How to make vegan kufteh meat and rice balls

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Aunt Ruth was in the middle of one of her stories, and she started searching for a prop.

It was summer in Chicago, and she was telling us about a friend, or maybe it was a relative, who had fallen and bumped his head. The knot that swelled up, she said, “was as big as … as big as …” Ruth — my great-aunt, actually — kept looking around, until her eyes landed on the bowl of Assyrian meat-and-rice balls she had just made us for dinner. She grabbed one with her bare hands and held it up to her forehead. “As big as this kufteh!”

The kufteh, in case you’re wondering, was the size of a softball. And we laughed so hard that the scene has stuck in my memory for almost 50 years. Whenever I think of the Assyrian cooking of my father’s side of the family, I’m back at her table wondering how she became such a funny storyteller — and how, exactly, she made such good kufteh.

Get the recipe: Assyrian-Style Vegan Meat and Rice Balls

I never asked her or my other aunts the latter question directly while they were still around, a situation I perhaps unfairly blame on my difficult relationship with my late father and his own strained relations with his siblings, which led to long family rifts. But I got an answer nonetheless in the mid-1990s, when my stepmother gave me and my other siblings copies of a slim, hard-bound book called “Assyrian Mothers’ Cookbook: Our Heritage.” It was published by an aid society in Chicago, one of the places in the United States where Assyrian refugees migrated after fleeing massacre by the Turks in the early part of the century.

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Much like the Depression-era porcupine meatballs, kufteh incorporates raw rice and ground meat; when the rice plumps, the grains on the outside stick out, giving it its distinctive look. But while porcupine meatballs are traditionally cooked in tomato sauce, kufteh is usually steamed, and served unadorned (no sauce, no garnish). And the balls are usually really large, one per serving, which requires long cooking to tenderize the rice inside.

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The book included a recipe for kufteh, written in the brief style you’d recognize from those spiral-bound community cookbooks. I made it a few times, to varying levels of success, but it’s been off the table since I stopped eating meat almost a dozen years ago. In the meantime, I also spied a beautiful baked version of the dish on Cardamom & Tea, the blog written by one of my favorite Assyrian-American cooks, Kathryn Pauline, whose new book is “Piecemeal.”

I’m not the first person to write about how going vegetarian or vegan posed a threat to eating the foods of one’s culture. One of my favorite trends in cookbooks the last few years has been the steady stream of works by such authors as Joanne Lee Molinaro (“The Korean Vegan”), Bryant Terry (“Afro Vegan”), Hannah Che (“The Vegan Chinese Kitchen”) and Jocelyn Ramirez (“La Vida Verde”), who have written about getting in touch with the plant-based roots of their ancestral cuisines.

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My own memories of my relatives’ Assyrian cooking are limited, though: I recall a barely sweet, buttery filled cake called kadeh, plus a delicious but pretty basic chicken and rice. I’ve since eaten many Assyrian takes on vegetables, but they don’t evoke that flashback feeling the way kufteh does.

So I set out to veganize it. First, I thought I’d try lentils, but I couldn’t get the balls to hold up during the long cooking process. Mashed chickpeas were the same story. I realized I was postponing the inevitable: I needed to try it with a vegan ground beef, such as Beyond Meat or Impossible. I chopped the aromatic vegetables, used my hands to squish them together with a pound of the “meat” and a half-cup of rice, plus oregano for seasoning, and nestled them in a shallow pool of simmering water in a skillet. On went the cover, and an hour later, I had tender meatballs with swelled rice that tasted exactly like I remembered from Aunt Ruth’s table.

Of course, I couldn’t escape my modern cook’s impulses. I’ve since shortened the steaming time by par-cooking the rice first, making it more weeknight friendly. (I also developed an Instant Pot version.)

And the liquid left in the pan has always seemed too good to discard, so I’ve taken to swirling in some lemon juice and (vegan) butter and turning it into a sauce. I set the kufteh on a platter, drizzled around the sauce, sprinkled some parsley on top, and resisted the urge to pick one up and hold it to my forehead. Instead, I served it to guests and started thinking up some new stories to tell.

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Get the recipe: Assyrian-Style Vegan Meat and Rice Balls

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