Why It Works
- Browning the beef jumpstarts the Maillard reaction, developing complex layers of flavor that carry over into the finished stew.
- Sautéeing the onions and spices in ghee and rendered beef fat blooms the spices, developing their complexity while drawing their flavor into the fat.
The word kabab might make you think of charred, sizzling skewers of minced meat over a raging fire spit, but kabab halla—an iconic Egyptian dish of braised beef and onions—couldn’t be more different. Kabab halla translates simply to “meat in the pot,” and consists mostly of inexpensive stew meat and yellow onions, two widely available and affordable ingredients. Cooked in just enough stock or water to cover, the beef and onions simmer for two hours until the meat is tender and the onions collapse into a velvety sauce. For many Egyptians, kabab halla is considered the ultimate comfort food.
Some variations of the recipe include wedges or cubes of russet potato that are added to the stew for the last 30 minutes cooking, thickening the sauce with their starch while stretching the meat further. Other more modern variations include additional ingredients, which braise alongside the beef and add their own earthy flavor. This recipe keeps things simple and classic, with the beef, onions, and spices the main ingredients. That said, you could easily adapt the recipe to include potatoes, mushrooms, or anything else that appeals, though you may need to adjust the cooking liquid volume and process slightly to accommodate them.
Choosing the Best Beef Cut and Onions for Kabab Halla
While there are several cuts of beef suitable for stewing and braising, Egyptians often use the top round, a subtly-marbled cut of beef, to make kabab halla. For this recipe, however, we’re calling for boneless beef chuck, as we find that what beef in the United States, it’s a more reliable option for slow-cooked dishes—it’s higher in collagen than many other beef cuts, which melts into tender gelatin over long periods of cooking, resulting in stewed beef that is juicy and flavorful and a sauce that has enhanced sulkiness thanks to that supply of gelatin.
As for the onions, I prefer yellow, which are deeply sweet and aromatic, developing a pleasing sweetness as they cook. While red onions may lend sweetness, they are slightly more pungent than yellow onions and may overpower the flavor of kabab halla. White onions, on the other hand, have a milder flavor, which I don’t think works as well here.
How to Make Kabab Halla
The basic process for making his recipe is as follows: First, salt and brown the beef right away. Salt draws moisture out of the meat through osmosis, so if you salt the beef too far in advance, it’ll be wet when it goes into the pot, which drives down the cooking temperature and delays browning. You could, of course, salt the beef far in advance—at least 40 minutes—to give it time for the moisture to be drawn out and then be reabsorbed or evaporate, but for speed, salting and searing right away works well.
After that, the onions are browned in the pot with the garlic and spices, which both develops their flavor before the stock is added and softens them more fully. Adding the spices at this stage, instead of to the pot after the stock has gone in, blooms their flavor by toasting them in the fat. Plus, because so much of a spice’s flavor and aroma is fat soluble, this cooking step increases their flavor impact on the final stew.
Once the stock goes into the pot, it’s time to cook it until the beef is properly tender. I am in the habit of doing it on the stovetop, which is what the recipe instructs, though you could also transfer the stew to a relatively low 325°F (175°C) oven, partially covered, and let it slow cook there until the beef is tender. Either way, the stew is finished on the stovetop to ensure the cooking liquids are cooked down to a silky, saucy glaze.