Ata Abdel’s Kafta Saniah is a recipe at least three generations in the making.
“We make it a lot. My mother, she also made it when we were little,” Abdel said with a big smile. “That dish is very popular where I grew up, in Palestine.”
He owns Yala Kol, a Mediterranean restaurant in the Greenwood Plaza on Wooster Street in Bowling Green. It is one of three restaurants he is an owner of, the other two being in Rossford and Lambertville, Michigan.
Abdel said that the traditional food is common from Greece to many Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey.
The menu at Yala Kol is what Abdel would call popular street food, or what one might grab for a picnic at the beach, but this recipe is not on the menu. He says that it takes too long to prepare, but it’s a favorite.
“The ground beef, it is more available than other stuff over there,” Abdel said about his home country. “It’s good. It has tomatoes, onions, potatoes, tomato sauce. So that’s good, too, and eaten with rice. Some people will use lamb, or lamb fat, with the ground beef, so it will be like lamb-taste. I don’t like lamb myself, though.”
Abdel described the kafta, which is the ground beef in his Kafta Saniah. It has parsley, onions, black pepper and Syrian spices mixed in. At Middle Eastern restaurants, it is typically rolled into a log form and sauteed in a frying pan, or on the large flat kitchen grill, but at home, there are many ways it is done.
“Some people do it like a meatball. Some will flatten it, in the bottom of a tray. It’s like a meatloaf, like here, with ketchup on top, but we don’t do that over there. Sometimes we will chop up pita bread and put it on the bottom, with the white rice on top, so it will be layers, with the meat, pita bread, tomato sauce and white rice. We call it fetah,” Abdel said. “That is also very good. My mom, she makes the best fetah. All my uncles love it. Like this (Kafta Saniah), she learned it from her mother.”
The shape of the kafta during cooking is a debate. He prefers it to be golf ball sized meatballs when cooking at home. However, he also sometimes simply craves it while at work so he will do the log style and cut it up before baking it.
The mixture of what are called Syrian spices is also up for debate, but he purchases a pre-made mix.
“Syrian Spices is the name at the store. …” Abdel said. “Go to Just Like Home in Toledo. There are other stores, but I like this guy.”
He says it’s mostly allspice and coriander, but it typically also includes cumin, cardamom and cinnamon.
Abdel casually prepares his food with the skill of an artist, which is what he considers himself to be. He likes to add almonds to his Kafta Saniah.
“Chopped up almonds, we sauté them in butter, until they are a golden color. Then put them on top, with the white rice, and garnish with some parsley. That’s it. Eat,” Abdel said.
He recommends serving with pickles, baby arugula and green onions.
Abdel is originally from Palestine but has been working in the food industry in Northwest Ohio since the mid-1990s.
He became a cook right after immigrating to Detroit, in 1996 as an 18-year-old. His first job was at the Grape Leaf, on McCord in Toledo.
His restaurant, Yala Kol, is family operated, with Abdul there every day. His wife is also frequently there helping out in a wide variety of ways.
“She’s a very hard worker, and a good homemaker. She does an excellent job with the kids,” Abdel said.
They have four kids. The youngest are twins, a boy and girl, who he calls his COVID-kids, because they were born on March 13, 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown.
1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Syrian Spice
2 medium tomatoes
2 medium russet potatoes
2 small onions
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cups water
½ teaspoon citric acid or use ½ cup lemon juice
Almonds, sliced, amount will depend on number of servings, but about 3 per serving
Butter, for pan and cooking almonds
Cook jasmine rice separately. Half cook the potatoes, sauteed in a pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
To make the kafta, put onion and parsley in a food processor and chop as fine as you can. Squeeze the juice out. Add to the ground beef, with salt, black pepper and Syrian Spices, to taste.
Grease 10-inch by 12-inch foil pan with butter. Lay kafta balls in the pan. Tomatoes should be on top of the meat, then the onions and then the potatoes.
Mix tomato sauce with water, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper and ½ teaspoon citric acid and pour mix evenly on top. Make sure it’s completely covered. Cover pan in foil.
Cook at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Make sure the potatoes are fully cooked. It can vary, depending on the amount of other ingredients. Cook longer, if necessary. Cook with the foil on for the first 30 minutes.
Eat over rice. Garnish with roasted sliced almonds, sauteed in butter.