Why It Works
- Browning the beef jumpstarts the Maillard reaction, developing complex layers of flavor that carry over into the finished stew.
- Sautéeing the onions and spices in ghee and rendered beef fat blooms the spices, developing their complexity while drawing their flavor into the fat.
The word kabab might make you think of charred, sizzling skewers of minced meat over a raging fire spit, but kabab halla—an iconic Egyptian dish of braised beef and onions—couldn’t be more different. Kabab halla translates simply to “meat in the pot,” and consists mostly of inexpensive stew meat and yellow onions, two widely available and affordable ingredients. Cooked in just enough stock or water to cover, the beef and onions simmer for two hours until the meat is tender and the onions collapse into a velvety sauce. For many Egyptians, kabab halla is considered the ultimate comfort food.
Some variations of the recipe include wedges or cubes of russet potato that are added to the stew for the last 30 minutes cooking, thickening the sauce with their starch while stretching the meat further. Other more modern variations include additional ingredients, which braise alongside the beef and add their own earthy flavor. This recipe keeps things simple and classic, with the beef, onions, and spices the main ingredients. That said, you could easily adapt the recipe to include potatoes, mushrooms, or anything else that appeals, though you may need to adjust the cooking liquid volume and process slightly to accommodate them.
Choosing the Best Beef Cut and Onions for Kabab Halla
While there are several cuts of beef suitable for stewing and braising, Egyptians often use the top round, a subtly-marbled cut of beef, to make kabab halla. For this recipe, however, we're calling for boneless beef chuck, as we find that what beef in the United States, it's a more reliable option for slow-cooked dishes—it's higher in collagen than many other beef cuts, which melts into tender gelatin over long periods of cooking, resulting in stewed beef that is juicy and flavorful and a sauce that has enhanced sulkiness thanks to that supply of gelatin.
As for the onions, I prefer yellow, which are deeply sweet and aromatic, developing a pleasing sweetness as they cook. While red onions may lend sweetness, they are slightly more pungent than yellow onions and may overpower the flavor of kabab halla. White onions, on the other hand, have a milder flavor, which I don't think works as well here.
How to Make Kabab Halla
The basic process for making his recipe is as follows: First, salt and brown the beef right away. Salt draws moisture out of the meat through osmosis, so if you salt the beef too far in advance, it'll be wet when it goes into the pot, which drives down the cooking temperature and delays browning. You could, of course, salt the beef far in advance—at least 40 minutes—to give it time for the moisture to be drawn out and then be reabsorbed or evaporate, but for speed, salting and searing right away works well.
After that, the onions are browned in the pot with the garlic and spices, which both develops their flavor before the stock is added and softens them more fully. Adding the spices at this stage, instead of to the pot after the stock has gone in, blooms their flavor by toasting them in the fat. Plus, because so much of a spice's flavor and aroma is fat soluble, this cooking step increases their flavor impact on the final stew.
Once the stock goes into the pot, it's time to cook it until the beef is properly tender. I am in the habit of doing it on the stovetop, which is what the recipe instructs, though you could also transfer the stew to a relatively low 325°F (175°C) oven, partially covered, and let it slow cook there until the beef is tender. Either way, the stew is finished on the stovetop to ensure the cooking liquids are cooked down to a silky, saucy glaze.
- 2 1/4 pounds (1kg) boneless beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) ghee or neutral oil like canola oil, plus more if needed (see note)
- 4 medium yellow onions (8 ounces, 225g each), thinly sliced (about 8 cups)
- 3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup (120ml) homemade beef stock or low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if necessary (see note)
- One 3-inch cinnamon stick
- 2 bay leaves
- Roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish (optional)
- Cooked white rice, preferably Egyptian misri or other long-grain rice such as basmati, for serving
- Warmed pita, for serving
Pat beef dry with paper towels and season all over with salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper.
In a Dutch oven or a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat ghee over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, add beef in a single layer and cook until evenly browned on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate. Repeat with remaining beef.
Add onions to the Dutch oven and cook, stirring often, until they begin to soften and brown, about 5 minutes; add additional ghee or oil if pot becomes too dry. Add the garlic along with the allspice, cayenne, coriander, paprika, cardamom, cumin, and nutmeg, and continue to cook, stirring, for 1 minute. (You don’t need to caramelize the onions all the way as they will brown further during the slow cooking process.)
Return the beef and any accumulated juices to the pot. Stir in the broth along with the cinnamon stick and bay leaves. Bring to a boil then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, until meat is tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, checking every 20-30 minutes to make sure that the braise does not become dry and adding more water or broth if necessary (you want the braise to be moist but the meat should not be submerged in excess liquid). Once meat is tender, uncover, increase heat to medium-low, and simmer gently to reduce the sauce until thick and jammy, 20 to 30 minutes; season with salt, if needed. The braise is ready when the meat is fork-tender and the onions have completely melted into a thick sauce.
Transfer to a deep serving dish. Garnish with fresh parsley leaves, if desired, and serve hot with rice and/or pita.
The buttery flavor of ghee is preferable, but a neutral oil like canola oil will work in a pinch (regular butter risks scorching with high-heat searing so is best avoided).
Store-bought beef stock is frequently a poor substitute for the real thing so we recommend homemade if possible; store-bought chicken stock is generally the better substitute to homemade, unless you have a source of high-quality beef stock.
The cooking time of this beef braise depends on the meat cut used. So adjust the cooking time accordingly and add more water or broth if necessary.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Kabab halla can be made 1-3 days in advance and kept refrigerated.
You can make a big batch of kabab halla and freeze it in zipper-lock bags.