THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Izmir | Köfte | The Story of Meatballs, Part 1

As we have seen meatballs, older than the meat mincer, are ubiquitous throughout the continent. They were well known to the Romans and probably arrived in Italy with the Etruscans who probably learned them from the eastern Mediterranean cultures.

Their popularity comes from the easy availability of ingredients and the simple method of production.

The meatball is generally made with minced meat, breadcrumbs, egg, herbs, onion and seasoning, then fried, baked or boiled, and often finished in a sauce or soup.

Regional differences, cultural influences and variable techniques characterise the meatball.

In Poland, Ukraine and Russia the influence is the bulette, a recipe brought to Berlin in 1700 with the Huguenots. Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and western Germany share the same basic recipe.

In the Balkans bulgur or rice alters the texture, which is the result of double mincing, a technique also favoured by the Turks.

The countries of the Mediterranean have a schizophrenic attitude toward meatballs. They are either light and simple with nothing more than an egg and a tablespoon of cheese to bind the meat or heavy and complicated with numerous combinations of grains, herbs, legumes, spices and vegetables to enrich the meat.

The Turks boast nearly 300 varieties of köfte, including çiğ köfte (raw meatball), which combines bulgur, onions, water, paprika, mint, parsley and lemon with beef.

Meatballs are among the national dishes in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.

Apicius recorded a recipe for meatballs in pork caul that included minced meat, crustless bread, wine, ground pepper, garum, myrtle berries, pine nuts and whole peppercorns.

Replace the wine with milk, add butter or oil for the garum, egg instead of the caul for binding and you have a meatball similar to one made 2,500 years ago.

It was far from the first.

If there was such a thing as a standard western ‘European’ meatball it would probably be something like the version below. There is no such thing as a standard eastern European meatball, even though it is likely the meatball tradition originated in Anatolia and in the Levant.

Köfte TURKEY beef and lamb meatballs

Köfte, minced meat in Farsi, have been integral to Turkish cuisine since the 1300s when they were introduced to the Ottoman palace kitchens and quickly became popular.

Although meatballs have been around much longer, the varied use of minced meat, cooked and raw, in Turkish cuisine has transformed köfte culture.

A traditional köfte “meat” ball will contain various meats and is generally enriched with the same ingredients – breadcrumbs, eggs, onions and seasonings – much like the European tradition.

What makes the Turkish meatball different is in the method, and one that was established a long time ago.

This köfte recipe produces arguably the best meatballs on the planet, but se are biased.

It originated with Mehmet Kamil‘s Melceü‘t-Tabbâhîn (Resource of Cooks) and was adapted by Özge Samanci and Sharon Croxford, of the Istanbul Food Workshop, for their Flavours of Istanbul book.

We tweaked it a little.

  • 500 g beef, minced
  • 400 g lamb, minced
  • 120 g onion purée
  • 90 ml water
  • 30 g butter
  • 2 tsp green pepper, ground
  • 1 tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1 tsp salt

Combine meat, onion purée, cinnamon, pepper and salt, knead for five minutes until the fat comes off on the hands, shape into 25 g balls. Place small bowl in the middle of large frying pan. Put butter and water into bowl, arrange köfte around bowl. Cover, cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Serve with a sauce made from the cooking juices reduced with the butter-water liquid.

The European Meatball

Making homemade meat balls

If there was such a dish as the European meatball, influenced by the diverse food cultures, it might be something like this.

  • 1.75 kg beef and pork, minced
  • 180 g Dijon mustard
  • 175 g bread soaked in water
  • 120 g manchego / pecorino cheeses, grated 
  • 5 scallions, chopped small
  • 40 g breadcrumbs
  • 15 g mixed peppercorns, ground
  • 10 cloves garlic, crushed, chopped
  • 10 g Hungarian hot paprika
  • 2 lemons, zest
  • 5 sprigs marjoram, leaves chopped small
  • 7 g juniper berries, crushed
  • 5 g salt
  • 5 sprigs thyme, leaves chopped small
  • Sunflower oil, for frying

Combine the meat in a large bowl with the mustard and soaked bread, add seasonings and spices, berries and herbs, and zest.

Shape into small balls, half a finger in diameter.

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Spread breadcrumbs on a large plate, roll meatballs in crumbs, covering lightly.

Heat a thin film of oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat, gently brown meatballs a few at a time. Transfer to a baking tray.

Bake in oven for 20 minutes.

… continued in part 2.