If you have a look at the Wikipedia definition of Kebab, you will find that it has a much wider range of culinary expressions than the skewered meat chunks most westerners expect. All across the ‘kebab’ world, from Turkey, through the Middle East, to India and Pakistan, lamb is the primary choice but beef and chicken are also used; sometimes in large pieces, other times smaller chunks, and, quite often minced, or ground.
The ‘Shahi Kebab’ is a relatively common restaurant offering and generally consists of highly spiced ground lamb or beef that is then grilled, or sometimes fried or baked, in a sausage shape around a long skewer. The word ‘shahi’ is Hindi for ‘royal’ and the term is vague enough to allow for almost any combination of ingredients to fit the description. Some preparations are quite elaborate, containing cream, nuts, or even saffron in the meat mix, but I am going to do a much plainer version along the lines of a very nice appetizer I enjoyed at the Café Shafali on my last trip to Ottawa…
- 1lb ground Beef (use regular, not lean);
- 1 Egg;
- 1 ½ tbsp. Flour (use Besan, or chickpea flour, if possible);
I have decided not to include all the spices for this experiment in my ingredients picture as there are just too many of them and quite a few are in such small amounts as to make picturing them pointless… Here is the list:
- 2 tbsp. Chili-Ginger-Garlic Paste;
- 1 tbsp. Coriander Seed;
- 1 tbsp. Cumin Seed;
- 1 tbsp. White Poppy Seed;
- 1 tsp. Fennel Seed;
- 2 Cloves;
- 1 tsp. Black Peppercorns;
- 1 Black Cardamom pod;
- 1 ½ tsp. powdered Red Chili Pepper;
- ½ tsp. powdered Green Cardamom powder;
- 1 tbsp. dried Fenugreek Leaf (Methi);
- 1 tsp. Sugar;
- 1 tsp. Salt.
First, prepare the dry spice blend: Individually toast the coriander, cumin, poppy and fennel seeds in a dry pan and grind them with the cloves, the peppercorns, and the seeds from the black cardamom. Sift the result to remove any hard fragments and then mix in a small bowl along with the salt, sugar, red pepper powder, cardamom powder and fenugreek leaf. Set this aside for now.
The kebab I had at the Shafali Café were very finely ground, with a dense homogenous texture. This is the effect I am aiming for so I am going to employ a commonly used Chinese technique for making meat balls and dumpling fillings…
Put the meat and the Chili-Ginger-Garlic paste into a bowl and blend the two together well with your hands. Next, take a wooden spoon and begin stirring the mixture in one direction only until it all becomes sticky. Once this happens, take the mass from the bowl and throw it back in forcefully several times. Now, add the dry spice blend.
Beat the egg, and add it to the meat and spice mixture along with the flour. Begin stirring again (one direction only) until everything is nicely incorporated. Now, divide the mixture into two separate balls and put them on a platter. Pop this into the freezer and leave it there for about twenty minutes so that it firms up and is easier to handle.
Once this is done, form the two balls of meat into long sausage shapes around two skewers and then pop them back into the freezer again until ready to cook.
Now, before we continue, I should tell you that, although I was tempted to try cooking these entirely on the grill I chickened out, fearing that the soft meat and heavy skewers might be too hard to handle, so I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and opted for a pre-cooking in the oven first. Here is how to go about it:
Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees and lay the skewers on an oiled sheet. Bake them for about twenty minutes, turning a few times, until the meat is solidified and not likely to break up. While this is happening, fire up your grill to a good moderate heat.
When the skewers are ready, oil your BBQ grill and set them on over a medium to high flame. Cook, turning as grill marks appear, until the meat is clearly firm all the way through when you press upon the surface. Remove from the heat and let rest for a few minutes.
At this point, you can serve the skewers as is, perhaps over a bed of rice, or else slide the meat off and slice it. As I was trying to recreate the dish I had in Ottawa, I removed the meat from the skewers and sliced it obliquely into the half inch thick ovals you see in the first picture.
I should begin by saying that I was really expecting this experiment to be a disaster almost from the beginning. After mixing the spice blend with the meat I became convinced that I had overdone it a bit and that the result would taste ghastly. Also, the consistency of the mixture seemed way too soft at first and I had visions of the skewers disintegrating to leave me with nothing but a mess.
As it happened though, I was really pleased with result other than the fact that the texture was just a tad dry and granular, and I also wasn’t able to achieve a perfectly cylinder for the ‘sausage’ shape. Beyond that, though, the taste was really nice and complex and I thought that the spice mixture was just right.
On a final note, I will admit that this experiment ultimately seemed to be a heck of a lot of work for the result but, mainly, that stems from the fact that I was really ‘winging’ it have never tried to cook this type of kebab before. Likely, with a bit of tweaking and some more practice, this will be a dish I will want to add to my repertoire…