Rediscovering Palestinian Cuisine

Kifta bi Tahina: Arab Meatballs in Tahina-Lemon Sauce

Kifta bi Tahina: Arab Meatballs in Tahina-Lemon Sauce


By now you know I take dimly-lit photos on my prehistoric iPhone SE. I also don’t do fancy plating or much food styling, which is surprising for someone as concerned with aesthetics as I am. It’s one part laziness and partially that I prefer presenting food as it looks in the home kitchen–without the prettying up–home cooking and its unadulterated results should be accessible to the reader. There is no need to feel ashamed if your roast chicken doesn’t look sculpted, perfectly browned, and is not resting languidly on a bed of colorful herbs like a Reubens painting. My kitchen has no granite countertops, there is a random collection of dinnerware from years of living in urban apartments in different cities here and abroad, and I do the vast majority of my cooking without gadgets (this does not mean I’ve given up on getting a stand mixer). Consider it my slice of activism in a world where everything is artfully styled, assembled, lit, and filtered. The focus, here, is on the food and the memory it should imprint on your palate.

Kifta bil tahina (Arab meatballs cooked in tahina sauce) is my favorite way to prepare this dish. The kifta can be formed into any shape you please: thin fingers, torpedoes, flat patties, or into a pan like a meatloaf. There are also many different ways to cook kifta–a favorite of my mother’s was to bake it in tomato sauce covered with slices of potatoes. In this recipe I’ve gone for the easy oblong shape and a simple lemon-tahina sauce that beautifully brightens the lamb. You can use beef or a 50/50 mixture of ground beef and lamb, but my preference is 100 percent lamb because it’s fatty and makes for a tender meatball. The teta way is to grind your meat at home, but for those of us who don’t feel like converting our kitchens into a butchery, just ask the grocery store butcher counter to grind the lamb twice. Flavor the kifta with Baharat–an aromatic mix of warm spices including cinnamon, coriander, cumin, allspice, clove, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper, and a dash of ground ginger. This spice mix is classically Levantine and Palestinian, and I’ve broken down the ratio of spices in previous posts.

Ingredients for the kifta:
1 lb ground lamb
1 yellow onion
1-2 teaspoons Baharat spice mix
1 cup flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon olive oil for binding
1 green chili (optional if you like a bit of a kick)

For the lemon-tahina sauce:
1/2 cup tahina
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Salt, to taste (I recommend 1/2 to 1 teaspoon)
1-2 tablespoons water


1) Preheat oven to 375F. Either finely dice parsley and onion by hand, or pulse together in a food processor until diced. Don’t run the food processor too long, or you will have a watery mixture.
2) In a bowl, mix together the kifta ingredients: lamb, parsley, onion, spices, olive oil and evenly incorporate them. I typically do this by hand.

3) Form into oblong balls, then place in a baking dish.

Kifta baked in Pyrex: A study in contrast

4) Whisk together tahina, lemon juice, crushed garlic, salt, and a couple of tablespoons of water.
5) Place the baking dish with kifta in the oven for about 10-15 minutes until they are cooked through. Turn them halfway through baking.
6) After 10-15 minutes, take out the baking dish and pour the lemon-tahina mixture over the kifta. Bake another 10 minutes or until the tahina sauce bubbles and thickens. Remove from the oven. You can serve the kifta over rice, and garnish with chopped parsley and pine nuts.

Makes about 16 meatballs

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