Mercimek Kofte (pronounced "mehr-jee-mek kof-teh”) is a hearty traditional Turkish dish that just happens to be completely vegan, and packed with protein. Tender red lentils and fine bulgur unite, creating a filling and nourishing harmony. The fragrant olive oil gently caresses the ingredients, capturing and delivering the aromas of the spices, herbs, and onion.
The mild Turkish pepper paste, known as "tatli biber salçası," lends a subtle heat that harmonizes with the tomato paste's velvety richness. Like delicate whispers, the scallions add a fresh crispness, while the minced flat-leaf parsley sprinkles its vibrant green confetti throughout, inviting you to indulge in its vibrant freshness.
Hints of smoked paprika, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin embrace your senses, intermingling to create a complex tapestry of flavors. The ground black pepper adds a gentle kick, awakening your taste buds to the symphony of tastes.
Mercimek köfte, also known as Mercimek Köftesi, and simply as Turkish Lentil Balls in the West, goes amazingly with all your other favorite vegan Turkish recipes, such as eggplant Şakşuka, ezogelin corbasi, and Irmik helvasi (vegan Turkish pine nut and semolina halva).
Grab your most adorable apron, and let’s make Merimek Kofte - a dish that embodies the spirit of Turkish cuisine!
🥰Why you are going to adore the ever-loving heck outta this recipe
Here are five reasons why you'll fall head over heels in love:
- Lightning-fast and hassle-free: Whip up this kofta in no time, perfect for those busy days when you need a quick and satisfying meal without sacrificing flavor. If speed and simplicity is your thing, you can make an even simpler and faster köfte by following my recipe for Cig köfte which doesn’t contain any lentils.
- Protein-packed goodness: This dish is loaded with plant-based protein, thanks to the combination of hearty lentils and bulgur. It's a tasty way to fuel your body and keep you energized throughout the day.
- Meal prep champion: Need a meal that's a meal prep dream? Look no further! Mercimek kofte stores beautifully, allowing you to prepare a big batch in advance, refrigerate (or even freeze) and enjoy it throughout the week. It's a convenient and delicious option for your on-the-go lifestyle.
- Vegan AF: No cute animals need to be harmed to eat these meatballs! And better yet, this is not a veganized-recipe that is lacking something essential, its a traditional method that just happens to be fully vegetarian.
- THIS RECIPE JUST WORKS: Nothing is more frustrating than when you get all the ingredients and follow a recipe that turns out to be unreliable. All of the recipes on my blog have been extensively tested both by myself, and a group of recipe testers who help me double-check all my recipes in their own home kitchens. Everyone who has made this love it!
🌶️Notable ingredients and substitutions
Red lentils, known as "kırmızı mercimek" in Turkish, are a nutritional powerhouse, packed with protein, dietary fiber, and essential minerals like iron and folate. As a substitution, you can use other varieties of split lentils, such as split mung beans or split brown lentils. If you use an un-split lentil variety, such as green lentils, or urad dal, you will need to add more water and allow more time for the lentils to cook. Whatever lentils you use, they should be cooked to the point where they are breaking down.
Fine bulgur, or "ince bulgur" in Turkish, is made from cracked whole wheat. It is a good source of complex carbohydrates, providing sustained energy and keeping you feeling full for longer. Additionally, it contains fiber, vitamins, and minerals, including magnesium and phosphorus. If you are gluten-free, you can substitute it with cooked quinoa to achieve a similar texture and taste.
Smoked paprika, called "tütsülenmiş pul biber" in Turkish, not only adds a distinctive smoky flavor to dishes but also contains antioxidants like vitamin C and carotenoids. If smoked paprika is not accessible, you can use regular paprika or a combination of paprika and a small amount of chipotle powder for a smoky flavor.
Mild Turkish red pepper paste
"Tatlı biber salçası" is a mild Turkish pepper paste that adds depth and a touch of sweetness to dishes like lahana sarma and ezme. Although there is no direct substitution for the unique flavor of this paste, if you can’t get it, substitute it with an equal amount of tomato paste and add a little extra chili powder or paprika to the recipe to approximate its flavor. If you want to use a spicier pepper paste, you can substitute it with aci biber salçası .
You wanna see these adorable lil’ vegan meatballs get made? I will walk you through the whole process. Or you can follow along with the easy-to-print recipe card towards the bottom of this page.
Give the lentils a thorough rinse under cold water, draining away any dust or foreign matter.
In a medium-sized pot, bring the water to a boil. Once boiling, add the rinsed lentils to the pot and let them simmer for ten to fifteen minutes until they become tender. Occasional stirring will ensure even cooking and prevent any clumping.
Once the lentils have achieved their desired tenderness, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the fine-grade bulgur.
Cover the pot with a lid, allowing the mixture to cool as the bulgur steams.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat for 60 seconds. When the oil is hot, add the diced yellow onion and minced garlic to the skillet, and sauté for approximately six minutes.
Stir in the Turkish pepper paste, tomato paste, scallions, minced parsley, smoked paprika, cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cumin, black pepper, and salt. Sauté the contents of the pan, stirring occasionally for two or three minutes, intensifying their fragrance. If you want, this is also a great time to add a dash of baharat, for a more Middle Eastern flavor.
When finished sautéing, the contents of the pan will be tender and fragrant.
