Here's our family recipe for Turkish lentil balls —a delicious classic full of protein thanks to red lentils and bulgur! Vegan with a gluten-free option. Perfect as a snack or a main, and always a crowd-pleaser!
I never have to think twice about which dish to bring to a potluck. It will always be mercimek koftesi, aka lentil balls!
This Turkish dish is super easy to make and never disappoints. Whenever I make them for an event—or for my husband, for that matter—they're gone in a flash!
🇹🇷 What is Mercimek Köftesi?
Turkish lentil balls are a bulgur dish made with onions, red lentils, as well as various herbs and spices depending on the region and household. It is served cold or at room temperature.
Like sarma, mercimek köftesi is often made for guests during house visits as it is almost universally enjoyed.
In Syria, mercimek köftesi is known as "lentil kibbeh" and is served as a paste. It is more watery and sometimes more oily than the Turkish version.
Mercimek köfte is very similar to ciğ köfte, another bulgur dish made with loads more spices, except no lentils.
I love them both, but cig kofta needs to be kneaded for almost an hour whereas lentil kofta is made with hot water, requiring no kneading time at all!
🍅 Ingredient rundown
Traditionally, lentil balls are made with the red variety. However, if you're allergic or would prefer another type of lentil or legume altogether, I suggest you go for it and make the dish exactly as you would otherwise!
As long as the legumes are small enough and thoroughly cooked, there shouldn't be any problems.
The most important part of this recipe is the ratio of lentils, bulgur, and water. Too much water, and there's no way to save the runny mixture short of adding more bulgur (which doesn't taste the same IMO).
Some stoves may be stronger or weaker than what I use, so very slight changes to the amount of water may be needed.
It will look a bit dry in the beginning and that's okay. When in doubt, hold off on adding more water.
Bulgur is certainly necessary for this dish, and I'm afraid this finely-ground type isn't sold in most places.
You could purchase it online or grind your own from regular bulgur in a food processor that can handle dry goods.
For a gluten-free version, substitute the bulgur with cooked quinoa or rice! It may not stick together as well in the end, but a bit of cornstarch will solve that problem right away.
Tomato & Pepper Pastes
There is a lot of tomato and pepper paste used in this recipe. They elevate the taste of the lentils and go perfectly with the onions.
In case you don't have Turkish pepper paste at home, feel free to substitute it with tomato paste. Ideally, though, order it right now because pepper paste goes so well with so many dishes!
My favorite way is to make this acuka sauce with walnuts and pepper paste, perfect toast topping for busy days.
Herbs & Spices
Pick your favorite herbs and spices and use them as much as you wish! The recipe as written has the perfect flavor balance and ingredient ratio in my opinion, but feel free to change it up.
Don't like parsley? Use cilantro. No Aleppo pepper at home? Use regular chili flakes (or don't use any if you don't like spicy food).
This part of the recipe is very forgiving. Next time I make it, I'll add pickled mustard greens that we get from the Asian farmer's market 🙂
📝 Instructions for making lentil balls
Depending on how quickly you can dice an onion and how meticulously you shape the balls—it takes about one hour from start to finish! You'll need to use two pans (and maybe a bowl) to make this dish.
Cook the Lentil & Bulgur Mix
Place the lentils and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium-low heat with the lid on for about 30 minutes.
When the lentils are cooked (falling apart), turn off the heat and add the bulgur. Mix well, then leave to cool with the lid on.
This mixture will look somewhat dry. That's okay! You can always add more water or oil later, but it's impossible to save it the other way around.
Cook the Onions
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add half of the olive oil and onions together. Season with some salt and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until translucent.
Add the tomato paste and pepper paste, then leave to cool. You may also add the Aleppo pepper at this stage for a smokier flavor.
For this dish, you don't need to preheat the oil to cook the onions. Here's what Kenji López-Alt (Serious Eats) has to say about sweating onions:
"There are times when it's perfectly fine to start with both your oil and your other ingredients in a pan before you ever even apply heat, specifically when the food being cooked is unlikely to stick, and a slow, even cook is what you are looking for.
Sautéed onions are a prime example of this. Even when a recipe suggests heating the oil first, you can rest assured that you probably won't taste any difference in the end."
Mix Everything & Serve
When all ingredients are cool enough to handle, mix everything including the salt, scallions, parsley, mint, Aleppo pepper, and rest of the olive oil. If the mixture looks dry, add more olive oil.
Shape the mixture into balls in your palm. Serve with salad greens and lemon wedges. Goes so well with Turkish tea!
⏳ Saving mercimek köftesi
The lentil balls can be saved in the refrigerator for up to 5 days in an airtight container. It's even better if you save it as a paste, and shape them into balls with additional olive oil immediately prior to serving them.
The paste can also be frozen for up to three months. Thaw in the refrigerator and shape into balls by adding more olive oil.
❓Lentil Kofta FAQs
It's completely normal for the mixture to look somewhat dry prior to adding the last of the olive oil. Just add more water or oil (preferably oil).
However, if it's too wet... then you could try adding some cornstarch. I've made this mistake before, and unfortunately, it just doesn't taste the same after.
Imagine eating a yellow dahl / curry that you can actually bite into! Depending on the herbs and spices you choose (mint is a non-negotiable for me), it tastes so fresh.
Up to 3 months! The paste can be frozen for that duration—in an airtight container.
Thaw in the refrigerator and shape into balls by adding more olive oil. This is my saving grace for impromptu tea time.
Turkish lentil balls aren't supposed to be baked. They're enjoyed cold or at room temperature.
Many different cuisines in the Middle East/Levant area have their own version of lentil balls. This version is Turkish.
In Syria, it's called "lentil kibbeh", not to be confused with the fried bulgur balls stuffed with minced meat.
🥂 More Turkish Crowd-Pleasers
Try these other delicious finger foods to entertain your guests with a Turkish feast:
Did you make this recipe? I'd love to hear about it! Please comment and leave a star🌟 rating below 🙂Print