Kofte Kebabs with Spicy Harissa Yogurt Sauce (Minced Lamb Kebabs)

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

I don't know why shish kebabs became the dominant form of grilled-meat-on-a-stick imported from the Middle East to the U.S. when kofte kebabs are, in my humble opinion, so much better. Shish kebabs—that's chunks of marinated meat (or vegetables) on grilled on a skewer—are really tough to get right, and when not right, they're really tough. Kofte kebabs, on the other hand are made with minced meat, and thus don't have that problem. Shish kebabs must be marinated for extended periods of time if you want flavor to penetrate beyond the very exterior. Kofte kebabs have seasoning built right into them, packing more flavor in less time.

Originating in Persia, they're found all over the Middle East and as far north as Turkey, Armenia, and Macedonia. In the U.S., you're most likely to find them at Turkish or Lebanese restaurants where they're served either as individual balls, or threaded onto skewers and grilled. They're one of my favorite quick meals during the summer, as I've always got the dried spices on hand, and all it takes is a bit of ground meat and aromatics to throw together.

It's the kind of thing that comes off looking and sounding very impressive, but is really no more difficult to make than a hamburger.


Traditionally, ground spices like cumin and coriander, garlic, onions, and herbs like parsley or mint are the primary flavoring ingredients for the lamb. I like to add a big squirt of harissa paste—the Tunisian pepper paste made from piri-piri chilis. It's not from anywhere near the same region, and if I had a Lebanese grandmother she'd probably disown me, but I'm of the mind that if it tastes good, it's welcome to the party. Harissa tastes good. You can leave it out if you want to stay true to the original.

Likewise, I don't necessarily stick to lamb. If, say, I've got a bunch of beef trimmings or even pork, I've got no compunction in swapping the meats out. So long as you have a good 20% fat to 80% lean ratio (more fat is better), you're in safe territory.

The key to developing flavor is to grill them hard and hot. The kebabs do have a tendency to fall apart if you aren't careful, so I skip my usual method of starting on the cool side and finishing up over the hot. Instead, I place them directly over a blazing inferno to firm up and char as quickly as possible, then transfer them over to the cooler side to finish.

They're delicious as is, but I like to drizzle them with a quick yogurt and harissa-based sauce. And while rice is the traditional accompaniment, they go exceptionally well with a fresh grilled flatbread, like my grilled naan. If you time it right, you can be grilling the bread on the hot side of the grill while the kebabs are finishing off on the cooler end and get everything hot and fresh to the table at exactly the same time.