lamb kofta with tomato sauce, yogurt, and pita

This is a Turkish recipe that is variously called yoğurtlu kebab, or, when I’ve had it in restaurants, İskender kebab (though technically İskender kebabs are made with doner meat, the preparation is otherwise basically the same). Little spiced lamb meatballs, or kofta, are nestled on toasted pita with tangy yogurt and tomato sauce, and then everything is drizzled with olive oil or melted butter mixed with paprika. The pita soaks up the yogurt and juices from the meat and becomes soft and so very delicious. I have this in Turkish restaurants often, and am so excited that I can now make it at home. 

I made the pita pictured above, and am just a bit pleased with myself (ok, I’ve been cooing over the magically formed pockets as though they were tiny adorable kittens), but I want to give the recipe another try before I attempt to advise others about making it. Once you have the pita (whether homemade or not), the rest of this comes together quite easily, a lot easier than I thought it would. The recipe below is a combination of two different recipes I have, based on what ingredients I did or did not have lying around and my own personal whims as I was preparing this. One recipe has you putting the meat onto skewers and grilling it, which I am sure would make this even more tasty, while the other recommends cooking the meat under the broiler. As I have neither a grill nor a functional broiler, I pan-fried them in a cast-iron skillet, which worked very well and allowed me to get something of a sear on them (I’m sure other kinds of frying pans would also work). This recipe is really very flexible: you can use plain yogurt or Greek yogurt; you can play around with the spices you want in the meat and with the garnish (one recipe suggested toasted pine nuts, which sounded lovely, but I decided I couldn’t be bothered this time). Served with a big salad, it makes a very satisfying dinner.

Yoğurtlu kebab

A few words about ingredients, first: plain whole-milk yogurt or Greek yogurt are ideal here. Greek yogurt is strained, which makes it thicker; it’s what I used when I made this. Store-bought pita tends to be hard and stale (more or less like cardboard, in my opinion, which is why I finally tried making it myself), but Claudia Roden, writer of one of the recipes I used here, says that you can bring it back to life by wetting it briefly under cold water from the kitchen tap, and then heating it in the oven/under the broiler. I think this would be improved if it had a bit of a kick, and next time I will add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the meat mixture, as I’ve indicated in the ingredients list. If you like some spice in your foods, I recommend that you do the same!

Serves 4


For the kofta:

2 lbs. ground lamb (or beef, if you can’t find lamb)
1/4 cup grated yellow onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Generous pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce:

2 lbs. fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (see this previous recipe for how to peel tomatoes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For assembly:

4 pita breads
Plain whole-milk or Greek yogurt, at room temperature
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon paprika
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted (optional)
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley (optional)


To make the kofta, put all the ingredients listed under “kofta” above into a large bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix together with your hands, and knead the mixture for about 2 minutes, until it is well blended. Refrigerate meat mixture for 30 minutes to allow flavors to mingle.

To prepare the tomato sauce, put all of the ingredients under “tomato sauce” into a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the tomatoes soften, about 10-15 minutes. If you want a finer consistency, mash them in the pan with a fork or potato masher. The tomato sauce should be hot when you serve it, so you may need to rewarm it at the end.

When the meat has finished resting, form it into small burgers (a little bigger than a normal meatball). You should have 20-24. You can cook them under the broiler, turning them over once, until they are done (I can’t give times for this, as the recipe doesn’t and I didn’t try it), or you can cook them in a pan on the stove top. I recommend cast-iron, if you have it. Mine were done after about 5-6 minutes (3 minutes on the first side, and 2-3 on the second). I covered the pan to speed up cooking. If you want them cooked to medium, take them out a minute or so earlier. I didn’t grease my cast-iron, but if you use another kind of pan, you could grease it very lightly with olive oil. Lamb tends to be fatty, so I don’t think much is really necessary.

To assemble, toast the pita breads and break one into small pieces on each individual plate. In a small bowl, mix together the 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of paprika. Place the meat burgers on top of the pita. Pour a quarter of the warm tomato sauce onto each serving. Spoon as much of the yogurt over the tomato sauce as you want. If your yogurt isn’t at room temperature, you can warm it very briefly in a small pan over low heat, stirring constantly. Don’t let it come to a simmer or it will curdle. Once you’ve added the yogurt, you are ready to garnish. Drizzle the olive oil and paprika mixture over each serving, and sprinkle on the parsley and pine nuts, if using. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and Özcan Ozan’s The Sultan’s Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook

3 Comments on “lamb kofta with tomato sauce, yogurt, and pita”

  1. Mark D says:

    yogurtlu kebab
    yogurt and tomato sauce
    small burgers of joy

  2. farahmaizar says:

    tried this recipe and it was one of our favorite dinners we can remember! thanks for the post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s