Turkish lentil meatballs (Mercimek köftesi)

No wonder this is one of Turks' most beloved dishes.
Turkish lentil meatballs (mercimek köftesi) on a plate, seen from eye-level

Turkish lentil meatballs (Mercimek köftesi)

No wonder this is one of Turks' most beloved dishes.
Turkish lentil meatballs (mercimek köftesi) on a plate, seen from eye-level

Vidar Bergum is a food writer and cookbook author based in Istanbul, Turkey.

Simple to make and packed with flavour. Turks serve them at just about any occasion. And few leftovers are more treasured than finding mercimek köftesi in the fridge when a midnight snack is called for. What’s not to like about Turkish lentil meatballs? 

To many, Turkish cuisine is one of döner kebab, köfte and perhaps pide. But it’s so much more than that.

The regional cuisines are as diverse as those of different countries. And then there’s the food which is perhaps most elusive to the outsider. Some of the most beloved dishes rarely appear on restaurant menus. These gems are only made at home.

This is in large part what led me to write my second book, Aubergine & tahini. It explores the home cooking of the region. The less famous – but equally tasty and much simpler to make – dishes. For the moment, it’s only published in Norway, where it’s enjoyed great success, hitting third print within its first year.

If I were to reduce the home cooking gems down to a single flag carrying dish, I’d choose mercimek köftesi. Deliciously aromatic vegetarian meatballs. Made from red lentils, bulgur and a few carefully selected ingredients, these flavour bombs are as comforting as they are tasty.

Photo: Bahar Kitapci

Huge meze spread seen from above
Photo: Bahar Kitapci
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And they’re as absent from restaurant menus as they are present at people’s home.

Vegan dish that’s perfect for any occasion

At least, that’s my experience. I feel like whenever I enter someone’s home, it’s never long before a plate of these bright orange lentil meatballs appear.

I’ve had them for breakfast. I’ve had them as an appetiser before dinner. I’ve had them as one of many mezes at an occasion. I’ve had them as a snack from the fridge late at night.

One of the genius things about mercimek köftesi, is that they’re served at room temperature, or even cold. What’s more, they keep perfectly for days.

Make-aheaders, you’re welcome.

Turkish lentil meatballs on a plate, seen from top down

Though they’re not just for those who make ahead. I find having a plate of these in the fridge is the perfect answer when you’re feeling peckish before bed, or between meals. Fulfilling enough to keep you going until the next meal, but not so much as to spoil the hunger for too long.

They also happen to be vegan, if that’s important to you.

The trick to perfect mercimek köftesi

Making Turkish lentil meatballs is deceptively simple, but it does require a thing or two from your kitchen cupboards.

Red lentils make up most of the base, along with bulgur. Here, you want to use the fine bulgur. If the brand is Turkish (or German-Turkish, as most Turkish sounding brands outside of Turkey are), it will be sold as köftelik bulgur. Bulgur for meatballs.

The bulgur will cook in the residual heat and liquid of the lentils, so it’s essential to use the fine grained variety. I suppose you could substitute fine couscous if you must. Bulgur is, however, easily accessible in most places.

Turkish lentil meatballs get their bright colour, and much of the flavour, from tomato and red pepper pastes. It is worth seeking out good quality versions if you can. In Turkey, I get mine sundried and home made from Turunç Gıda, a family business I know and trust. They don’t ship abroad, but if you’re in Turkey I highly recommend them.

Onions are another essential ingredient. They are crucial to getting the right flavour here, but if you’re not careful, they can be overpowering. Striking the right balance is key. To that end, I add onions three ways – sautéed brown onions, plus raw red onion and spring onion. You can use just either if the latter two, but make sure there’s a good balance of flavours.

Finally, keep them away from the frying pan. This may sound odd to re-iterate if you’re already familiar with the dish, but beyond boiling red lentils and sautéing onion, there’s no heat involved in making this dish.

Single Turkish lentil meatball (mercimek köfte) held in a hand

Once your mixture is ready, all you need to do is shape them. Then you’re done!

You can shape them however you like. I like squeezing them between the fingers in my hand for a wavy, elongated shape. Moisten your fingers with a little water or oil every now and again to keep them from sticking to your hands.

How to serve Turkish lentil meatballs

Traditionally, mercimek köftesi is served and eaten with fresh salad leaves. Delicious!

That said, I often skip the salad leaves. They are also delicious as they are!

As I mentioned above, these lentil meatballs can be served with any meal, though personally I usually serve it as a meze or appetiser before dinner. It’s also perfect for those days when you’re putting a number of dishes, small and big, in the middle of the table to let everyone help themselves.

In summer, why not consider it for your picnic or outing in the park? Turkish lentil meatballs keep well for hours at most temperatures. Of course, if you’re moving around, they may not be as pretty as when you shaped them. But they will still taste amazing!

While I rarely make them to snack on between meals, I always make sure there’s plenty left over for that purpose! Good then, that they keep for days in the fridge – probably more than a week if you pack them well. Though I assure you, they’ll be long gone by that time.

The recipe makes 25-30 lentil meatballs. Depending on what is served alongside, 2-3 lentil meatballs per person is usually enough. If this is a major part of the meal, however, allow at least twice that.

Turkish lentil meatballs on a plate, seen up-close

Turkish lentil meatballs

Yield: 25-30 pieces

Ingredients

  • 175 g (200 ml) dry red lentils
  • 400 ml water
  • 80 g fine bulgur (köftelik bulgur)
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil (I use a mild extra virgin)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 50 g tomato paste
  • 25 g Turkish red pepper paste (acı biber salçası)
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 small red onion, very finely chopped
  • 3 medium spring onions, very finely chopped
  • 25 g leaves of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • salt and pepper

To serve

  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges
  • crispy green salad leaves (e.g. romaine lettuce)

Instructions

  1. Add the lentils and water to a pot. Bring to a boil. Put a lid on it, turn the heat down to low/medium and leave to simmer until the lentils are completely falling apart, 20-25 minutes. Take off the heat, add the bulgur and mix well. Put the lid back on and leave to cool.
  2. Meanwhile, heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Fry the onion in the olive oil until soft, but not coloured, 8-10 minutes. Stir regularly to ensure it doesn't catch. Add the tomato paste, red pepper paste and cumin. Fry for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Leave to cool.
  3. Once everything has cooled, mix all the ingredients (save the lemon and salad leaves) well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Using your hands is easiest. The mixture should be very smooth. If it's looking a little dry, adjust with some more extra virgin olive oil.
  4. Shape the mixture into lentil meatballs. I like to press my fingers against the palm of the same hand to get a nice, wavy pattern – but any shape will do. Dip your hand in a little water or oil every now and again to avoid it sticking to your skin.
  5. Serve with lemon wedges and crispy green salad leaves.

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Vidar Bergum on the front porch of his home, drinking tea, with a street cat eating something on the street in front of him

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4 Responses

  1. This recipe is spot on. Gram weights made it very easy to get the ratios of flavor correct. Great work!

  2. Enjoy your recipes but don’t see u on Instagram nowadays.
    Will try these beauties tonight with some drinks.

  3. Hi any suggestions to replace the bulgur for a gluten free recipe ? what about cornmeal ?

    thanks

    1. Hi, this is a wheat based recipe. You could certainly try cornmeal or fine polenta, though I wouldn’t be able to say how it would affect the flavour or texture here. One can only try. Good luck!

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Hey, there!

I’m Vidar. For the past few years, I’ve been exploring the foods of Turkey, the Middle East and beyond from my house in Balat, Istanbul. Let me show you around!

My books

I’ve published two books on Turkish and Middle Eastern food, available in Norwegian and German.

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