Claudia Roden, author of Arabesque, explains the variations of kofta.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: The tradition of cooking meat over an open fire or over coals, from what I understand, is done all over the Middle East.
Claudia Roden: It is. It has been a traditional way of cooking for many, many years, centuries even, all over the Middle East and North Africa.
But it is more the tradition of the street. It's street food, and it's also kebab house food and restaurant food. In the days when there were hardly any restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa, there were always little kebab houses or just a vendor with a few tables and chairs outside who would serve kebabs. Now people actually do this not necessarily at home indoors, but when they go on a picnic or on their balcony.
LRK: Kofta, the flavored ground meat, is something that we are not that familiar with. It resembles a hamburger, but it's far beyond that. What is the basic idea behind kofta? Is this something that's common to much of the Middle East?
CR: Kofta is certainly one of the favorites of the meats. The other one is shish kebab, lamb cubes that are skewered and cooked.
But the kofta is really what you would call minced meat -- or, rather, chopped meat. The very best makers of kofta are in the restaurant trade. They do it in view of the customers. They do it by chopping the meat very, very finely. It's usually meat with some fat because it does need fat. Otherwise, it becomes dried out.
The most common way of making a kofta is with parsley and onion. You chop the onion very, very fine; you chop the parsley very fine; and the meat. Then you chop them together until they become almost a paste.
But at home, most people actually these days make it with a food processor. They chop the meat first -- it mustn't be quite a paste, but still a little bit grainy. They chop onion separately, and the parsley separately. The onion is drained so that the juice doesn't stay in. With your hand, you blend it well until it forms a paste. You add salt and pepper.
Then place it on skewers. The skewers have to be a certain type. They've got to be a flat blade, but also a bit thick, so that the meat doesn't get caught or roll about on a thin skewer. In some places, they just make one long skewer completely covered with meat. In others, they like having little lumps like sausages all the way. And in some places, they even put a piece of onion, tomato or pepper between the meat. But usually, they just do the meat itself.
In different countries they have different flavorings. Usually, it's just salt, pepper, onion and parsley. But sometimes, like in Turkey, there's cinnamon and allspice. In Morocco it's other kinds of spices: ginger, cumin and also cinnamon sometimes.
The thing that you can do to enhance it, apart from serving it with bread or with rice, is to grill vegetables at the same time. They're eaten together.
There are also various ways of serving these, and it's different in different countries. For instance, in Turkey, it is sometimes served with yogurt. The yogurt can be mixed with a little bit of garlic and a little bit of dried mint. That's poured on top. Sometimes it's served with a bit of tomato sauce or sometimes sumac, a spice that is sprinkled on.
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.