The first time I ate köfte was in Istanbul. I'd tracked down, using the magical wisdom of Lonely Planet, a restaurant that was meant to serve the best in town. I dragged my travelling companions through the sweltering city, to find a gaggle of locals swarming around the door. We joined the disorderly queue, but for some reason, minutes later, were pulled to the front and shown to a table in the restaurant, despite there still being many unseated Turks left outside the door. We were then slightly puzzled to see that the restaurant was almost full of people, all sitting at their tables surveying the food that had already been served. There was salad, plates of peppers, a big basket of bread, and bowls awaiting soup. None of it had been touched, by anyone. It was then that we remembered it was the start of Ramadan, and that we were witnessing the last few minutes of the locals' fasting. The tension, hunger and relief in the air were almost palpable as everyone waited silently, eyeing the morsels of bread and inhaling the tempting barbecue aromas emanating from the kitchen.
We were finally given the signal to tuck in. We had been told by the staff that we didn't have to wait like the locals, if we were hungry, but it seemed incredibly bad manners to start wolfing down food when they only had a few more minutes to wait. I thought I was ravenous, but then remembered that I hadn't starved myself since dawn, and suddenly my 'hunger' seemed rather shameful. Bowls of steaming soup emerged from the kitchen, closely followed by lamb köfte. The origin of the word köfte is from the Persian kufteh, meaning 'mashed' - it usually applies to a mixture of minced meat (though you can get vegetarian versions), pounded into a fine paste with spices, herbs and seasoning, before being either shaped into small balls or on a skewer like a kebab. Ours in Istanbul were the latter variety, and they certainly lived up to expectations, delivering a beautifully rich, smoky, meaty flavour with a hint of spice. It's hard to describe that incredible flavour of lamb kebabs, sweet and juicy on the middle but burnished and rich on the outside; these were like those generic lamb and mint versions you can buy in supermarkets for the barbecue, only infinitely better.
I've been meaning to try out Diana Henry's lamb and cherry köfte for ages, as I cannot resist the pairing of fruit with meat, and also because it reminds me of a dish ubiquitous on menus after we left Istanbul for Syria: 'Aleppo cherry kebab'. This apparently has a very brief season in Syria, when cherries are around, and features lamb meatballs in a rich, sweet sauce of cherries and pomegranate molasses. For some reason I never tried it (I think I was more obsessed with consuming every aubergine-related dish on the menus), but I figured Diana's version would be better than nothing, and it seemed sensible to make it during English cherry season. I've cooked lamb with quite a few fruits before (quinces and apricots being the best), but never cherries. If you can't get cherries for this recipe, Diana suggests using a mixture of dried and fresh apricots instead.
It's a pretty easy recipe - the only hard work involved is pounding the lamb mince with all the spices to incorporate them evenly and to mix it into a fine paste, but I found this rather satisfying. After that, you shape the lamb into meatballs, brown them in a pan (and watch buckets of artery-clogging fat ooze out - keep an old jar or tin handy to catch it), then fry an onion with some fresh and dried cherries (I couldn't find dried cherries so I used dried cranberries), add a little stock, and let the meatballs simmer in this sauce for a while until it thickens. Scatter over a generous amount of fresh mint, drizzle over a tahini yoghurt sauce, pile it into thick, warm flatbread, and you could be in Syria (as it was when I went, anyway, not the sad war-torn place it is now...although with all the madness going on in London at the moment, you probably can almost pretend you're in Syria).
This is my take on the Aleppo cherry kebab, combining it with another incredible Syrian/Turkish dish - shwarma. Shwarma is a much nicer version of the rotating-meat-on-a-stick kebab you get in vans everywhere over here; shredded meat is drizzled with tahini or garlic yoghurt sauce and served in a flatbread wrap with salad. It's incredibly delicious, and making it with lamb and cherries only adds to the tastebud sensation.
Be warned, though - this is incredibly messy to eat. Embrace the lamb, cherry and yoghurt juices drizzling out of the flatbread and down your arm, and keep some napkins handy.
Lamb köfte with cherries (serves 6):
(adapted from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty)
- 1 kg minced lamb
- 4 tsp cinnamon
- 3 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 350g pitted fresh cherries
- 100g dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water for 15 mins then drained
- Juice of half a lemon
- 150ml lamb/chicken stock
- A large handful of chopped mint, parsley or coriander (or all three)
- 200ml Greek yoghurt
- 4 tbsp milk or buttermilk
- 3 tbsp tahini
- Flatbread, to serve
- Salad, to serve
Put the lamb in a bowl and add all the spices except 1tsp cinnamon. Season. Pound the meat with the spices until everything is well blended. Form the mixture into walnut-sized balls and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the meatballs in batches, making sure they are well browned. Drain them on kitchen paper once they are browned, and pour off any excess fat, leaving about 1tbsp once you're finished.
Add the onion to the pan and fry until soft and golden. Add 250g of the fresh cherries and all the dried cranberries with the remaining cinnamon and cook for a minute or so until softening, then add the lemon juice.
Return the kofte to the pan and add the stock. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes or so until cooked through and the sauce is quite thick. Add the rest of the cherries towards the end of the cooking time, to heat through.
Mix the yoghurt with the milk/buttermilk and tahini. Drizzle over the lamb and cherry mixture, then scatter with the chopped mint. Stuff into warm flatbreads with salad, roll up, and devour.