From small and dainty to plate-sized and stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, or pressed onto metal skewers for grilling, the Persian meatball, or kofte as it’s known in Iran, comes in many surprising guises.
Kofte means “pounded meat” in Farsi. The preparation of the dish is an art form honed over centuries, and the delicate, tangy, Silk Road-spiced creations are deliciously different from the Italian-style meatballs that we’re familiar with here in the West. Like all traditional Persian cooking, meatballs are lovingly made by hand and require many detailed steps, but with a little adaptability you can get the same tasty results with a fraction of the work—no need to worry about stuffing, skewering, or rolling tiny meatballs.
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to visit Iran, where my father was born. I spent a month there connecting with long lost family, and eating my way through as much regional food as I could handle. In the southern city of Shiraz, famous for intricate flower gardens and home of the 14th-century poet Hafez, I took a cooking class in which I learned how to make kalam polo, rice with cabbage.
I was assigned the task of making the dime-size, turmeric scented meatballs that dot the top of the dish. My minimalist cooking sensibilities were put to the test as I rolled ball after tiny ball, but the work helped me to see how time spent making food and sharing it with family over unhurried meals is one of the most beautiful aspects of life in Iran. These petite kofte, browned in fat and then nestled into the rice along with the cabbage, were my introduction to Iran’s fondness for ground meat.
You may recognize the word kofte from Indian restaurant menus, because the Mughal conquerors of the Persian Empire brought meatballs and other Persian recipes east to India, where they became kofta. In the ancient world, Persians were known for their exceptional cooking, and their traditions spread to neighboring countries and beyond, so you’ll find kefta in Morocco, kefte in Greece, and köfte in Turkey.
It’s hard to nail down exactly where the meatball came from, but the Persian Empire is a pretty good guess. After the empire was conquered by the Arabs in the mid-700s, Persian tastes and techniques were folded into Arabic traditions. The Oxford Companion to Food notes that kofte appeared in an early Arabic cookbook, the first evidence of the Persian meatball. The recipe calls for shaping minced meat into orange-sized balls and glazing them with egg yolk and saffron.
The large size of these historical meat dumplings reminds me of kofte Tabrizi, a stuffed version of kofte that hails from the northwestern city of Tabriz, close to Turkey and Armenia. I tried them one day in the capital city of Tehran, when my family took me to lunch at a food court that had stalls serving regional food from all over Iran. The kofte Tabrizi I tried was tender and fluffy, with split peas and rice mixed into the ground meat, and stuffed with dried fruit, nuts, and hard-boiled eggs. Like a sophisticated game of culinary peek-a-boo, the most regal version of these meatballs are actually made with a whole chicken inside, itself stuffed with dried fruits and nuts.
The Persian meatball best known to Americans is koobideh kebab, essentially a long meatball shaped on a skewer and grilled over hot coals. It has a simple seasoning of onions, saffron, salt, and pepper, and you’ll find it on any Persian restaurant menu. Done right, koobideh are seared on the outside, juicy on the inside, and the tender meat can be pulled easily from the hot skewer with a piece of flatbread that soaks up the dripping fat and cooking juices. Although I tasted koobideh in Iran, my favorite experience of this beloved kebab is from a get together with my Persian family in Los Angeles.
With all of us gathered for a feast at my cousin’s house, her husband showed me how he mixed the ground meat, eggs, and seasonings with his hands, and then carefully pressed the mixture onto the skewers so it would survive the rigor of rotating over the heat—the worst fate of koobideh is for the meat to fall off the skewer while grilling and get burned. While the women prepared food in the kitchen, the men went out by the pool to grill, then came marching back triumphant with steaming platters of kebab that they plunked down in the middle of the table, passing baskets of bread and urging us to “Eat, eat!” while the meat was still hot.
My recipe for Persian meatballs is a more straightforward approach that is meant to capture all the flavor of a traditional meatball without all the work.
For character, it relies on fresh or dried mint, a staple of savory Persian cooking, and quintessential seasonings like dill, cinnamon, and turmeric. There is plenty of garlic and onion, and a healthy dose of tart lemon juice to brighten the sauce. These meatballs are made like a European-style meatball: After being formed into balls they are browned in oil and then braised in tomato sauce to finish cooking. The one significant difference from their European cousins is that they contain rice, which helps to keep their texture light. (There are no breadcrumbs to be found in these kofte.) The rice has to be soaked for an hour before being added to the meatball mixture. Serve the meatballs with classic Persian kebab accompaniments, including fluffy saffron rice, sour pickles (Persian mixed vegetable torshi pickle, if you can find it), flatbread, yogurt, and a fresh, crunchy salad or plate of crudité.
Beef Kofte (Meatballs with Mint and Garlic)
- 1/2 cup basmati rice, soaked in cold water for 1 hour
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 3 tablespoons dried mint, or 1 cup loosely packed fresh spearmint
- 1 large yellow onion
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 egg, whisked
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Grapeseed oil, for browning the meatballs and for frying onions for the sauce
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon dried dill
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 3 cups hot water
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper,
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Shirazi Salad (Tomato and Cucumber Salad)
- 3 to 4 (1 pound) medium unwaxed cucumbers, sliced in half lengthwise
- 2 (1 pound) medium to large tomatoes, diced
- 1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
- 2 tablespoons dried mint
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
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