The mention of kefta (ground or minced meat) always bring deep memories of mine to the surface. All of them are related to my father who passed away in 2009. My family is originally from Fez but had to move to Casablanca for work and studies. Like many Fassis, my parents settled in the big city where they brought up a family of four children. Going back to Fez to visit the rest of the family and friends meant many hours of driving on the route nationale as there was no highway yet.
On our way to Fez or on the way back to Casablanca, we would stop at Khemisset between Rabat and Meknes or make a small detour to Boufekrane (famous for its water and the quality of the red meat), about 15 kilometers just beyond Meknes. We weren’t the only travelers to do this.
It was an unwritten rule that each coach journeying through Khemisset had to stop. In fact, people anticipated the stop in this town as if it was the purpose of their trip. That’s because Khemisset was regarded as the capital of kefta and other tasty skewered meat (brochettes in French or qotban in Moroccan Arabic). These kebabs and other grilled meats were served in unpretentious restaurants-grills on both sides of the road. Whether it was for a snack or for a meal—even if one had a meal just an hour ago—there was no way anybody would think of missing it. It was just like a religious duty for connoisseurs!
Unfortunately, from what I have gathered here and there, it seems that this reputation has faded away and the quality is no longer what it used to be. This is likely due to the development of a highway, which meant that the masses no longer traveled via the national road. With the decline in demand came a decline in quality.
The Smoke Market
Some fast food restaurants or street food joints similar to where we ate in Khemisset offer an enticing spectacle before the food. It is something called “the smoke market” which refers to the smoky allure of grilled food. People are naturally drawn in by the mingling aromas of charcoal, fat dripping over the fire and enchanting spices, and they follow their senses to arrive at the grill, hungry as ever.
At these modest eateries, you select raw meats from a butcher and then carry your selection a few steps away to the man in charge of grilling. Then you pick a table and order your tea and salad while waiting for your grilled food to be served. It’s a butcher-restaurant formula which is very satisfying and very popular among Moroccans.
It’s worth knowing that many of these butchers may be kessabs, a name meaning that they own the cattle which are the source of the meat in their shop. This is probably one of the most straight-forward distribution channels one might come across.
What Makes a Good Moroccan Kefta?
To many of us, the very best kefta to be found in Morocco was Kefta dyal Gharb from the northwest El Gharb region where Khemisset and Boufekrane are located. It’s an area known for its first-class agricultural diversity which includes abundant grazing land for cattle.
While each kfaity (kefta maker) or butcher keep their recipe secretly guarded, one will agree that a happy animal leads to good meat. The age of the animal is equally important; the best meat for kefta must come from a cow over three years of age.
The way the meat is processed is important to the texture of the kefta. Those who have made kefta by hand-chopping using mdaqq’a (a method similar to the one used to make steak tartare) and lived to tell the tale, will all agree that hand-chopping is worth the effort and that mechanical grinding or mincing takes away from the quality.
That’s because the best texture and flavor are acquired only if the meat retains both its plasticity and the natural juices of each part used. Automation diminishes the quality of both and the ground meat becomes less sticky from the brutal hashing of the machine. While most of us will likely buy mechanically ground meat, we can at least compensate with the use of fresh spices, a bit of fat and good handling.
All meat can become kefta except offal, although I have heard that some butchers do throw a kidney into the mix. Either way, using pieces of meat from different areas is key. It seems that lean cuts mixed with fatty cuts make the best kefta. My family recipe is on par with this practice. The pieces of choice for kefta connoisseurs are leg of lamb along with several parts of the abdomen such as flank, middle chest and large chest (locally called bouswita or bouswite). These latter cuts are famous for the massive presence of muscle fibers, which are balanced out by the naturally tender texture of the leg.
The ratio of fat to the meat should be at least 25 percent fat to 75 percent meat. Less fat than that will not deliver the experience we all look for when we want to reproduce the best kefta. In fact, added fat which creates drippings over charcoal is an essential ingredient on its own. Ideally we select the sheep fat that surrounds offal; this could be kidney fat (suet) or caul fat, locally called m‘jebna or ‘ain douara. The choice of these fats is essential to the quality of Moroccan kefta as you may have tasted it in reputed restaurant-grills across Morocco. So, the logic of wanting a lean kefta while seeking to reproduce that mythical flavor found across Moroccan fast food restaurants can’t really work.