Mix the contents of the pan into the bulgur and lentils. Let the mixture rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature, giving time for the flavors to meld, and for the mixture to cool to a point where it can be easily handled.
Form into 2-3 tablespoon-sized, smooth oval-shaped patties or balls. Wetting your hands with water intermittently will prevent any sticking, making the process easier and less messy.
At this point, you have the option to savor the köfte immediately at room temperature, or refrigerate it for a few hours, firming up its texture. The köfte can be served either chilled or at room temperature with lettuce and lemon.
For a Moroccan touch, serve these alongside harira, or comforting Turkish barbunya pilaki a rich and aromatic stew of barlotti beans. Add a cracked wheat salad to the meal with a bowl of taboule, or fragrant Bulgur Pilavi, a traditional Turkish bulgur wheat pilaf that complements the Mercimek Köfte flawlessly.
You can use these lentil meatballs in place of the kofta in my Seitan Kofta with tzatziki sauce recipe if seitan is unavailable. (Just sayin’- you could just make seitan yourself following my vegan chicken recipe, or by following the recipes in my seitan masterclass 😉).
Conclude the feast on a sweet note with pistachio Baklava, with its delicate layers of phyllo pastry and rosewater syrup-drenched, cardamom-scented pistachios.
Cook your red lentils until they're tender, but still hold their shape. Rinse them quickly before cooking, then simmer in water until they're soft enough to mash with a fork.
Allow your mixture to cool down a bit before you start shaping it. This little bit of patience will really pay off when you're forming those beautiful kofte.
Shape your kofte into small oval patties. If you want to go for the traditional look, give them a gentle squeeze between your fingers to create those classic ridges.
For serving, you have options! Put them on a bed of lettuce leaves, or tuck them into some pita bread to smash alongside some Kereviz. To finish things off fresh, give them a drizzle of olive oil and a spritz of zesty lemon juice.
Authentic Mercimek Köfte recipes typically include bulgur, which is made from wheat and contains gluten. Therefore, the traditional version of Mercimek Köfte is not gluten-free. However, you can make gluten-free adaptations by substituting the bulgur with gluten-free alternatives such as quinoa, rice, or gluten-free breadcrumbs. These substitutions will allow individuals with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease to enjoy a gluten-free version of Mercimek Köfte.
Lentils, the main ingredient of Mercimek Köfte, have been cultivated in Turkey for thousands of years, making them a staple food. Lentils were likely introduced to the region by ancient civilizations such as the Hittites and the Assyrians.
The origins of Mercimek Köfte can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire, which spanned from the 14th to the early 20th century. During this time, lentils were widely consumed due to their affordability, nutritional value, and versatility. The Ottomans were known for their culinary innovation and created a variety of dishes using lentils, including Mercimek Köfte.
Mercimek Köfte gained popularity as a vegetarian dish, providing a protein-rich alternative to meat-based köfte. It was especially favored during times of religious fasting when meat consumption was restricted. The dish became widely enjoyed in Turkey and has since spread to various regions with Turkish influence, as well as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines.
After preparing the Mercimek Köfte, place them in an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. Before serving, allow them to come to room temperature or gently reheat in a covered pan with a tiny splash of oil over a medium flame, or in a microwave until warmed through.
If you wish to freeze the Mercimek Köfte, it is best to do so after shaping them. Form the mixture into small patties or balls, and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (this way they will not freeze together into one clump that is a nightmare to deal with). Freeze until solid, then transfer the frozen köfte to a freezer-safe bag or container. They can be frozen for up to three months. Thaw the frozen köfte in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.
✌️My fave recipes to make with Mercimek Kofte:
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Mercimek köfte (Turkish bulgur and lentil meatballs)
- 1½ cup split red lentils
- 3 ¼ cups water
- 1 cup fine bulgur
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 4 teaspoons tatli biber salçası mild Turkish pepper paste
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 scallions thinly sliced
- ½ cup minced flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 ½ teaspoons salt
- Rinse the split red lentils thoroughly under cold water and drain them to remove dust and foreign matter.
- In a medium-sized pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the rinsed lentils and cook them until they are tender, stirring occasionally for ten to fifteen minutes.
- Once the lentils are cooked, remove them from heat and stir in the fine-grade bulgur. Place a lid on the pot and set aside to cool.
- In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced yellow onion and minced garlic to the skillet, and sauté them for six minutes until they turn translucent and slightly golden.
- Add the Turkish pepper paste, tomato paste, scallions, minced parsley, smoked paprika, cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cumin, black pepper, and salt to the skillet. Stir well to combine the ingredients and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
- Mix the contents of the pan into the pot with the lentils and bulgur. Mix until they are well combined. The mixture should have a dough-like consistency.
- Allow the mixture to rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature. This will help the flavors meld together and the bulgur to soften further.
- After the resting period, take small portions (about two-three tablespoons) of the mixture and shape them into small oval-shaped patties or balls. Wetting your hands with water occasionally will help prevent sticking.
- Place the shaped mercimek köfte on a serving platter or a tray lined with lettuce leaves for presentation.
- You can serve mercimek köfte immediately at room temperature or refrigerate for a few hours to enhance the flavors and allow the kofte to firm up. They can be served chilled or at room temperature.
- Mercimek köfte is typically enjoyed with a squeeze of lemon juice, or fresh lemon slices, and served with fresh vegetables, such as lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. It is often accompanied with a side of vegan yogurt or a tangy dip like cacık.