Monday, July 28, 2014

Kibbe nayyeh: The meatloaf they forgot to bake

Not the actual culprit,
but you get the gist.
This picture came from here.
The kibbe nayyeh sits by itself on the counter at my husband, Brian's, family reunion, ostracized from the other food spread out on a nearby table.

I am a towering blonde Amazon in his great aunt’s kitchen, surrounded by tiny, stooped-shouldered Lebanese women who shuffle around the table loading their plates with hummus, grape leaves, Syrian bread, and a string bean dish called lubee. There’s regular baked kibbe too, a kind of Middle Eastern meatloaf stuffed with pine nuts and bulger, that’s cut into little brown diamonds.

But it’s the kibbe nayyeh that I keep stealing glances at, an oval of pink paste adorned with little sprigs of parsley stuck throughout the top.

Kibbe nayyeh is unbaked kibbe. That's right. Raw, ground meat piled onto a plate.

“That’s kibbe naye, right?” I ask a cousin. She makes a grossed-out face and nods.

“I stay away from that,” she says.

Brian said his dad, Tony, will eat anything. I made an awful, dry brick of a meatloaf once and he piled on second and third helpings, making happy, grateful sounds throughout the meal.

So it’s no surprise that Tony’s spreading a spoonful of kibbe nayyeh into a little pocket of Syrian bread. He says he always eats it. Brian’s mom, Sharon, whose parents were Lebanese and Syrian, has never tried it.

Naturally, I’m intrigued. So I ask a few Sharon questions, which are followed by vague, and not altogether reassuring, answers.
  • Does it make you sick? (No one’s ever gotten sick that I know of). 
  • What else is in it? (Onions and spices and other stuff). 
  • Is it lamb or beef? (I don’t know, ask my aunt).
“If you’re going to try it, you better get some now,” Sharon says. “It always goes fast.”

“Get me some more too,” Tony adds.

Sure enough, the pink oval on the platter is already half gone. Now it’s in the shape of a pink gravestone. I scoop a little pasty ball onto a plate, grab a few Syrian pockets, and head back to the table.

I spread the kibbe nayyeh onto a pita. I examine every centimeter of it, holding it an inch from my face. I sniff it. Yup, it’s definitely raw friggen meat.

“Just eat it,” Brian said. “Don’t think about it too much.”

So I do. It’s pasty and mild and slippery, but not bad. Pretty good actually. The onion flavor is nice, and it doesn’t have that heavy, musky taste that baked kibbe sometimes has. I fill up another pita, and Tony scoops up the rest.

“Auntie! Alex tried the kibbe nayyeh!”Sharon tells her aunt, an 80-ish Lebanese woman whose hair is still jet black and who calls everyone “angel face” or “sweetie.”

“I’m so glad sweetie,” she says, beaming. “Most people are frightened by it.”

“I was frightened,” I admit. “But it was good.”

I ask her what kind of meat it’s made of. But Auntie Alice doesn’t know either. She didn’t make it. It's from another cousin who Auntie Alice points to across the lawn: An old lady in bright blue polyester slacks whom I've never laid eyes on before. This other cousin lives in Connecticut. A trace of panic follows the kibbe nayyeh into my stomach. Raw mystery meat transported hundreds of miles by a strange old woman. Fantastic.

Tony seems unbothered by this information. He finishes the last bite.

And so, I ate raw meat.

And I’m proud of it. And it was good!

But the next day, I felt sick. Headache, rolling stomach, sweaty palms. My mind immediately jumps to the kibbe nayyeh. No! I ate RAW MEAT? Why would someone do that?

I beg Brian to find out if his dad feels OK. I start Googling information about food-borne illnesses. When Brian can’t reach his dad right away, I conclude that he’s probably already at the hospital with e. coli. Why would I eat raw meat? Why?

Brian finally talks to his dad. His dad feels fine. Come to think of it, so do I. My temperature is normal, and I’m no longer clammy. I take a swig of Pepto Bismol and get back to work.

Yes, I ate raw meat. And I lived to tell the tale.