Çiğ köfte, pronounced chee kofta, is a vegan meatballs dish in Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish cuisines and is vaguely similar to the Western steak tartare. Traditionally it is made with meat, but in majority of Turkish establishments it is made with fine bulgur wheat— completely vegan.
Let me get this out of the way- I am not necessarily fond of raw cuisine. Almost all my visits to acclaimed raw-forward restaurants ended in slight disappointment after being served similar flavors course after course. Thinking you might feel the same way about uncooked food, I was reluctant to share this traditional Turkish recipe… until I remembered how delicious and flavorful it is. In a culture where meat kebabs galore, these vegan meatballs are loved by anyone who is anyone as long as they can handle its spice.
Roots of Çiğ Köfte
The dish is said to have been a part of Turkish cuisine for 3,000+ years, with the oldest story going back to King Nimrod’s ban on lighting fires and a hunter’s subsequent necessity to sustain his family on raw food. I don’t particularly believe in the story, but I sure am glad the dish was invented somehow. Ready to give Turkish vegan meatballs a try?
Special Ingredients You Will Need for Vegan Meatballs
Isot (aka Urfa Biber): This is the only non-negotiable ingredient you most likely won’t have in your pantry already- but this variety of chili pepper is so good and versatile that I’d highly recommend going to either a local Middle Eastern market or online to grab one. Just make sure the one you buy lists “pepper” as the only ingredient and does not contain added salt or oil. This very labor-intensive variety of chili is sun-dried and then tightly wrapped each night to regain its moisture— a process repeated for approximately two weeks. The result is an omni-dimensional smoky flavor well worth the effort.
Sumac: You can substitute cumin 1:1 for this recipe if needed. However I would recommend this lemony spice for purposes of building a master spice rack as many Middle Eastern recipes will call for it.
Pomegranate Molasses: Another Middle Eastern cuisine staple, this tart liquid can be incorporated into many dishes as a glaze or a dressing. Here, I use it as an ingredient as well as for garnishing. You can make this at home, or find it elsewhere. If necessary, substitute with equal parts of blackstrap molasses & lemon juice 1:1.
Pepper Paste: Not gochujang, nor harissa. This cousin of tomato paste you would ideally add to our recipe often has two ingredients: peppers and salt. We use this spicy chili pepper paste as a dip, on toast, and in cooking almost daily. I am shocked that this versatile staple isn’t widely available in the US alongside its (in my opinion) slightly less flavorful cousin.
Last, but not least: time and good wrists. You can cut down on both with the help of an electrical mixer, but make sure to add the bulgur very gradually to mimic the traditional method.Print
These vegan meatballs are the perfect finger-food! Time-tested çiğ köfte can be enjoyed as a main or a snack.
- 4 cups very fine bulgur (the dark variety called simit is best)
- 5 medium ripe tomatoes, grated
- 2 medium onions, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, finely diced
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
- 2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 tablespoon red pepper paste (spicy or regular)
- 1/2 cup isot / Urfa biber
- 1/2 cup sweet paprika
- 1/4 cup hot red pepper flakes
- 1/3 cup sumac
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt (gradually add more if desired)
- 5 ice cubes for kneading
- Garnish: Finely chopped fresh parsley, green onion, and pickles
- For serving: Romaine lettuce leaves and sliced lemon (or wheat tortilla instead of/in addition to the lettuce as is often served in Turkey for all you carb lovers out there)
- Begin by finely grating the tomatoes, or put them through the food processor. Gradually mix the tomatoes with bulgur and set aside for at least three hours.
- Very finely dice the onions, or blitz them in the food processor until they look finely diced. Strain the diced onions to remove as much of its water as possible either by hand or through a strainer. This step is essential to get rid of that bitter taste of onions.
- Thoroughly mix all the ingredients except for ice cubes and the set-aside bulgur. To this mix, gradually start adding the now tomato-flavored bulgur, and begin lightly kneading to roughly combine everything for a few minutes, ideally on a large tray.
- If using hands for kneading, use your palms to push the mixture down into the tray, over and over again until it gets much softer and sticks together. Add ice cubes one by one for gradual addition of water to the mix. Depending on preference of chewiness, the kneading will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour both when kneaded by hand or by a kitchen mixer.
- After a satisfactory taste-test, begin shaping them by taking a two-tablespoon portion into a palm, and make your hand into a tight fist. This shape will be a lot easier to achieve when wearing kitchen gloves.
- You can easily make this recipe oil-free by omitting the EVOO for the same amount of water or grated tomato.
- If you are not dead-set on a raw diet, you can skip the three-hour wait. Just heat up the tomatoes before mixing with bulgur.
Keywords: vegan meatballs, cig kofte, turkish, mediterranean, traditional, bulgur, spicy