To call this dish “meatballs in tomato sauce” wouldn’t be exactly wrong. After all, these vegetarian bulgur meatballs have a texture just like meat, and the broth is nice and tomato-y.
However, to simply call it meatballs in tomato sauce would be greatly under-representing the uniqueness of this dish.
This tomato broth is seasoned with warming savory spices of coriander, allspice, and cayenne pepper.
Now, that’s not exactly marinara.
And the recipe calls for bell peppers and onion, so it's filled with vegetable-powered flavor and nutrition.
It’s also easy to add even more vegetables, such as green beans, carrots, or celery, and you’ll still enjoy eating it.
So without a doubt, this dish is more wholesome and nutritious than your typical meatball dinner.
For those of you reading this in North America, Australia, or Europe, I hope I’ve given you a good understanding of this dish based on my reference of the ubiquitous meatballs and tomato sauce, because it is, in fact, a Syrian specialty.
In character, it is similar to a hearty stew with dumplings. As a vegetarian dinner main course, it’s satisfying and super easy to make.
Bulgur Meatballs Or Kibbeh?
I found this recipe in a Middle Eastern vegetarian cookbook, and the author calls it kibbeh (pronounced kibbe, kebbah, kubbeh, kubbah, or kubbi, depending on the region).
Kibbeh is an Arabic word that refers to bulgur wheat mixed with minced onions, meat, and Middle Eastern spices.
Bulgur wheat is the whole grain that tabouli is made from. It is basically whole wheat berries that have been parboiled and cracked. It comes in different grinds, from fine to extra course. For kibbeh you want the #1 fine grind.
Kibbeh is popular throughout Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Eqypt, Iraq, Armenia, Iran, Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey.
While this recipe for bulgur meatballs is like a stew, kibbeh isn't always served in broth. Kibbeh can also be shaped into flavorful balls or patties, which may be deep-fried, baked, or served raw.
While reading an online forum about kibbeh, where people were discussing the many nuances of kibbeh, someone suggested that others find out how their grandma makes kibbeh, and follow that.
Sound like good advice right? One can imagine the infinite variations of kibbeh that must exist from household to household, and region to region, throughout the Levant.
Bulgur Wheat Kibbeh Balls
You may be wondering what else is in the meatball besides bulgur wheat?
The original recipe I found called for mixing the bulgur with water, all-purpose flour, and one egg. This version resulted in meatballs that were so meaty they were practically grisly.
This could also have been because I used a coarser bulgur wheat. This is proof that if you don’t have #1 fine bulgur you can still make this!
I really enjoyed this version, but I thought it could be better, so I ground up some rolled oats in the food processor to replace the all-purpose flour, and then marveled at how I added the wholesomeness of oats to the meal.
(After further experimentation, I concluded that a mixture of half coarse oats and half flour was best so the meatballs hold their shape. In the photos you see them falling apart. This is due to the coarse oats.)
The recipe calls for one egg as a binder, but if you don’t eat eggs you can make a flax egg. See the recipe notes for instructions.
Finally, I added some finely chopped shallots and garlic, and a good bit of salt and pepper. Meatball, now you are talking!
I did find that with the oats only as a binder, the meatball fell apart more than I wanted. You can see it in the photos. Still good. But I recommend using flour, or half flour and half oats.
I really love this entire kibbeh concept, because I am generally a fan of good quality wheat. It tastes wonderful, and it is so satisfying.
Expect more recipes featuring bulgur wheat as a meat substitute to come from Buttered Veg in the future.
Recipe for Bulgur ‘Meatballs’ in Seasoned Tomato Broth (Kibbeh Hali)
For the bulgur meatballs
- ½ cup + 1 tablespoon fine bulgur wheat , (#1 grind)
- ½ cup ground rolled oats or unbleached all-purpose flour , (or half of each, see notes)
- 1 tablespoon onion, finely minced
- ¼ teaspoon garlic, finely minced
- ⅛ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
- ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 large egg, (for a vegan option, make a flax egg; see notes)
For the broth
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 ¼ cup assorted bell peppers, chopped into ½-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1 ½ cups tomato puree
- 1 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt, or to taste
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon black pepper, (plus extra for garnish)
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 cups water
For the garnish
- ½ lemon freshly juiced
- 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
- ¼ cup crumbled feta cheese or whole milk yogurt, (optional)
For the bulgur meatballs
- Place the bulgur wheat in a bowl, and rinse with water until the water runs clear. If you have time, let the bulgur wheat soak in for 30 minutes or so prior to rinsing.
- If you will use ground rolled oats, use a food processor, chopper, or blender to pulse the oats into a course powder. If you wish to use only all-purpose flour, skip this step. (The optimal combination is to use half flour, half oats.)
- Add the ground oats or all-purpose flour, onion, garlic, salt, pepper and egg to the bulgur and mix well. Add extra water if necessary just so everything is moist. Set aside, and let the mixture rest for 15–30 minutes to allow the bulgur to soak up the moisture.
For the sauce
- Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic and bell peppers, and sauté for 3–4 minutes. Add the coriander powder and stir to release the aroma. Add the tomato puree, salt, allspice, cayenne, black pepper, and bay leaves. Stir to combine. Add the water, and mix well to incorporate. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil.
- Use a teaspoon to portion the bulgur mixture into meatballs. I like to drop the mixture into the broth from the spoon because it’s quick, but if you like, you can shape the spoonfuls into balls with your hands first. Turn down the heat and simmer for 20–30 minutes, until the meatballs cook and the sauce thickens, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in the lemon juice and fresh parsley just before serving, and top with feta cheese and extra ground black pepper. It should taste spicy, and a bit sour.
- Serve up individual bowls of Bulgur Meatballs topped with a generous amount of good quality feta cheese, or a dollop of whole milk yogurt.
- Serve this dish with a green salad and crusty toast.
- Top your green salad with ingredients that go well with this dish, such as apple, cucumber, shallots, and avocado. Dress with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon, and top with salt and pepper.
- For a second side dish, consider Swiss chard or kale. Winter greens are always a winner with tomato. Season simply with salt and a touch of vinegar. You could even top you bulgur meatballs with the greens.
- For a full meal, consider serving the bulgur meatballs with peppermint tea, or enjoy peppermint tea as an after-dinner course (especially if your mouth is burning from the spices).