Several years back, before İstiklal became an open-air shopping mall, reaching old man Sabırtaşı’s streetside içli köfte stand felt like pulling into a safe harbor. Always standing there was the beatific Ali Bey, an angel in a white doctor’s coat offering salvation in the form of his golden fried içli köfte.
Although his presence is still sorely missed, his son Mustafa – who inherited not only his father’s white coat but also his kind demeanor – and wife have proudly continued the tradition of selling their sublime içli köfte to İstiklal’s hungry pedestrians.
We recently checked in with Mustafa, to see how he’s weathering the pandemic. The restaurant is closed but he continues to work the stand on İstiklal, albeit with a mask on. Most workplaces are closed, so the street is eerily empty and business slow. But he still manages to sell some of his golden-fried içli köfte to passersby, as well as the to-go orders from his regulars.
For the first time that he can remember he’s doing iftar, the traditional break fast meal for Ramadan, at home – in past years, he was always working right until iftar, but not these days. “After the bayram [post-Ramadan holiday], it’ll get better, inshallah. Not like the old days but better, I’m expecting,” he says.
Years ago, we were lucky enough to be allowed into what felt like one of Istanbul’s most inner sanctums – Mrs. Sabırtaşı’s kitchen – and observe her work her culinary magic firsthand. Below is the recipe for the family’s award-winning içli köfte, truly one of Istanbul’s top culinary delights. We thought it was worth republishing at this particular moment, when many of us are stuck at home and craving some of our favorite street foods.
Sabırtaşı’s İçli Köfte
Makes 20-25 içli köfte, 130-150 g apiece
½ kilo lean ground beef
¾ kilo white onion
½ kilo fine, or “köftelik,” bulgur
100 gr walnuts
½ bunch parsley
1 tsp black pepper
½ tablespoon salt
½ tablespoon red pepper flakes (preferably from the city of Maraş)
½ tablespoon tomato paste (salça)
Filling: Finely chop onions and parsley. Crush the walnuts. In a large pan or skillet, brown the onions with the beef continuously mixing over medium-high heat for about 15-20 minutes. When browned and crumbly, remove from heat and add parsley, walnuts, and spices. Mix well, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Shell: Put the bulgur in a large mixing bowl and pour very hot water over it – enough to cover the bulgur. Mix in 1 tablespoon of tomato paste and a bit of salt. Allow the bulgur to sit in the water until it cools and the bulgur expands fully. When cool, knead the bulgur by hand thoroughly for 20 minutes. This is hard work but essential for the consistency of the shell. When it reaches a slightly elastic pasty consistency it is sufficiently kneaded.
Assembly: Here’s where the technique comes in. Take a small handful (about 100 g) of bulgur and make a ball. Make a hole in the ball with your index finger while rotating the ball with your opposite hand. As you hollow out the ball it should lengthen in your hand and start to take the shape of a small cup. The walls of the shell should be firm and consistently around 2mm thick. Once the shell is evenly hollowed and about 8cm in length, gently fill it with the filling (about 1.5 tablespoons) but leave a little room at the top so you won’t have trouble closing it.
Now comes the second trick – closing the köfte. Moisten your hands with water and slowly spin the open köfte with one hand while gently tapering closed the open top on top. As you continuously spin it you can remove any excess shell that may appear. This process somehow reminded us of watching cigars being rolled. What results should be a firm little football shape about 8 cm long and 4 wide.
Frying: At Sabırtaşı they use a deep fryer, but any deep pot will do for frying. Heat enough vegetable oil to 350F so that once you put the içli köfte in to fry they will be completely submerged. Fry until golden brown.