When bulgur wraps meat: Master class of Ishli Kufta

The small fists of a young woman are carefully kneading the boiled and ground bulgur, gradually adding warm water and two tablespoons of cayenne pepper.

“It is necessary to add as much water as needed for covering the bulgur, and then to knead properly. Salt should not be added now, and the cayenne pepper should not be very spicy,” says Maro Sargsyan, 45, who has mastered the secrets of Ishli Kufta cooking.

Sargsyan learned at the hands of her mother, who immigrated to Armenia from Syria.

“Ishli Kufta was brought to Armenia by Syrian-Armenians. A few years ago only Syrian-Armenians used to cook this dish, however during recent ten years Ishli Kufta became more popular among local Armenians. Now it became very fashionable, and it is one of the main decorations of almost every New Year festive table,” Sargsyan says.

She waits until the bulgur granules swell. Sargsyan says this is very important. “The bulgur granules should not be felt while eating Ishli Kufta,” she says.

She adds one kilo of Kufta’s minced meat to the wet a kilo of bulgur and kneads the mixture vigorously. Her hands put in order the mess in the bowl: from the right to the left, then from the left to the right. It feels that Sargsyan makes great efforts; however, she keeps on smiling.

“You know, this work is done by men in Syria, because it needs great strength. Proper kneading is very important, because the taste of Ishli Kufta depends on it. Bulgur must be blended with Kufta’s meat: as they say, “Kufta’s meat must ‘eat’ the granules of bulgur,”” she explains.

Sargsyan saves the early prepared beef stuffing in the kitchen. She explains how this stuffing must be prepared.

“For one portion, it is necessary to take a kilo of ground beef, to add some water to cover the meat, and some salt, then to cook the meat. When it is almost ready and starts sizzling, it is necessary to add a kilo of onion sliced into small pieces, and when the onion is cooked, to add different spices – common caraway, cayenne pepper, and black pepper, depending on taste,” she says.

Sargsyan stops working for a while. She says that it is necessary to leave the kneaded bulgur and Kufta to have a ‘rest’. She takes the ready meat mixture from the gas fire.

Sargsyan also earns money by preparing Ishli Kufta. She gets orders in New Year. She says she may prepare up to 300 Ishli Kuftas per day – each taking about two minutes. For the labor, she makes 150 drams (70 cents) per kufta.

“Last year, I had to prepare 500 Ishli Kuftas. I could not sleep at night because my fingers were aching,” she recalls. “However, I prepare with love for my clients.” Armenian artist Sos Sargsyan’s family is among her clients.

Now it is the most interesting phase for Ishli Kufta preparation. Sargsyan makes small balls from the mixture. She very fast makes a hole in the ball by her thumb, stuffs it with the cooked beef mixture, and again very fast closes it.

Ishli Kufta is almost ready. However, Sargsyan keeps on fixing it. Her fingers move so rapidly, that it is even hard to catch the sequence of her hand movements. The stuffed balls look like a bomb. Sargsyan says that she may prepare 90-100 balls of Ishli Kufta from one portion. She spends almost two hours while preparing them.

“It is necessary to make the balls very carefully and properly. The hole must be opened very gently; the wall must be rather thin, so that one feels at ease while eating it (Ishli Kufta). Many fail at this phase of preparing Ishli Kufta, and it becomes very thick; whereas, the thinness is very important for the taste. And generally, everything is important for the taste,” she says.

In two hours the tray is full of small Ishli Kuftas. The final phase of cooking is optional: either to boil them in water or to roast them in oil, again depending on taste.

Sargsyan prefers serving us the boiled version. She puts a few Ishli Kuftas into the boiling water: they are ready in ten minutes. Ishli Kufta is served with lettuce and lemon.

Sargsyan also says that Ishli Kufta balls may also cooked in buttermilk soup.

“How do you prepare buttermilk soup? Let’s say, you take a liter of yogurt (Armenian Matsun) mix it with water, and when its starts boiling, you add Ishli Kuftas into it. Later you should roast onion sliced into small pieces in butter, a separate frying-pan, add cayenne pepper, some mint. When everything is cooked, you should put the mixture into the buttermilk soup. It is very delicious,” Sargsyan says.

The master of Ishli Kufta states that this dish is not for winter only, and it does not matter that people usually prepare it for New Year festive tables.

“Simply we serve Ishli Kufta to our best guests. And all of us, usually, have beloved guests whom we are looking forward to seeing at New Year,” she concludes.

The following ingredients are necessary for cooking Ishli Kufta:
1 kilo of bulgur
1 kilo minced meat
2 tablespoons sweet cayenne pepper

Ingredients necessary for the beef stuffing:

1 kilo ground beef
1 kilo finely chopped onion
salt, common caraway, cayenne pepper, black pepper

To prepare bulgar:

1. Add warm water (estimated by sight) to one kilo bulgar
2. Add two tablespoons cayenne
3. Knead
4. Let sit 15 minutes then add minced meat
5. Continue kneading until well mixed

To prepare meat stuffing:

1. Cook one kilo ground beef with salt to taste, until browned
2. Add one kilo finely chopped onions
3. Let cook for a few minutes, then add other spices