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Recipe: Beef Kofta with Charred Sumac Onions

By Ellen Green

If you were in a quarter-mile of Open Table last Thursday, you know the smell of kofta–sizzling beef, onion, and warm spice so thick you can taste it in the air. This simple dish is found all over the Middle East. Ground meat is mixed with onions, parsley, and spices, shaped into a smallish log, and either grilled as a kebab or braised. For 100 servings, it’s a bit of a labor of love–we had four people shaping kofta around two huge bowls of meat–but it’s as easy as Italian meatballs to make at home. If you have a grill, fire it up! Adding smoke to the spices makes it a lot more exciting and distinctive.

Ingredient note: sumac is a pretty red powder that gives a sour, lemony flavor. And yes, we’re talking about the roadside tree that grows around here, though the Middle Eastern spice is a different species. You can harvest it yourself if you want to forage in late summer (if you’re new to foraging, go with someone experienced!), or it’s easy to find online.

Equipment: food processor or a big knife and a cutting board; a big bowl; skewers (optional); oven, stove, or grill; a heavy, not non-stick skillet (ideally cast-iron); a heatproof spatula or tongs; a cookie sheet (optional).

Beef Kofta with Charred Sumac Onions


  • 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs, lightly toasted
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • a big bunch of parsley, tough stems cut off (smaller stems are fine)
  • half a jalapeno pepper (I like spicy kofta–reduce or omit if you prefer)
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp ground Sumac
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 1/2 lb ground meat (beef, lamb, or goat are best for this recipe)
  • 1/2 cup chopped toasted pine nuts or pistachios (optional)For the charred onions:
  • 1 lb yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • about a tablespoon of neutral oil
  • 1/4 tsp fine salt or 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 tbsp sumac


  1. Mix together the breadcrumbs and water, adding more water if needed so that there aren’t any dry spots. Set aside while you prep the onions, garlic, pepper, and herbs.
  2. Pour the breadcrumbs into a food processor and add the onion, garlic, parsley, jalapeno, and spices. Pulse to combine.If you don’t have a food processor, finely chop the onion, garlic, parsley, and jalapeno together.
  3. Pile the meat in the bowl, and add everything else (except the ingredients for the charred onions). Mix together with your hands until evenly combined, then stop. Don’t overmix! Set aside in the fridge while you work on the charred onions. Soak wooden skewers, if using (see step 5).
  4. Toss the sliced onions with the oil, salt, and sumac.
    On the stove or grill: Heat a heavy skillet as hot as you can and grab a spatula or tongs. Pour in the onions and start stirring right away. They’re done when they’re starting to blacken in spots. Immediately remove them from the heat and pour them onto a plate.
    In the oven: put the pan in the oven and heat the oven as hot as it gets (if you have a broiler, that’s usually best). Wait 10 minutes after the oven has finished heating up so that the pan is hot. Pour the onions in the pan and bake for a few minutes, then stir and return to the oven. They’re done when they’re starting to blacken in spots. Immediately remove them from the heat and pour them onto a plate.Either way, rinse the pan.
  5. Shape the kofta: there are several options. In each case, squeeze the meat as tightly as you can so that it holds together while cooking. Wet hands will prevent sticking.
    For traditional grilled kofta, press into a sausage shape about an inch thick around a skewer.
    Shape into small logs (about an inch thick and 3-4 inches long) or balls (2-4 tablespoons) for baking or sauteingShape into balls (any size) for braising
  6. Cook the kofta. Safe internal temperature is 165F. I recommend inhaling deeply. =)
    On the grill: spray the kofta all over with cooking spray and grill over the hottest part of the grill.
    On the stove: get your skillet hot on medium-high heat. Rub it with an oiled paper towel and add the kofta, leaving room between them (you may need to work in batches). Let cook on one side until they no longer stick, then turn. Turn every minute or so until they’re cooked through. Rinse the pan between batches.
    In the oven: heat the oven to 450F. Arrange the kofta on a greased or lined cookie sheet, leaving an inch of space between them. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 425F and bake about 10 more minutes, or until done.To serve:
    for wraps, serve with flatbreads, shredded lettuce, tomato, cucumber, pickles, and yogurt
    for rice bowls, serve as above, swapping challow ( for the flatbreads
    In Afghan cuisine in particular, kofta are often cooked in a sauce or with rice. Here are a few examples: