My coworker Zeynep, who happens to be from Turkey, made red lentil balls for a bridal shower and I was immediately drawn to them because they were unique, tasty, and something that I’ve never tried before. They were a big hit as an interesting vegetarian finger food for the health-conscious. The recipe featured below is an adaptation from the recipe Zeynep shared with me, with a few minor modifications that worked better for me. The ingredients are still true to its original recipe and others I have seen.
Red lentils, teamed up with bulgur (sometimes known as cracked wheat), are the main stars of this dish in a 2 to 1 ratio. Both ingredients have excellent nutritional value with their high protein and fiber content. These legume and grain counterparts are common in countries within the Mediterranean region.
Red lentil balls can be served as an appetizer known as “meze”, a meal starter or accompaniment. From what I have read, it is a common dish in Turkish cuisine, particularly in the southeast part of the country. Köftesi means meatballs, and red lentils and bulgur are the meat replacements that provide similar nutritional value. It can be served warm or cold, and the flavors from the onions, cumin, and paprika really make it burst with flavor. The deep orange color comes from the red lentil foundation, with even more color added from the tomato paste and paprika. The lentils and bulgur give it a natural earthy bite, and since they’re both full of protein, the lentil balls are satisfying to one’s stomach.
My exposure to Turkish cuisine has been minimal, but it is certainly fascinating to learn about. The history of the cuisine is rich, dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Someday I look forward to visiting Istanbul and other cities to explore the culture and take classes at Cooking Alaturka!
Turkish Red Lentil Balls (Mercimek Köftesi) Recipe
Preparation Time: 45 minutes
Yields approximately 30-35 lentil balls
- 1 cup red lentils, uncooked
- 2 and 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup fine bulgur, uncooked
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon salt or more, depending on taste
- 1 tablespoon paprika, plus more for dusting
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin (or up to 2 tablespoons if you prefer)
- 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 3 scallions, finely sliced
- Large bowl
- Medium saucepan
- Chef knife and cutting board
- Wooden spoon, or other stirring tool
- Wash the lentils in a large bowl until water runs clear. In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add lentils, and simmer until soft (but not overly mushy), about 15 minutes while stirring occasionally. Mix in bulgur; turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it rest until the residual liquid is absorbed by the bulgur, about 15 minutes or longer.
- While the lentils cook, bring a skillet to medium heat and with olive oil and saute diced onions until tender and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add in tomato paste; stir and turn off heat.
- Use the resting time of the lentils mixture and onions cooking to chop scallions and parsley.
- Once the lentils and bulgur are cooked, it should be moderately moist and not completely dry, like cookie dough. Add salt, onions, paprika, cumin, and most of the parsley and scallions into the mixture and stir to combine.
- At this point, the lentil and bulgur mixture should resemble thick cookie dough when stirred. If it still seems too damp, add more bulgur and let the mixture rest longer. The bulgur should no longer be hard, but soft and melded in to the mix.
- With a bowl of water at your side, wet your hands and mold the lentil and bulgur mixture into mini golf-ball sized balls (or any shape you prefer) and place on a platter. A tablespoon is a good amount for each ball. Garnish with remaining scallions and parsley and drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil.
- Red lentils and bulgur can be purchased in bulk food bins, which are probably the least expensive. Sometimes they are also available in the international food aisle.