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Persian Meatless Herby “Meatballs” (koofteh sabzi)

Persian Meatless Herby “Meatballs” (koofteh sabzi)

This koofteh is one of the very first dishes that I made on my own after my auntie showed me how to make them. She called them poor man’s kufta (yolchi kuftasi in her native Azari language). I was eleven years old but can still remember the day and the scrummy dish.

I hadn’t made these in years. I was craving them but wasn’t sure my meat-loving husband would be a big fan. I was even prepared to heat him some other leftovers if he didn’t like it. But to my amazement he loved it so much he had them the next day too and asked me to make them again!

So what makes these meatless “meatballs” so delicious? I’d say lots and lots of herbs, the barberries and especially the prunes that lend a slightly sweet and sour flavour to the “meatballs” and the sauce.

Ingredients for meatless meatballs
Ingredients for meatless “meatballs” include lots of lovely fragrant herbs including mint and ruby red barberries.

These “meatballs” are called koofteh in Persian which basically means “pounded”. In old days meat for koofteh was pounded with a huge stone mortar and pestle. Pounding gave the meat a sticky texture that held the meatballs together during cooking. But poor man’s koofteh don’t need pounding. There is no meat to pound!

The trick to hold the ingredients together is to knead the mix lightly and to use a sticky type of rice. Any kind of short or medium grain rice will be good. I used Italian Arborio which I often use to make sticky mixed rice dishes. It’s also important to allow the sauce to boil, lower the heat a tad bit so it doesn’t boil briskly and then submerge the meatballs one by one so the temperature of the sauce doesn’t drop. The rest is all really easy peasy.

"Meatballs" are stuffed with prunes, walnuts and some caramelised onion.
“Meatballs” are stuffed with prunes, walnuts and some caramelised onion.

Barberries do make this dish tastier but you can do without if they are hard to come by where you live. They come dried but I keep them in the freezer to preserve their gorgeous colour for longer. The tiny ruby red berries don’t even really freeze so I use them in my dishes after a quick rinse under the tap.

Nowadays most Middle Eastern and Persian groceries in the UK and online suppliers stock barberries. The dried berries are very light so a packet of 200 grams will see you through quite a few dishes.

The sauce is thickened by the caramelised onions and the starches from the rice.

Serve these “meatballs” with warmed flatbread or crusty bread to dunk in the sauce. Iranians love to have a bowl of fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and tarragon, spring onions and radishes on the table too. The herb mix is called sabzī khordan (herbs for eating). The herbs serve as flavour enhancer and refresh the palate between morsels.

To serve five persons (two meatballs each) you will need the following ingredients: 

For the meatballs:

  • 120g small yellow lentils (split peas)
  • 175g Arborio or other short-grain glutinous rice
  • 3 tbsp barberries, picked over, rinsed and drained
  • 20g each of parsley, coriander, mint leaves and chives, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 11/2 tbsp dried dill
  • 1 tsp ground cumin (I used Persian black cumin)
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 small eggs, lightly beaten (or enough to bind the mix)
  • 15 prunes
  • 10 walnut halves

For the sauce:

  • 4 tbsp oil (I like extra-virgin rapeseed oil or olive oil)
  • 2 large red onions or 3 medium, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder or granules
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • Chilli powder to taste (optional)
  • 3-4 tbsp tomato purée (you may have to use more if your purée is not thick)
  • Boiling water (about 2 1/2 litres or enough to submerge the meatballs).


  1. Put the lentils in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat to medium low and cook until almost but not completely soft. Rinse in a sieve and drain well.
  2. Put the rice in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover by about 1 1/2 centimetres. Stir and bring to the boil. Cook over medium heat until all the water is absorbed and rice is almost soft. Let cool.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the chopped onions until golden brown. Add the turmeric and stir. Cook for a minute or two. Set aside.
  4. Put the rice, eggs, lentils, herbs, barberries and spices in a bowl. Mix very well by hand and knead lightly until the mix is sticky and holds its shape when rolled into a ball. Divide into ten portions.
  5. Wet your hands and roll each portion of the mixture into a ball. With your thumb make a hole in each ball and put a walnut stuffed prune and a little of the caramelised onions (about 1/4 tsp for each)  in the hole. With your fingers push the mixture back over the stuffing and roll again to completely cover the stuffing. With slightly wet hands roll the balls between palms to make the surface smooth so the rice mix holds together during cooking. Set the meatballs on a plate.
  6. Transfer the caramelised onions to a lidded saucepan that’s big enough to submerge the meatballs. Add the spices for the sauce and the tomato purée and cook for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Pour in the boiling water and bring to the boil again, lower the heat so that the sauce boils gently.
  7. Drop each meatball in the sauce and wait for the sauce to return to gentle boil before dropping the next meatball in. Cook uncovered for five minutes after all the meatballs are in the sauce, then add the remaining prunes, cover and turn the heat down to low.
  8. Simmer the meatballs at least for forty-five minutes without moving the meatballs around. Continue cooking if the sauce is too thin. When the sauce has thickened to your liking correct the seasoning and simmer for a few more minutes. Enjoy!

PS: A little bit of the rice and herbs will eventually get into the sauce but that’s OK. It will thicken the sauce and add to its flavour.

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