The ambiance and atmosphere of the souks and restaurant-grills is the other ingredient that makes kefta unforgettable. It’s really part of the package, so if at all possible, plan to cook your kefta over charcoal to help replicate the full flavor and essence of kefta.
Below is my father’s homemade kefta recipe which captures the flavor of the Kefta dyal Gharb that we loved so much. It includes the spice blend ras el hanout. The measurements of ingredients is somewhat flexible—as with most Moroccan food, there is a philosophy of aynak mizanek (“your eyes are your scale”)— so my father always tasted a pinch of kefta before shaping it. If it tastes good before cooking, you are assured of an excellent result. However, if you’re hesitant to sample a pinch of raw meat yourself, shape a tiny portion and cook it in a pan to be sure the seasoning is to your likening.
For another variation, try Christine Benlafquih’s Moroccan Kefta Recipe.
Moroccan Kefta dyal Gharb Recipe - Kefta dyal L'ham
- 1.65 lbs meat, mixture of lean and fatty parts such as leg of lamb, flank, middle chest and large chest, cut into big cubes
- 8.8 oz kidney fat (suet) diced small
- 1 onion, medium-sized grated or finely chopped
Grind the Meat
- First, use the machine to grind the meat and the fat. Then add the herbs and spices and grind a second time. Note: If you'll be freezing the kefta mixture, wait to add the grated onion until the day you thaw and use the kefta. That's because the onion does not freeze well.
Shaping the Kefta
- It's always useful to have a bowl of water handy. When we shape kefta, the hands tend to become sticky. Wetting our hands and pat drying them helps with shaping the rest of the kefta. Do this whenever you find it difficult to shape the ground meat.
- The kefta for grilling is usually shaped one of the following ways: - Mini-burgers about 2 inch round and no more than 1/3 inch thick, - Fingers about 4 inch tall and 1/2 inch thick - A lump is squeezed around the sfafeds or qotban (metal skewers) to form a sort of long sausage.
- You can shape kefta a few hours ahead, cover it and place it in the fridge or you can do that as you prepare the grill or the barbecue.
- Prepare the brasero/bbq. Make sure the flames have enough time to calm down. Start grilling when you see the charcoal covered with a layer of grey-silver ash. This way you ensure the kefta will be grilled properly.Place rows of kefta fingers or burgers side by side in a grill basket as it will be easy to flip it later.
- Grill each side for a few minutes. Rotate the grill to the other side. It should be well done but juicy from inside according to Moroccan standards. Some like it well done with burnt edges and some like it just medium.
- My dad's traditional tip for serving a juicy kefta: the addition of a knob of butter over the pile of kefta fingers while still piping hot. The combination of the juice from the meat and the butter melting with the heat is something to die for. We used to rush on the plate and wipe a few drops of this juice with the bread. To all of us, it was as important as the Kefta itself.
- Grilled Kefta is always served with bread which will be soaked in its juices after forming the sandwich and squeezed on. When the grills are on the menu, they are accompanied by fresh and cooked salads. During winter, lentils or white beans will most likely be served as a side dish.
- Serve with a hot Moroccan tea. Otherwise, a green tea with a few mint leaves inside will do.We enjoy making sandwich by sprinkling the garnishing mix over the meat, adding a bit of harissa or green olives, a finely chopped tomato and cucumber salad seasoned with cumin, salt and pepper.
- In general, Moroccan butchers offer to add herbs and spices while grinding meat as part of their normal service. Some people like my family prefer to buy their ground meat plain and season it themselves at home.
- My family grates a couple of onions to the kefta mix before shaping it. It keeps it moist and adds more flavor. However, any kefta going to the freezer should not have onion added to it.
- Using fresh spices play a major role in deciding how much to add. Freshly ground spices always deliver best results. Adjust the quantity according to the strength of the spices in your cupboard.
- The breast of lamb is located at the bottom of the body of the animal. Cartilaginous and rich in bone, it is composed mainly of the muscles of the abdomen. It's a choice piece, full of flavors.
- You can use beef, veal or lamb meat or you can mix them.
- If you don't have ras el hanout handy, just add the following mix to your kefta before cooking or grilling it: • ¼ tsp cinnamon powder • A pinch of clove powder • 2 or 3 dried rose petals • 4 inch of dry galangal or ginger powder • ¼ tsp of freshly grated nutmeg