fresh peppery greens, crunchy radishes, warm bread and of course, the piece de resistance, KEBABS!
Chicken, beef, lamb — why are kebabs so much fun to eat?! Perhaps it’s that inviting char, the pre-portioned pieces of meat, the promise of a crispy exterior and a tender interior. Perhaps though, it’s something deeper: a pull only explained by our ancestry as cavemen? Man, woman, fire, meat?
As if they weren’t delicious enough, I fondly remember that one piece of pita bread that had been lying under the kebabs, soaking up all those exquisite juices; oh how we’d fight over that piece of bread! Ooof! My favourite kebab is the Lula kebab, or the Koobideh kebab, as the Persians put it. The Indians have their own version of this one too, called seekh kebab. Great minds must think alike: All of them consist of ground beef or lamb (or mutton), mixed together with some onions and spices, shaped into long logs, skewered and then cooked over a grill or in a tandoor oven. I find them so much more satisfying than other kebabs: tender, flavourful, and easy to digest.
But they are harder to make than you think. I literally made this recipe 3 or 4 times, hoping to get it to the right consistency. Finally, one late Wednesday night, when Bren was away at a rehearsal, I cracked it! And I had no one to shout to about it! Thank goodness I get to share it with you!
The secret lies in two parts: first, use a little baking soda to help the meat hold together (I can’t tell you how disappointing it is when your skewer falls apart before you very eyes) and secondly, knead the heck out of it!
I know that second secret may strike some of you as blasphemy. I don’t know how often I’ve been told not to overwork ground meat, whether it’s for burgers or meatloaf, or else you run the risk of eating a tough, dry hockey puck. In this case though, if you don’t knead it well, the meat doesn’t turn sticky, and your kebabs turn out tough and oddly-textured. So this is probably the only time you’ll hear me say this: BLASPHEME AWAY! You’ll thank me, I promise you!
I made them using lamb, because I love the way lamb stands up to the combination of shallot, ginger, garlic and mint. But you can use beef if you don’t like lamb. Oh, and I hope you’ll allow me to gild the lily a little, by adding some pomegranate molasses to this recipe — I made a glaze using lemon juice and pomegranate molasses that turns the ordinary lamb kebab into something extraordinary: sweet, tangy, sour, umami. Pardon me while I faint.
If you have trouble finding pomegranate molasses (Middle Eastern shops have it), you can make your own by boiling down some pomegranate juice (the pure stuff, not the kind mixed with blueberries or mangoes or whatever) with some sugar. Presto!
I hope you’ll give these a go. They’re a cheap way to work some meat into your menu (the whole thing, including a bottle of molasses probably cost me about $15 and it’ll feed 4 quite comfortably), and your friends and family will think you’re extraordinarily fancy, even though they are super easy and quick to pull together. Plus you can make the kebabs up to a day in advance, and grill them right before serving! Sheesh! Splendid!