Kabab tabei: Persian Beef Patties in Tomato Sauce with Sumac Rice

I made kabab tabei (beef patties) in tomato sauce for dinner a couple of nights ago. The day had been long and kind of crazy at work and I needed something really comforting. And comfort it was! The patties were so easy to make it took me about an hour to clear the dishes from breakfast, cook the patties and the rice and set the table.

Kabab tabei means “kebab in a pan”. It’s usually accompanied with fried tomatoes and plain buttered rice sprinkled with sumac. Most people make them with minced lamb or a mixture of lamb and beef.

I like to use lean beef mince only and to cook the patties in tomato sauce after frying them in the pan for extra flavour and moister patties. I also add a bit of Spanish sweet smoked paprika, my favourite non-Persian spice to my kabab tabei. I’ve written a little about smoked paprika before in the post titled Warm Barley, Chickpea, Nuts and Dried Fruit Salad.

Lean minced beef works the best for me in kabab tabei but you can use a higher fat mince or even a mixture of beef and mince.

Now a little bit about sumac in case anybody wants to know what this curious Middle Eastern spice is and where it comes from. Sumac is sold in the form of a grainy, brown to deep reddish-purple powder and has a tangy, lemony flavour.

Sumac is usually sold as a grainy purple powder.

Sumac comes from a certain type of sumac bush with clusters of edible hard berry-like fruit. The plant is different from ornamental sumac usually found in gardens. Only a couple of years ago it was really hard to find sumac in the UK anywhere other than some Middle Eastern and Iranian groceries but big supermarkets have begun supplying the spice recently.

The rice recipe below calls for sprinkling sumac on layers of rice before steaming it. Give it a try, this way a little sumac goes a long way and the rice tastes fabulous.

Man picking wild sumac in Gonabad, Iran. Photo from khanikiha.ir
Man picking wild sumac in Gonabad, Iran. Photo from khanikiha.ir

To make kabab tabei and rice to serve four people you will need:

For the patties:

  • 800g lean minced beef
  • 2 medium onions, grated or very finely chopped
  • 1 tsp Spanish sweet smoked paprika (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 20g butter or 2 tbsp olive oil (or more if you wish)
  • 4 tomatoes (red, orange or both), halved
  • 500ml good tomato passata (or thick tomato juice, or tinned chopped tomatoes)

For the rice

  • 300g long grain or basmati rice
  • 1 1/2 tbsp salt (to boil the rice)
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp sumac
  • Butter to serve with rice


  1. First of all put the rice in a bowl and fill with cold water. Gently rub the rice between your palms for a few seconds. Drain. Repeat at least twice more or until the water runs clear. Set aside.
  2. Put a medium, preferably non-stick coated lidded saucepan on and add 2 litres of boiling water. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Add the rice and 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt and stir gently. Cook until the rice grains turn white and begin to flow to the surface. Then test a few grains. The grains must be soft enough to smash between fingers but still have a little bite in the centre. Drain the rice in a colander or sieve. Taste and rinse with water if too salty for you.
  3. Return the saucepan to the heat (medium) and add the vegetable oil. As soon as the oil gets hot put 1/3 of the rice in the pot and sprinkle with 1/3 of the sumac. Repeat until all rice and sumac is used up.  Form into a mound shape. Turn down the heat to very low and cover the saucepan with the lid wrapped in a clean tea towel. Let the rice steam over low heat for at least 30 minutes. The rice will form a lovely golden crust that we call tahdig. I forgot to take a picture but there is a lot to be said about tahdig, in a future post, hopefully soon.
  4. Now put the mince and all the other ingredients for the patties except the butter or olive oil in a bowl. Mix well, then divide into eight portions. Shape each portion into an oval patty like you would shape a small burger, about a centimetre thick. I was in a rush to prepare dinner so I couldn’t take pictures of the uncooked patties, either. Apologies.
  5. Melt the butter (or heat the oil) over medium-high heat in a large lidded frying pan. Put the patties in the oil, waiting for the pan to get hot before adding each patty. Fry until browned on one side. Flip the patties with a fish slice and brown on the other side. Take out of the pan and set aside.
  6. Arrange the tomato halves in the pan, cut side down, and fry the tomatoes for 3 minutes or until lightly browned on the cut side. Pour the passata ( or tomato juice or chopped tomatoes) in the pan and cook for a couple of minutes. Return the patties to the pan and spoon some sauce over each. Cover the pan and cook on low heat for ten minutes or until the sauce is a little thick. Adjust the seasoning of the sauce.
  7. By this time the rice must have a lightly golden crust (check with a spatula). Divide the rice among plates, arrange two patties and two tomato halves on the side of each portion of rice and spoon some sauce over each portion. Garnish with fresh herbs and radishes. Add a small piece of butter to each portion (to mix in the hot rice). Break the crust into pieces and serve separately.

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