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Kafta bi Bandora (Palestinian Ground Meat Patties in Tomato Sauce) Recipe

Kafta, a mixture of minced meat and spices, is an ancient preparation found across the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Europe. Different cultures have adapted it to their own tastes and there are now innumerable ways of cooking and enjoying this dish (as well as pronouncing and transliterating it: you will often find it written as “kofta,” which reflects a more Egyptian pronunciation; here I use “kafta,” which more closely reflects how Palestinians say it).

In the Palestinian kitchen, it is one of the most versatile and easy meals to prepare. The meat is usually made with minced lamb, but it can also be made with beef, goat, or any combination thereof. It’s mixed with onions, parsley, and spices, with other flavorings like herbs and nuts varying from family to family. Most people tend to finely grate or finely mince the additions like onions, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley, but I often blitz it quickly in a mini-chopper to save time and have not noticed any major difference in taste or texture.

Once the basic seasoned meat mixture is made, the possibilities for what to do with it are endless. It can be spread out in a baking dish, topped with onions and tomatoes or potatoes and peppers (or some other combination of those vegetables), and baked. It can be shaped into mini sausages and baked with potatoes in a tomato or tahini sauce. It can be made into patties and wrapped in grape leaves and cooked. It can be shaped into balls and poached in a lemony broth or other soups. And, of course, it can be grilled over a fire as well. These are but a few of the possibilities.

The key to good kafta is ensuring it is light and tender yet full of flavor. There are a few secrets to this, as my grandmother Teta Asma used to say. The first is to use a piece of day-old bread soaked in water, then drained and squeezed; this aligns with Daniel Gritzer’s Swedish meatball recipe tests, which found a wet panade led to more juicy and tender meatballs than dry breadcrumbs. Rather than soaking the bread with a plain liquid as a standalone step, I work in more flavor by pulsing it together with tomato, onion, and whatever herbs and spices I am using. The juices from the tomato and onion help to soak and disintegrate the bread, providing an insurance policy against dryness when the kafta is baked.

The second is to make sure you mix the ingredients enough so that you create a texture more cohesive than the loose grind of a hamburger patty but not so much that it becomes as bouncy as a sausage. Over the years, I have taken the spirit of her wisdom and experimented endlessly with kafta until I arrived at a version that ticks all the boxes, one that is fluffy and full of flavor yet it retains its shape, is juicy throughout and crispy around the edges, and is generously seasoned with ample flavor, but the meat still shines through as the star.

Third, try to get ground meat with a generous 20% fat content if possible—that fat is essential to juicy and flavorful kafta. Without it, the results will much more likely be chalky and dry.

In many cases, I broil the kafta first on a separate baking sheet before assembling the final dish with sauces and any other additional components. This not only develops better flavor by ensuring the meat browns and crisps instead of just stewing in sauce, but also allows for better presentation: Since kafta shrinks slightly when cooked, this pre-cooking step gets the shrinkage out of the way before final assembly, so the finished dish comes out looking full, not shrunken.

The traditional spices I use are called “mixed spices” in Arabic, and essentially include allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, and cumin. Sometimes I add cardamom, cloves, coriander, and/or nutmeg as well, but it is not necessary as even with black pepper and cumin alone, the flavor is still sublime. The recipe below is one version of kafta, the most common I make at home. But once you’ve nailed the basics of it, you should feel free to try out as many renditions as you can find or invent.

For versions that include a sauce, like the one here, rice is my preferred accompaniment, though bread is the choice for some. Or, if you really want to do it Palestinian style, then triple-carb is the way to go: kafta that has been cooked with potatoes, then served over rice with bread alongside to “scoop” everything up, or at least help push them onto your spoon.

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