How to Make Middle Eastern Kabsa: American Style

One of the (few) good things about being in the military is the ability to travel and try new things – to include food.

Kabsa rice and chicken on a white plate; isolated background

Sometimes these experiences occur in place where we would rather not be but sometimes you have to make lemonade from lemons.

Being from the desert Southwest, I’m surrounded by a very Hispanic culture, which thrives on powerful chiles, onions and tomatoes.

As I have delved into ethnic cooking, I’ve discovered some similarities between my native Mexican-American cooking style and the style of Middle-Easterners half a world away.

One thing that appeals to me most about Arabic cooking is the simplicity of it, and I’m going to share one of those simple recipes with you in this article.

The dish is called “kabsa”, which, according to one of my friends is almost a literal translation of what it is. Kabsa consists of meat (either poultry, lamb, or goat), rice, and a vegetable component.

There are a lot of different variations of kabsa, one of which being “meglouba”, which means “upside-down”, where all of the ingredients are timed so that they’re all in the pot simultaneously and cooking together.

Though the presentation is wonderful, it’s a little too advanced for me. I prefer to start easy.

First, when going to the grocery for ingredients, one has to keep in mind what the desired aesthetic of the dish is to be like. If you’re trying to make a light kabsa with a more lemon-centered spice pattern, I would recommend sticking with poultry.

I use a lot of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions in mine, so I like to use either lamb or chicken most of the time. Goat meat should be saved for savory dishes, because the meat is usually lean and holds spices in a more concentrated way than other meats that I’ve worked with.

What sets kabsa apart from all other meat and rice dishes that you’ve had in the past? Spices. I recommend going to a local specialty market in order to get the freshest ingredients.

Some of the spices that I’ve come into contact with by Arabic food are very alien to me. I suggest whoever is preparing the dish develop a palate for the unique aftertaste of these magnificent old-world spices.

One of the staples I’ve found is tumeric, which I had never used before. I suggest using very mild amounts before experimenting with taste, as it does have a slightly bitter hint to it.

Other key spices include cumin, cinnamon, bay leaves, and cloves. Be generous with the cinnamon, as it accentuates tomatoes very well. If you’d like to leave the spicing to the professionals, then some Arabic specialty markets offer “sebah baharat”, or seven spices, premixed to taste.

Every region has its own special blend, so I recommend trying by smell for something heavy in cinnamon and cumin with a medium accent of bay.

A group of Iraqi men dip food out of a platter of Kabsa

Pressure cookers are the best to use to prepare this dish as they are low maintenance and tend to cook the fastest. Chop up an onion into diced-sized pieces and throw them into the pressure cooker with some olive oil.

I like to have my onions tender, but not carmelized, so watch them closely. Add a small can of tomato paste and some diced tomatoes. As that starts to heat, add about 2 1/2 cups of water, along with your spices.

Stir it for a few minutes and then add your meat to the pot. Once your meat is in the pressure cooker, seal it off and time it for about thirty minutes to check on it.

As this is cooking, take the opportunity to make the accompanying salad/topping. This is diced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions mixed with plain yogurt and lemon juice. Just cover it with plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge until it’s time to serve.

The meat should be about done at this point so check it, then remove the cooked chicken into a baking pan and place it into the oven on a low setting to keep it warm but to not overcook it.

Taste your leftover brothy mix in the pressure cooker, because that will be the taste of your rice. Season it to taste. When satisfied, throw in your rice and lock the lid down.

The rice could take anywhere from 35-60 minutes depending on your altitude and such. Your pressure cooker will make adequate noise to let you know that it’s done.

To serve, fill the plate heftily with rice, lay a piece of chicken on top, then garnish with the cucumber mix, a slice of lemon, and some Louisiana Hot Sauce. (Arabic Hot Sauce tends to be a little to hot for me, as it lingers more than chipolte pepper juice!) Enjoy!

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10 thoughts on “How to Make Middle Eastern Kabsa: American Style”

  1. My neighbors used to make this when we used to have get together. Unfortunately I did not get the recipe before they moved to Texas and I got out of touch. I have high hopes that I will be able to match theirs, but if not well hopefully with a little tinkering it will be just as tasty.

  2. I have had a dish similar to this, but this looks so much more flavorful. I had friends who gave a few big cookouts every year and we would all cook out and bring whatever we were best at making. The first time we had it a couple from Costa Rica that I worked with were cooking a goat in the fire pit they had dug out in the back yard. Many would not try it simply because it was goat. I, on the other hand, have no qualms about trying something new. The goat meat was so flavorful and just dripped with a layer of juice that made it tender and soooooo good. My friend Mariella prepared a dish much like this, with tortillas and homemade Pico de gallo and I ate until I could not move. I hope to try this dish with chicken since I cannot get any goat where I live. Thank you for the recipe so very much.

  3. Am already hungry and i just had my supper like an hour ago..this is a definite try…totally amazing!!! despite the fact i have never eaten any Arabian meal…i must say it looks inviting.

  4. I like hearty meals such as this rice dish, Kabasa: American Style. Rice is staple in my household, we devour large bowls of rice every night with other accompaniments. I know my family would make this rice dish apart of our weekly menu because it would be simple for us to prepare and share.

  5. I love dishes that incorporate rice into them, but I have never had anything like this before. It looks really good, I think I might have to look into making this sometime. It looks very filling and I love anything that has a large amount of spice added to it. Any dish that has extra spice added is something that I can’t wait to try.

  6. This looks very similar to the Indian dish, biriyani, Middle Eastern food is delicious, but I do agree that the spices involved can taste a little “interesting” to the untrained palate! It’s all about getting the balance right.

  7. It’s always a good idea to center the seasoning around the dish itself. Depending on what meats & veggie you choose to accompany the rice of course. Can I make a suggestion? Perhaps you can include the recipe in the article as a printable recipe? Makes it easier if someone wanted to isolate the recipe alone.

  8. I am really looking forward to trying the Kabsa. I hate to say this, but I’ll probably me the only one eating it. I guess I’m not the best at trying recipes that come from anywhere than North America, lol I really hope I get this one right. Just looking at it has made me so hungry!

  9. This sounds wonderful! One of my favourite restaurants is a Lebanese restaurant and their kabsah is delicious. I have been so keen to try and make my own as eating out isn’t possible too often! This recipe is one I am very keen to try.

  10. That looks delicious! I love anything with a rice-based recipe and this is something that you can pretty much add what you want to, so you have the flexibility to use what you have in the fridge or the freezer, rather than having to go out and buy something especially for dish. My favourite would be shrimp – with a lot of chilli to give it a kick!

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