Most friends look at me with suspicion when I introduce them to an unfamiliar kind of Turkish snack, çiğ köfte, and translate it into English: seasoned raw meatballs.
You see them thinking: ‘no raw meat for me, because that has been sitting around in the sun breeding bacteria; I don’t want to spoil the rest of my stay in Istanbul’. But I can reassure them that eating this traditional snack isn’t risky for their health. The meat version of çiğ köfte has been banned from casual sale since 2009.
The traditional meat version, made out of uncooked beef or lamb that is kneaded together with bulgur, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices, is still offered at several grill restaurants in old neighborhoods like Fatih.
Close to the mosque and mausoleum of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih in Turkish) I saw an ‘usta’ (cook) starting to prepare his çiğ köfte. He started with finely ground bulgur (durum and other wheat) and covered that with ingredients like mild onions, scallions, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, and mint leaves. Indispensable for an authentic çiğ köfte is ‘isot’, a very dark, almost blackish and special dried pepper that is locally produced by farmers of Şanlıurfa, in the southeast of Turkey.
With the mass migration since the 1960s, of people from the east to big cities in the west, like Ankara, Izmir, Bursa and Istanbul their dishes and spices went with them. That’s why we now can enjoy those delicacies of Eastern Turkey in Istanbul too.
According to lore, çiğ köfte was invented in Urfa at the time of prophet Abraham. It is usually served as an appetizer in both Armenian and Turkish cuisines, but nowadays there is an increasing number of small eateries that serve çiğ köfte only.
Most people eat çiğ köfte in a lettuce leaf, sprinkled with lemon. But I prefer to eat it wrapped (dürüm) in paper-thin lavaş bread. One of my favorite places to enjoy this spicy snack is Elazığ Çiğ Köftecisi in Kadıköy on Moda Caddesi No. 57C.
For me it is spicy enough as it is, so I always ask for acısız (not spicy). The wrap comes with different kinds of salad, pieces of cucumber, lemon and pickles. I take ‘ayran’ (yoghurt drink) to counter-act the burning sensation that this spicy lunch gives me.
So enjoy the arrival of this new culinary trend of the meatless version of this very old dish. Give it a try, vegetarians and non-vegetarians!