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Egypt's enchanting soup from the bird's tongue: Lesan al Asfour

  Let's just start this off right: this is not a meal about an actual bird's tongue. This is simply the easiest and most comforting soup made with orzo pasta, also known as lesan al asfour. It's one of those soups that doesn't require much, but when you put all the elements together, it's essentially a giant bear hug from the inside.  Comfort liquid food When you're feeling sick, you sip on this, and all will be well again. You're feeling cold because it's that time in between seasons, take a bowl of this nourishing soup, and you're guaranteed to have forgotten the cold.  My mother would always make us this soup on the weekends. Our weekends were the stuff of dreams (no sarcasm here). Saturday morning cartoons, followed by an afternoon of chicken boiling with fragrant herbs and spices and, if we were lucky, a small pot of chicken livers stewing on the side. Later in the afternoon, we'd be called down for a snack, and this would be a bowl of soup

Lunch/Dinner: Kobeiba and Khiar be Lebaan (Cucumber with Yogurt Salad)

It's been a while, I know, and I apologize if you do follow this at all. I went off on a little South American adventure to Brazil, where I got the full experience of beach, sun, food, dancing, surfing, mugging, cyclone, torrential down pour and floods. But even there, the influence of Middle Eastern cooking was to be found.

In case you didn't know, many Lebanese and Syrian immigrants went to start a new life in Brazil. In many of the Brazilian cities I was in, I would always check out the juice/snack stands, and there would always be the same familiar snack: Kibbeh, or Kibbe as they wrote it.

This is actually a very popular snack or dish throughout the Middle East, especially in the Levantine and Egypt. As usual, there are variations in making it, but I will be showing the Egyptian version which I grew up with.

This happens to be one of my very favourite dishes. I remember being about three or four years old and visiting my Grandmother in Montreal. At the time, my French was non-existent as was my Arabic, and her English was not very strong, so we would communicate through gestures and food. She would always make Kobeiba (known as Kibbeh outside of Egypt) and stuffed grape leaves (I'll do that another day). It's a dish that I find comforting and always reminds me of her. It's also a dish that is usually present at every big dinner I go to. For some reason, Egyptian dinners rarely centre around one main dish; instead there are several dishes set out on the table and you just keep grazing until another Great Aunt reminds you to keep eating...

The dish has two ingredients really: Bulgar wheat and minced meat (lamb or beef). Bulgar wheat often gets confused with cracked wheat, which is different. The difference lies in the preparation of each. Bulgar is partially hulled whole wheat kernels that have been soaked, steamed, dried and then crushed. Because it has been precooked, it means it has a much longer storage life than cracked wheat. Cracked wheat on the other hand has not been precooked or dried at all. This makes the process of bulgar wheat more involved and is usually more expensive than cracked wheat. But take care when buying bulgar, there often is confusion between the two products and are sometimes labelled incorrectly. Your best bet is to buy this from a Middle East or Mediterranean food store, but it can be found in regular supermarkets or bulk food stores. Just remember that bulgar wheat looks a little darker.

Bulgar wheat has been used by ancient civilizations as far back as the Babylonians, Hebrews, Romans, Arabs and Egyptians. Some sources I read said the ancient Egyptians had been milling bulgar wheat as far back as 4000 BC. Bulgar is also a common staple in the Ukraine and Central Asia. The fact that it is so easy to store, has a long shelf life, and is a great source of fibre, minerals, and vitamins, makes this a popular ingredient. It is often used in salads, such as the well-known Taboula (parsley salad).

Today's dish involves making a kind of dough from the bulgar grains and the minced meat. Throughout the Levantine and in Brazil, the dough is formed into little football-like shapes and stuffed with meat. The word 'kubba' in Arabic means ball, which is how this dish got its name 'kibbeh' or 'kobeiba' in Egyptian Arabic. In Egypt, the ball shape doesn't seem to be as popular; instead it is usually served as a side dish to a big meal, or as a light meal itself with salad and rice. Kobeiba can also be deep fried, if in a ball shape, or baked. This dish will be baked as the fryer sounds a little disastrous for me.

