One of the first things I ever ate at my husband’s family’s home were these meltingly tender shami kebabs. They are one of Arjun’s favorite foods and whenever we go visit his mother in Delhi, these are always served at the first meal we have at her home. These circular kebabs are almost impossible to find in restaurants here in the US and have a rather unusual cooking method. You cook lentils or dal and ground meat together until both are fully cooked and then grind the mixture. In this case you use channa dal which are split chickpeas and look like small yellow circles. After grinding the meat and dal, you add egg and baking soda and then form the mixture into little patties that are pan fried. These are so crazy good. The texture is so smooth they almost disintegrate in your mouth. And they are fragrant with cinnamon and cardamom which plays really well against the gaminess of the meat.
The recipe comes from a cookbook that Arjun’s grandmother gifted him back in 2001, after he had graduated from college and was living on his own. It is called the N.I.A.W. Cookbook and is a compilation of recipes from members of the National Indian Association of Women. The book is super international and has recipes from all over India but also includes Mexican and British specialities among others. Because the recipes are contributed by home cooks versus professional food writers, the instructions are pretty basic and there is often quite a bit of trial and error to get these dishes to work. But the flavors are usually spot on even inf the technique needs some fine tuning.
In India these would be made with goat (mutton) perhaps but here I use ground lamb. I first tried to make this recipe 8 years ago and it was an utter failure. The kebabs kept falling apart and I had to add so many breadcrumbs that by the end I was calling them bread kebabs. I finally figured out the trick – you have to drain the cooked lamb and dal of all moisture before grinding and then let the mixture cool – even refrigerate if you have time – before pan frying. Even still they are very delicate and best eaten fresh out of the pan. I love them on a piece of toast with some cilantro-mint chutney. These are a hit with my son, Shiv as well. They require a bit of time but this is the season to be in the kitchen so hopefully you will get a chance to give these a whirl. For us, they are the most delicious taste of home.
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- 2 lbs ground lamb
- 1/2 cup channa dal
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 3 bay leaves
- 3 inch peice of ginger finely chopped
- 1-3 green chilies (I used only 1 for gentle heat but if you like things spicy you might want more)
- 10 cloves
- 10 green cardamom pods
- 1 2 inch piece cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 6 tbl oil for frying
1. Rinse the channa dal and cover with water to soak for at least 4 hours to overnight. The longer you soak it the faster it will cook with the lamb. If I am organized and thinking ahead I tend to soak it overnight.
2. In a dutch over, heat 2 tbl of oil until it shimmers. Add the chopped onions and saute until they are soft – about 5 minutes.
3. Add the ginger, green chili, cardamom pods, cloves, and cinnamon stick and saute until the mixture is fragrant – about 1-2 minutes.
4. Drain the channa dal throughly and add it to the onions along with the ground lamb, turmeric and salt. Suate until the meat is no longer pink.
5. Add a half cup of water and cook over medium heat, partially covered until the water is absorbed – about 10 minutes.
6. Repeat step 5 another 2 times. This technique is similar to cooking risotto where you add a little liquid at a time. After adding 1 1/2 cups of water total, try a piece of dal and see if it is cooked. It should disintegrate on the tongue – there should be no firmness. If it’s not there yet, add another half of water and taste again. The amount of water varies depending on how long the dal was soaked and also the dal itself. The older the lentil the more water it may need.
7. Once the dal is cooked, let the mixture cool for 30 minutes.
8. Transfer the meat and dal mixture to a food processor. Make sure you completely drain the mixture as you transfer. I use a a wire skimmer for this purpose. Moisture is the enemy here and will keep the kebabs from staying together.
9. Process the mixture. While the machine is running add the egg, garam masala, and baking powder. Process until the mixture is very smooth. This will take longer than you think – about 2 minutes.
10. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. It will keep for several days so you can fry these on demand since the finished kebabs do not reheat well.
11. Form the cooled mixture into flattened circles that are 2 inches in diameter.
12. Heat 2 tbl of oil in a large non stick fry pan over medium heat and fry the kebabs until they are golden brown – about 3-4 minutes a side.
Serve immediately, preferably with cilantro-mint chutney.