Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Turkish Onion Salad + Shortcut Grilled Lamb Kefta Burgers

Turkish onion salad - or Arabic salsa, as my mother likes to describe it to foreigners - is an easy way to bring a sense of adventure to your mezze spread. Mildly piquant with the bite of onion, this smokey-sweet salsa has tomato, honey and cumin, but you can spice it up with other add-ins, like parsley and a kick of hot pepper. There is really no wrong way to eat this simple onion salad.  Drop a spoonful onto a platter of hummus.  Top your chicken kebabs or lamb burgers with a spoonful.  Scoop some up in a loaf of Arabic bread.  Spread a little on a slice of grilled bread.  Or, if you're really crazy (like me), mix it right into your ground lamb patties destined for the grill.  I promise, you won't regret it.

So . . . I'm basically eating onion, I asked my mother, when I watched her make this dish for the first time. We were in her glossily tiled kitchen in Bethlehem, and I watched her mince the onion finely, and then salt it, and drain away the liquid in a sieve.  Yes, she laughed, this is just onion.  But here is the secret.  You have to salt the onion and drain away the onion juice, so that it becomes mild instead of scaring away the neighbors.  Still, she said.  You don't eat much.

Onions occupy a comedic role in the mind of the Arab.  Though we love to eat them and fry them up for many of our dishes, they don't have much, well, honor.  Meats, nuts, spices--these are the jewels of the kitchen. The lowly onion, or bussul, which my mother and father always pronounced in an exaggerated, throaty manner, is the butt of jokes and insult.  Take, for example, this colorful little Arabic insult, which my mother translated for me a few months ago:  Why don't you take your idea and go plant some onion with it?

Maybe it has more acridity in the Arabic?

So, yes, we insult with onions, and also save with onions.  There is a lovely story from the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising, of a Palestinian woman who tossed onions down from her window whenever the Israeli army tear-gassed her street, so that demonstrators could use onions to counteract the effect of the tear gas. As the story goes, several people escaped the tear gas only to be hit by onions.

If you can't cry anymore, you might as well laugh, they say.

And so, we laugh, especially when we eat bussul salad.

Turkish Onion Salad

The basic onion salad is very simply three-ingredient garnish:  chopped onions with cumin and salt.  That is all. Some, including my mother, add in other things:  tomato paste or ketchup (!), parsley and hot or sweet peppers.  Here, I skipped the ketchup in favor of tomato paste and a little honey. The natural flavor of the onion shines through, so be sure to pick an onion variety that you enjoy eating raw.

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia is nice), chopped finely
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cumin
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
1 tbsp hot peppers, chopped (optional)

1.  Chop the onion finely, and then transfer to a fine-mesh sieve.  Add salt and stir into your onion.  Let it rest on your counter for five minutes, until the juices onion begins to release its juices.  They press down on your onion with a spoon or your fingers, pressing out the juices.  Work your onion over a few times, till you are satisfied that you have most of the juices out, and then transfer onions to a small prep bowl.

2.  Add the remaining ingredients:  cumin, tomato paste, honey, and parsley and peppers, if using.  Stir together and serve.  

Grilled lamb kefta patties, with chicken and veggie kebabs.  

Lamb Kefta Sliders

If you have extra onion salad to use up, try mixing in a little to any ground meat patties that you are about to send out to your grill.  Middle Eastern cook-outs always include ground meat kebabs, either grilled alone or on skewers, seasoned with our favorite meat spices and full of minced parsley and onion.  If you have onion salad, you are already half way there.  These little baby burgers earned a big thumbs up from my family on our cookout night.

1 lb ground lamb
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp Turkish Onion Salad (recipe above)
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper

1.  In a medium prep bowl, add all of the ingredients.  Mix together with clean hands, until all in ingredients are well incorporated.

2.  Form into 10 oval patties and set out on a platter for the grill.  

3.  Grill over medium-high heat, on a well-oiled grate.  Grill for 5-8 minutes on each side, or until the patties reach desired level of pink in the center.  Remove the patties to a clean plate and cover with foil until ready to serve.  


  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog post, I think every culture is a bit dismissive of onion no matter how vital they are to the cuisine. :)

    I love simple and versatile condiments like this! I can't wait to try it.

  2. very nice recipe..ive had onion parsley sumac lemon salad on falafels and shawarmas or kebabs..same technique with onions except cut in thin slivers/half moons ..very popular in Turkey and the Levant but not this..any info and where or how your mom came across it and is it popular in you think pomegrante molasses would work instead of honey? ty in advance

    1. I have had this salad more than once when out at restaurants in Palestine. It may not be the most popular condiment, but it is certainly available! I do think pomegranate molasses would be lovely in here. I will try that next time! It is such a classic Middle Eastern flavor, though used more in Lebanon than in Palestine. My mother sometimes sweetens it with a little sugar, but I use sweeteners that have a little more to offer.


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!