“I’ve always been told I’m a great cook,” Ibtissam Masto told me as she shaped cylinders of ground beef mixed with raw almonds and spices to make kebab halabi. “I just didn’t think I’d be doing it for a living.” We met during her lunch shift at the UNHCR cafeteria in Beirut, as part of a program for refugee women.
Ibtissam, a 37-year-old mother of six, fled to Beirut in 2013, after a shower of shrapnel barely missed her toddler while he played at home. Life in Idlib, the city in northwest Syria where she lived, had become unrecognizable. “I used to go to weddings and stay out until 3:00am without any issues,” she remembered, talking as she stirred a pot of tomato sauce to pour over the meat, “but now, you sleep in fear, you eat in fear.”
Ibtissam and her family were recently resettled from Beirut to Cincinnati, OH. Adjusting to a new life so far from home has been a challenge, she said, especially because she and her husband don’t know English. But that hasn’t stopped her from dreaming. Ibtissam hopes to get into a professional kitchen again, and maybe have her own food blog or cooking show.
This recipe for what Ibtissam calls kebab halabi, or Aleppo Kebab in Arabic, is a simple adaptation from her instructions. The dish is more widely known as kebab hindi, a simple ground beef kebab baked with a tomato-onion reduction. I add a little onion to the meat mixture for moisture, and sumac to the tomato sauce to give it a stronger acidic kick. It’s a great 30-minute meal, best served with a side of vermicelli rice.
500 g ground lean beef
1/8 cup raw almonds roughly chopped
¼ cup onion finely diced
1 tsp salt
3 tsp seven spice (see note)
1 tsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced narrow strips – like crescents
3 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sumac
One large bell pepper, sliced width-ways to make hollow circles.
Preheat the oven to 180 C.
Kebab: In a bowl, combine beef, almonds, onion, salt and seven spice. Use your hands to massage the ingredients all together until thoroughly mixed.
Lightly oil a 9×13 tray or Pyrex dish. Take a handful of beef and roll into a cylinder. Continue until you’ve filled the tray. You should have 15 little “kebabs”.
Put in the oven to bake and set a timer for 10 minutes.
Sauce: Heat olive oil and add onions. Sautee until translucent. Add tomatoes and salt, and allow them to cook down. After about 5 minutes, add sumac.
Combine: After 10 minutes, remove the kebabs from the oven. Spoon or pour the sauce over them. Lay bell pepper slices on top. Return to oven for 7 more minutes.
Serve warm on top of vermicelli rice.
Note: Seven-spice is a combination of spices commonly used in Arabic cooking. Although the mixture varies country-to-country, and even household to household, the basic ingredients remain the same: black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin and coriander. Some folks add paprika or ginger, sometimes there’s white pepper in there, too. Syrian seven spice tends to use all-spice seeds, which possess a flavor combination similar to cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Middle Eastern markets will certainly have a seven-spice mix, and if you want to make your own mix at home, here’s a good place to start.