I also decided to pair it with a yogurt mint salad (khiar be lebaan - cucumber with yogurt). It's the Egyptian equivalent to the Greek Taziki; though it's not nearly as garliky, and is a bit more refreshing with the mint. You'll find it served with most dishes as an appetizer or 'mezze'.

I hope you enjoy it!
Total Cooking Time: 2 hours
Yield: 6-9 persons


There is a ratio for the meat to bulgur of 2 to 1. You can also change it up if you like more bulgar than meat. For today I used:
3 pounds of minced meat (beef/lamb)
1.5 pounds of bulgur

1 onion
1 tablespoon of oil/butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
(optional)1 teaspoon ground allspice
(optional) 1/2 cup pine nuts

Yogurt Salad:
2 cups of plain yogurt (try to stay away from the fat-free stuff; it has no flavour and the consistency is off)
1/4 of a large cucumber
1 handful of fresh or dried mint
1 clove of garlic


1. Soak bulgar in water for about 30 minutes
2. From the meat, take out about a handful--this will be used to make the middle layer

Middle Layer:
3. Dice onions
4. In a frying pan, add oil and onions
5. Fry onions until they are soft, then add the meat
6. Add salt and pepper to taste (you want this on the more salty side)
7. Continue frying on low heat until the meat begins to crumble
(Optional: roast pine nuts in a hot pan until they are golden, then add to the meat mixture after it has been cooked)
8. Set aside

9. Strain bulgar and add to a large mixing bowl. Bulgar will have expanded a little.

10. Add remaining meat
11. Add cinnamon and allspice
12. Mix thoroughly until bulgur is equally worked into meat dough ( I suggest using your hands for this, it's a lot easier)

13. Divide the dough into two equal parts
14. In a casserole dish, pack the first part down into a flat layer
15. Add the fried up meat/onions mixture and spread out evenly

16. Pack down the second part of the meat dough. Try to make it as flat as possible.

17. For decoration and easy cutting, you can pre-cut the dish into diagonal slices. Try not to cut all the way into the dish; best to just cut the top layer

18. Put in the oven for about 1.5 hours or until top has a dark crust and the meat is cooked throughout

KHIAR BE LEBAN (CUCUMBER YOGURT SALAD) --can be made while the Kobeiba is in the oven:
19. Chop up cucumber and mint into small pieces
20. Finely chop or press garlic
21. Add all ingredients to the yogurt.
22. Salt to taste and set aside. Ideally eat the yogurt after 30 minutes when enough time has allowed the flavours to come out.

And there you have it. A very simple dish that can feed you for a while. It also freezes very well in case you can't finish it all and want to eat some later. You can also serve it with rice or other salads. Definitely one of the least vegetarian-friendly ones; but very satisfying!


  1. hello anne marie!
    i've just discovered your blog while searching for egyptian recipes! what a great idea and the recipes look amazing although i have not tried any yet! but i sure will! i am a guyanese canadian woman married to an eqyptian man who loves to eat! so i am constantly searching for easy and healthy egyptian recipes.
    kofta was one of the first things i learned to make, incidently from another non arab woman married to a lebanese man. Her recipe calls for 1 onion, 1 med tomatoe, bunch of parsely ...put these items in food processor and then add 2-3 lbs ground beef. the food processor slightly changes the texture of the meat and this is what binds it together, so that no egg or bread crumbs are needed. you can add your own spices, but black pepper and salt are the basic ones. add chili peppers for a kick!

    its great on the BBQ, or in the oven and i make it several times a month b/c its such a hit! you can serve with bread and salad, rice, pasta or even potatoes...goes a long way if you make and freeze for later too.

    keep sending out these recipes, i love the stories/history/background you've added to the recipe...hey this would make a great cookbook!!!


  2. Hi Sharon,
    I hope you get this message. Thank you very much for your kind words. I'd love to hear more about you cook some of the similar foods in Guyana. I'll be posting many more recipes, so keep reading!


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