Despite having lived in Turkey for years, I’ve hardly dipped a toe into the cuisine when it comes to replicating dishes at home. Turkish food is misleading; dishes often look easy enough to produce a copy cat of, but once home in your kitchen, the va-va-voom of the dish – often just the simplest added touch, like that pinch of sugar to olive oil dishes – eludes you. Like many cuisines of this world, Turkish food comes from the home and the secrets to this eclectic cuisine are whispered down from generation to generation, passed hand from hand, and though nowadays Turkey’s numerous cooking shows offer glimpses of these secrets, many dishes elude an outsider.
Içli köfte is a spiced meat and walnut mixture contained inside a dough-like shell made from bulgur wheat. You’ll find this dish on offer in kebap restaurants as well as from vendor carts scattered throughout the more bustling neighbourhoods of Istanbul. The ‘köfte contained inside’ as is the literal translation of the name, is often presented as a snack or a meze and many women keep a stock of these homemade delights in their freezer ready to serve to unexpected guests. Deep fried ’til golden and served warm, içli köfte is too calorific to be eaten everyday but is a delightful treat once in a while.
For no other good reason except its being Friday, today, I decided, was the day to try my hand at making these at home. This recipe calls for finely ground bulgur as opposed to the heartier sized wheat used to make pilav. Bulgar is a whole wheat grain so even though these are fried, they are healthier than a white flour pastie – just.
The shell of içli köfte is made by kneading the already cooked bulgur for 20-25 minutes until it takes on an elastic consistency simliar to that of a pastry. I tried ‘cheating’, whizzing the bulgur in the blender with the dough hook instead, but it wasn’t for having it – içli köfte, it seems, gets much of its flavour from the effort poured into it during the prepping stage!
Içli “thin skinned” köfte
Cover about a cups worth of finely ground bulgar with boiling water. Mix in a tablespoon of tomatoe paste, cover the dish with a plate and leave until the bulgar has absorbed the water (15mins); remove the plate and let cool. Once cool -flex those finger muscles!- and start to knead. And knead. And knead some more.
At some point, your fingers will need a break – chop an onion and set to brown with around 200g minced meat.
Once the bulgar is at a pastry-esque consistency, split the dough into 8 and form into balls. Taking a ball in the palm of your hand, use your thumb to press a hole in the centre and gently stretch the hole outwards being careful not to break the shell. You should end up with something that looks vaguely like this:
Mix the cooked meat with about 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts, 1/2 cup chopped parsley and season to taste with black pepper, red pepper flakes and salt. Fill each shell with the meat mixture.
Now comes the tricky part – closing the shells. According to those generational whispers, the way to ensure a consistent shape, perfect seal and thin shell is to, with wet hands, spin the köfte in one hand while shaping with the other.
I’m not co-ordinated enough for the spinning thing so I just kind of rolled the köfte between both hands until it somewhat resembled the rugby ball shape we’re after. Patch any cracks with a little extra dough.
At this point they look rather pasty and unappealing…have faith! Fry the köfte enough oil to cover and you’ll end up with something that looks like this…
…and taste as good as they look. Afiyet olsun!