A couple of months ago, if you’d offered me a big glob of cold red mush and a pile of lettuce leaves, and tried to convince me it was a meal, I would have been quite indignant.
Nowadays, there is generally some çiğ köfte in my fridge at any given time, as I repeatedly indulge my latest ‘new food’ addiction. A pretty healthy one, I think, in the same way that eating kimchi by the kilo didn’t do me much harm! However, when I went to write a post describing it to you, I realised that I had absolutely no idea what it was. Vegetables? Grains? Pepper paste?
I was somewhat alarmed, therefore, when I went on to Wikipedia just now and discovered that çiğ köfte is, in fact, a traditional Turkish dish made from finely-ground raw beef or lamb.
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.
Now, while the idea of eating raw meat doesn’t particularly disturb me (raw fish, after all, is one of my favourite delicacies after my years in Asia), the fact that I’ve been just casually letting it sit in my fridge for days on end, buying it from questionable vendors, and often leaving it out on the worktop for long periods of time, suddenly became quite worrying with this new knowledge. I actually cast aside my laptop and ran to the fridge, where I spent a troubled few minutes anxiously sniffing a container of half-eaten çiğ köfte and inspecting it closely from all angles.
However, my temporary alarm was unnecessary, as I realised sheepishly when I went back and finished reading the Wikipedia article all the way to the end. It seems that selling the raw meat version (except in specialist restaurants) has been illegal for several years now, for hygiene reasons, and so what I’ve been eating is an innocent, vegan version of the traditional food, with a walnut substitute replacing the meat. They just never bothered to change the name, which means “raw meat patty”. Relief! No food poisoning is imminent!
I first had çiğ köfte (pronounced something like “chee kuftuh”…. kinda… still working on my Turkish pronunciation skills!) at the Horny Estate Agent’s house, when he pushed the dish towards me and, upon seeing my blank expression, demonstrated how to eat it. He picked up a large chunk, placed it on a crispy lettuce leaf, squeezed some lemon juice over it, wrapped it up, and ate the whole thing in one huge bite. Like an innocent child, I copied the unfamiliar procedure and proceeded to choke half to death as my mouth and throat were consumed by a thousand fires of satan.
It’s quite spicy, remarked Horny Estate Agent, rather unnecessarily, as I nearly drowned myself with a litre of water in an attempt to extinguish the flames.
The next few times I encountered çiğ köfte, I broke off tiny portions instead, or spread it thinly inside a wrap, but gradually I’ve worked my way up to a point where I can almost – almost – eat it in the traditional manner without tears springing to my eyes. It’s surprisingly good, for a food that can cause so much pain. It’s also a hugely popular national dish, and has several chains of fast food places (found in every single neighbourhood in Istanbul, from what I can tell) dedicated to it. It even appears on several magnets on my fridge!
I marvelled yet again at how quickly the taste buds can adapt and change when the salad bar at school served çiğ köfte one day last week. I happily loaded up my plate with lots of lettuce and çiğ köfte, and washed it all down with copious amounts of cooling, soothing ayran, which no longer tastes weird to me.
It’s not all kebabs and Turkish Delight after all!