Çiğ köfte (Turkish pronunciation: [ˌtʃiː cʰøfˈte]), a raw meat dish in Turkish cuisines, very similar to kibbeh nayyeh and to a lesser extent to steak tartare. It is traditionally made with either beef or lamb, and usually served as an appetizer or meze. In Turkish çiğ means "raw" and köfte means "meat ball".
According to lore, çiğ köfte was invented in Urfa at the time of Abraham or prophet Ibrahim. When Nimrod collected all firewood in Urfa in order to build a monumental execution pyre, the wife of a hunter had to prepare venison raw in the absence of firewood. She mixed the meat with bulgur, herbs and spices and crushed the mixture with stone implements until it was palatable.
Chee Kufta was introduced in the United States by Armenians as Armenian communities sprang up throughout the country, and was commonly referred to as Armenian Steak Tartare. This term is not as common today based on the declining popularity of steak tartare, although it is still used in some circles.
In the beef variant, ground beef is used. Tendons and fat are removed before grinding the beef. Relatively expensive high-quality beef has to be used so that the meat can be safely served raw. London broil or top round are recommended choices for the ground beef.
Since lamb is considered a "clean meat", and popular in Armenian cuisine, it is often used for chee kufta instead of beef. Both Armenians and Turks use chee kufta as a meze, served almost cold. The raw meat is not kept overnight and is reserved for special occasions. The lamb used must be deboned, degristled, and trimmed before it is prepared. The lamb is supposed to be butchered, bought, and prepared the very same day to ensure freshness.
With either meat, finely ground bulgur (durum and other wheat) is required. Other ingredients are mild onions, scallions, parsley, and usually green pepper. Variants of the dish may use tomato sauce, Tabasco sauce, and mint leaves. When served, it may be gathered into balls, or in one piece. Crackers or pita bread are sometimes used to consume it.
Chee Kufta is considered a delicacy in Armenian cuisine and is normally prepared on special occasions, especially during holidays. There are many varieties of Chee Kufta among Armenian families depending on the historic region they are from and their personal preferences. For example, some may use more or less bulgur, and some may use more or less pepper paste depending on their desired spiciness.
Traditional Armenian Chee Kufta is made in two varieties, either in loose meatball form in the shape of a small egg, or flattened on a plate with olive oil and minced green onions, similar to Kibbeh nayyeh. However, unlike Levantine Arabs, eating Chee Kufta with bread is not common among Armenians.
A vegetarian variety of Kufta also exists which is shaped very similarly to Chee Kufta and with a similar texture. Although it is prepared throughout the year, it is particularly popular during Lent in accordance with the diet restrictions of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Bulgur is kneaded with chopped onions and water until it gets soft. Then tomato and pepper paste, spices and very finely ground beef are added. This absolutely fatless raw mincemeat is treated with spices while kneading the mixture, which is said to "cook" the meat. Lastly, green onions, fresh mint and parsley are mixed in. Some çigköfte makers, particularly in Adiyaman, do not use water in their recipes. Instead of water, they use ice cubes and lemons.
One spice that is associated with çiğ köfte, and with Şanlıurfa as a whole, is isot, a very dark, almost blackish paprika, prepared in a special manner, and which is considered as indispensable for an authentically local preparation of çiğ köfte (and also of lahmacun). Although, isot is famous as the special dried pepper that is locally produced by farmers of Şanlıurfa, in fact, it is a general word used for pepper in Şanlıurfa.
There are also two no-meat versions for vegetarians. In Siverek district of Şanlıurfa, scrambled eggs are used instead of meat. And kısır, a specialty of Gaziantep region, although it resembles çiğ köfte in its conception, with more numerous and exclusively non-animal ingredients, is a dish that stands on its own.
Although traditional recipe requires minced -raw- meat, the version in Turkey consumed as fast-food (through small franchise shops in every neighborhood of Turkey) must be meatless by law due to hygienic necessities. Therefore, çiğ köfte is, unless home-made, vegan in Turkey since a decade. Meat is replaced by ground walnut.
Popular culture references
In an episode of Taxicab Confessions set in Las Vegas, a young male Armenian tourist confirms to the cabdriver that his buddy (also a young male Armenian) is right that he would marry a woman who could prepare good chee kufta.
- Keema, a family of dishes made of ground meat
- Perry, Charles. "The Hollywood Walk of Food" Los Angeles Times, Mar 12, 1992, pg,12
- Wottrich, Richard L. The History of Steak Tartare p.8
- Kwiatoski, Debbie. "Chee Kufta - Delicate Raw Meat Appetizer", July 25, 2008 on suite101.com
- Wise, Victoria. The Armenian Table (Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 0-312-32531-2) p.104
- Taxicab Confessions 2001: All's Fare in Love & Vegas (2001)