The more time I spend in Brussels, the more I understand why the Surrealist movement gained a momentum here. The fact that a city of less than 2 million people contains a dozen governments should already tell you something. There is the European Union government, the Brussels region government, the French Community of Belgium government and its Flemish counterpart, each of which has its own representatives. If that weren’t enough, Brussels consists of 19 municipalities, each with its own mayor and laws. It’s no wonder that each trip to city hall leaves me with a minor nervous breakdown.
On the other hand, the diversity of people that Brussels attracts is the best thing about the city. You can cross the city on foot in a couple of hours, but sometimes turning onto a new street makes you feel as if you are in a different country. When it comes to food, the choices are limitless. Whether you have a craving for moules frites, the famous Belgian specialty of mussels and fries, for Sicilian cannoli or for something as exotic as mwambe, a Congolese chicken stew with peanuts, you can discover it all quite easily.
At first, my cooking attempts were timid, since I was stumped by the tiny hot plate in our temporary housing and the lack of proper cooking equipment. Making spaghetti in a tiny saucer made me feel like a Top Chef contestant, except that there was no prize for winning this Quickfire Challenge. But the more fresh and unusual produce I spotted at the local grocery stores, the more I craved to come home and cook. I was no longer captivated by the chocolate displays. I stared longingly at the ruby red lamb steaks and plump chickens arranged in the butcher’s window and in my mind composed elaborate menus for feasts. I finally went out and bought a pot and a skillet and a few basic kitchen implements. Then I loaded my bag with various spices at the Moroccan store and fresh herbs from the Turkish grocery. Soon my apartment started smelling of cardamom and mint, and it felt more like home.
The chicken kofta kebabs I would like to share with you today is one of my favorite recipes for a quick and healthy summer meal. If I can make it successfully in my makeshift kitchen, you will have even better results under more comfortable cooking conditions. Kofta is just a pretty word for a meatball; it’s derived from the Persian “kuftan,” which means “to grind.” Kebab refers to the skewered grilled meats, and the kofta kebab always tempts me the most whenever I walk past the Turkish restaurants with their baroque displays.
Although the most common meat for kebabs is either lamb or beef, I discovered that chicken makes for light and fluffy meatballs. Its delicate flavor is a perfect foil for the lemony coriander and musky cumin, a spice match made in heaven. I recommend toasting the spices to bring out their aroma. Coriander starts to smell more like orange, with a hint of hazelnut, while cumin gains a bitter chocolate accent. When you put them together, the result is a heady sweet-savory melange that begs to be explored in a perfume.
While kebabs are usually grilled, these kofta kebabs are just as delicious pan fried or broiled. You can serve them over rice or mashed potatoes, but my favorite way is to eat them wrapped in thin flatbread. It’s a messy business, but nothing makes you feel more like a kid (and hence, more lighthearted) after a long, hectic day than eating with your hands. My husband rolls them into a large burrito like package, while I make tiny individual bites with pieces of flatbread and herbs. One morsel might have a basil leaf and a dab of chutney, another–a mint leaf and a piece of cucumber. This is summer food at its best!
Chicken Kofta Kebabs with Mint Chutney
You can vary the meat to your liking, and besides chicken, this recipe works really well with lamb and turkey. You can make the kofta mixture as early as the night before and grill or fry the meatballs when you get home from work. While the kofta is cooking, you will only need to prepare the chutney and set the table.
Turkish cooks usually grill a few peppers alongside kebabs, and I follow their suit by tossing a few pieces of red pepper into the frying pan after the kebabs are finished. The pepper gets a nice char and picks up the zesty flavor of coriander and cumin.
The leftovers are delicious in sandwiches.
1lb (450g) ground chicken
1 minced shallot
2 Tablespoons minced parsley (or mint, cilantro, basil)
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
a pinch of cayenne pepper or to taste
salt, black pepper to taste
Set a frying pan over medium heat and toast coriander and cumin till they become golden-brown, or about 2 shades darker. Set aside to cool and crush to powder with a mortar and pestle. Lacking a mortar and pestle, you can just wrap them in a piece of plastic and bash them with a rolling pin. That’s remarkably therapeutic.
Mix all of the ingredients together and set them aside for at least 15 minutes (or overnight) for the flavors to marry. Divide the mixture into about 12 walnut sized kebabs.
Heat up a frying pan on high heat, add olive oil. Gently slide kebabs into the frying pan and turn the heat down to medium-high. Cook for 5 minutes and turn over. The underside should be golden. Turn the heat down, if they color too fast. Fry them on the other side for another 4-5 minutes. The kebabs are ready when they are creamy-white inside and the juices run clear. Remove onto a platter lined with flatbread and serve immediately.
1 cup chopped mint
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 green onion or 1 chopped shallot
Juice of 1/2 lemon
salt to taste
Process all ingredients in a blender till coarsely pureed. Taste for salt and add more lemon juice if needed.
Thin flatbread, fresh herbs (basil, mint, tarragon, parsley, cilantro), sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, and olives.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin