Syrian torpedoes – Kibbah bi laban

Many of my friends say that Erbil is hot and boring. Had they had any poetic soul, this is how their facebook (we live in era of social media) posts would have look like:

Yesterday I burned the Gospel
And gave my praises to despair –
For the Devil himself
Would not dream
Of coming to this place

“Amman” Najwan Darwish (never mind it’s about Amman. Amman is not bad at all.)

Erbil is not as bad as you would think though (once you forget ISIS forces are stationed 40 mins from where I’m writing this post). We have few bars, 1 decent pizza place, 2 Chinese restaurants, 1 second-hand bazaar and the Citadel – this large empty fortress that has been closed since a year due to renovation.

Today, we had what I believe was the 1st charity cooking class organized in Erbil. This is because we’re raising money for a Syrian family who soon will move to Australia. In consequence, more than 10 people came to learn how to cook Damascene fattah, fattoush, kibbah bi laban and rice pudding.

Our chef was from Damascus and just before we started the class she confessed that she didn’t really like cooking. Hmm….what do you tell people who came to cook? Just smile and keep quiet.

Despite this strong statement, the chef cooks a lot because her husband likes her food. She says that in Syria every girl needs to learn how to cook before she gets married. When she was young she used to watch her mum, never cook. She started making her own food after she got married. Well, suma sumarum, she is an amazing cook.

Cooking kibbah took ages. (Fact that we used 1 kg of bulghur might have something to do with it.) We all left this cooking class with few more grey hairs but at least it was worth it. Kibbah is a “torpedo-shaped fried croquette made of burghul and minced meat”, as suggested by uncle Google. Shall you plan to make it, consider going for a run afterwards to burn all the sunflower oil that is absorbed by your body from deep-fried balls of groats and meat.

Surprisingly (not really), origins of kibbah are uncertain. It is spread over the Middle East& North Africa region. I find it extremely funny and somehow inappropriate that during the WWII British soldiers used to call it “Syrian torpedoes”.[1] Kibbah was also brought to North and South America by Arab migrants who displaced in waves between 1870s to 1920s, and then in 1960s. This is about the same time (19th cent.)  when Arabic literature experienced renaissance followed by establishment of two most important schools of modern literary thought. One in New York led by Gibran Khalil Gibran (yes. This guy who wrote the Prophet). Second one sprouted in Brasil.[2] Most of the migrants displaced from areas around Mount Lebanon in today’s Lebanon. Those of them who couldn’t afford existential dilemmas and writing, became peddlers or opened their own restaurants. And that’s how kibbah was introduced on these continents. Today, it was also introduced to couple of more foreigners who might take the recipe back home and start a new trend or reinforce their own traditional cuisine. However, in light of current political situation in Europe, I wouldn’t be concerned about short life span or extinction of Middle Eastern kibbah worldwide. I wish though it could be consumed as it used be: in a festive atmosphere, and in a country where kibbah were the only “torpedoes” people heard about.

Kibbah bi Laban (Damascene way)
Serves: dozen
Preparation time: forever

1 kg extra fine or fine bulghur (cracked wheat)
0.5 kg minced beef
1 l water
Spices : ½ tsp chili flakes; 1tsp hot chili powder; ½ tsp black pepper; 1 tsp salt

1 kg minced beef (don’t be afraid of fat. Check note beneath)
180 g onions, finely chopped
200 g walnuts, chopped
Spices: 2 tsp chili flakes, 2tsp black pepper, 3 tsp salt (flat), ½ tsp hot chili powder, 2 tsp cumin

1,5 l sunflower oil for frying

Yogurt sauce
2 l yogurt (4,6% fat)
1 l water
2 eggs
2 chicken stock cubes (yes. We use them)
1 espresso cup short grain rice, soaked for half an hour in 1 glass of water
1 tsp powdered mint



  1. In a large pan, heat olive oil and add finely chopped onion. Sauté onion for about 5 minutes (it should be translucent). Add ground beef and cook until browned. Once browned, season with salt and the remaining spices. Add chopped walnuts and continue cooking until tender, 5 more minutes. Remove from heat and put aside.

Meat dough:

  1. In a large bowl, cover the bulgur with 1 l of water. Let it sit for 30 minutes.
  2. Afterwards grind the bulgur in mincing machine. Add the spices and ground beef. Mixed properly and mince again to a smooth paste. You can also use food processor.
  3. To form the croquettes, with wet hands, shape the meat-bulgur dough into egg-sized balls. Using index finger, poke a hole in the center of each ball, rotate the dough in your palm to shape the ball into a thin-walled oval (just check the videos below). Fill the hole with 1 tablespoon of the filling and then using your palm again gather the edges together to seal, shaping it into the aforementioned “torpedo”. Wet your hands from time to time.
  4. In a large saucepan, heat enough oil to cover the kibbah. Fry kibbah in batches until dark-browned, 4-5 minutes over medium heat. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a plate lined with paper towels, to soak the excess grease (don’t even dream that it’s getting any healthier).


Yogurt sauce

  1. Mix yogurt, water, eggs and bring to boil while stirring. Don’t stop stirring to prevent it from scrambling.
  2. Once boiling, add soaked rice with remaining water and boil for additional 15 minutes.
  3. Season with mint, add fried kibbah so that every torpedo is covered with yogurt sauce.
  4. Serve hot or at room temperature.


Few hints:

  1. What meat do I chose? After discussing, we agreed it’s the best to choose meat from animal’s back. Ask your butcher to keep some fat so that your meat is not dry. (I don’t believe that this remark comes from a former vegan).

  2. Don’t use kibbah that opened during frying as all stuffing will “leak out” to your yogurt sauce. Simply put it aside.







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