Somehow during this polar vortex we’re having, I keep finding myself craving Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods- perhaps it’s the hefty amounts of meat (with all that ‘good’ fat) involved, or the pungent spices that I crave when it’s cold.
For the last two days, I’ve made Kebsa (also spelled “Kepsa” or “Kabsa”), a one-pot Saudi style rice and meat dish that has to be on the top of my favorite foods. Some people describe it as a sort of Arab paella because it has the same two main ingredients of rice and meat, but this is something in credibly different and the cooking process is also quite different. I am quite picky about how it’s made, however.
Both times using the famed and fragrant, super-aromatic Basmati rice. I don’t recommend trying any other type of rice (unless it’s brown Basmati rice). In bags like this, however, the rice must be thoroughly rinsed several times to be sure it’s free of any debris.
Here’s why I think that happened, and for all of you who are familiar with this dish, I really hope these extra tips can help you make your very own pot of perfectly-flavored Kebsa. If you’re new to the dish, you may want to get the full recipe along with many interesting other dishes in my book, Summer Ramadan Cooking, which can be purchased here.
Day one the rice came out too soft, but now I recall why. On the second day, when everything turned out absolutely perfect, I used the very old-fashioned method of placing a cotton towel under the lid when the dish is finally covered and on low. This helps to really make the rice moist. My tried and true cooking time for the rice once the meat is in- done and cooked- is exactly 20 minutes (per 1.5 cups of rice). That said, pre-cooked meat is a wonderful added bonus (I made oven-roasted lamb the day before and used it, which was absolutely excellent, although not traditionally done).
One more thing- I used tomato sauce instead of a diced tomato to sauté at the beginning of making this dish because I was out of tomatoes (hey, we’ve been having a polar vortex around here)…
Additionally, I used one green pepper on day one, which is not something I normally ever use. The taste was good, but too overpowering for such a traditional dish that is at most made with a adding a whole jalapeño or serrano pepper, just for mild heat. I didn’t do that on the second day.
I added more saffron threads on the second day, mainly because I love saffron. Some people say they don’t add it to Kebsa, but that’s how I learned and that’s how I love it. You really can taste it when it’s added.
The spices I used were the same, although on the second day I added more of the dried black lime (also known as “loomi” in Arabic), mainly because I wanted to get that juicy worcestershire sauce-like juice pressed out of it once the dish was on my plate. By the way, that only really happens if the lime doesn’t have any holes in it.
I always serve Kebsa with a fresh salad of finely chopped salad greens, diced tomatoes, fresh parsley and/or mint and a squeeze of one fresh lemon or lime.
I don’t always make the side tomato sauce to go with Kebsa, but when I do it’s just extra good. I chop up one tomato and add a jar of tomato sauce, salt, a dash of pepper, some sugar and olive oil. It goes on top of the rice when it’s on your plate, if desired.
These are just some of my tips and tricks for making the type of Kebsa we love at home. Every region in Saudi or in the Gulf makes their own version and with their own spices- some even make it with raisins, which is something I’d never think of putting in, but I’d definitely try if someone else made it!
Here’s the recipe that hails from my cookbook, and from my own home kitchen:
Gulf Style Kepsa with Tomato Sauce
This dish is a traditional rice and meat dish stemming from the Gulf of Arabia and often made for guests as a token of hospitality, particularly at Iftar meals where the fast is broken among family, friends and neighbors. The lamb can be replaced with beef or chicken. Serve with a fresh tomato and cucumber salad on the side, if desired.
Ingredients for Rice & Meat
• 4 tablespoons grape seed oil or olive oil
• 1 small yellow onion, diced
• 1 Roma (plum) tomato, diced
• 1 pound bone-in lamb shoulder cut in small pieces
• 1 tablespoon spice mix (recipe below)
• 5 cardamom pods
• 5 cloves or 1/8 teaspoon clove powder
• 2 cinnamon sticks or ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 1/4 cups water (or just enough to cover the rice)
• 2-3 dried limes
• ½ teaspoon saffron threads
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1.5 cup Basmati rice, thoroughly washed
Ingredients for Spice Mix
• 1 teaspoon cumin, ground
• 1 teaspoon turmeric, ground
• ¼ teaspoon pepper flakes
• ½ teaspoon ground coriander
• ½ teaspoon fennel powder
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• ½ teaspoon allspice
Ingredients for Tomato Sauce
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce + 1 tomato, finely chopped
• ½ teaspoon sugar
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 3 large garlic cloves, crushed, particularly roasted garlic
Directions for Spice
Combine all ingredients. 1 tablespoon will be used for this recipe.
Directions for Rice
1. Heat oil in large Dutch oven. Sauté onion until translucent. Add tomatoes and sauté. Add lamb and brown on both sides.
2. Add the spice mix, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. Add the water, saffron, limes, and salt. Bring to a boil and then lower to a rolling boil. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile clean and soak the rice and make the sauce. Add the rice to the pot.
4. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce heat to lower. Cover tightly and do not open lid for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, open lid and gently stir ingredients to make sure all rice is done. Turn off heat and let sit, uncovered for a few minutes. Serve alongside tomato sauce.
Directions for Sauce
1. In a small saucepan over low heat, heat oil and add garlic. Stir softly for a minute.
2. Add the diced tomato then the tomato sauce. Stir in the sugar and salt.
3. Cook over low heat for 20 minutes, uncovered.
4. Serve warm for guests to dollop over their rice.