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Al Kabsa is the national dish of Saudi Arabia, but variations of it are common all across the Arab world. I first sampled this dish in Kuwait where I was fortunate to be invited back to my guide’s home for the most delicious dinner of barbecued meats, rice, pulses and spicy vegetables.

I loved this dish so much I wanted to re-create it at home. The COVID lockdown gave me more time to spend in the kitchen and after several attempts I found what I think is as close to the authentic dish I devoured in Kuwait as I can make it. 

Kuwait Towers

You can use chicken or lamb with this dish, or even keep it vegetarian. In Kuwait, the rice was served separately and after placing some on your plate you then selected mutton or chicken and piled it on top, followed by a spoonful of a hot and spicy Shakka sauce.

The dish resembles a biriyani in texture and because of the rice, but with more Arabian spices and flavours rather than Bengali.

The dish below serves two people, just double up the ingredients for four and so on.

Ingredients

If you intend to use lamb instead of chicken, you can either stick with the chicken stock, replace it with vegetable stock or use a lamb stock cube or stockpot if you like you want a really strong lamb flavour. For a vegetarian option, replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock and instead of chicken use thick-cut sweet potato, green and red peppers or even browned cubes of tofu. It’s also great to fry a veggie burger or bean burger, then roughly break it into chunks and use that instead of the chicken or lamb.

  • 1/2lb of Lamb neck cut into large chunks or  4 chicken thighs (skinned but not boned)
  • Butter (or oil for the veggie option)
  • Splash of groundnut or olive oil
  • 1 small onion finely chopped
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • 1/2 thickly chopped green pepper.
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato puree or paste
  • 1/2 can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 large grated carrot
  • 1 clove
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 150ml of chicken stock, lamb stock, or vegetable stock
  • Splash of Henderson’s Relish (or Worcestershire sauce)
  • 2 cups basmati rice soak for at least an hour beforehand but don’t rinse away the starch
  • Handful of raisins
  • A handful of sliced almonds to sprinkle on top

You will need to make your Kabsa spice mix before starting.  Use the following ingredients for one meal, though I usually treble the amount and then keep leftover spice mix in a jar to save time next time. I love the process of grinding the spices in a pestel and mortar, but you can use a blender if preferred. The larger spices, or seeds, will also taste even richer if you lightly dry fry them in a very hot frying pan for a couple of minutes beforehand.

  • Pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • Pinch of saffron
  • Ground seeds from about 4 green cardamom pods (cut in half and the tiny black seeds should fall out when tapped)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground dried limes or if lime leaves

Prepare the Meat

Marinade your meat overnight or for at least an hour. Use a teaspoon of the Kabsa spice mix, a crushed garlic clove, salt, pepper, a squeeze of lime juice and a teaspoon of tomato paste. Ensure the meat is well coated then cover and place in the fridge. 

Remove the meat from the fridge about half an hour before cooking and let it come to room temperature.

In a dutch oven or large casserole dish, fry the butter and a dash of ground nut or olive oil until it starts to sizzle.  The oil will prevent the butter from burning at a high heat.

Fry the meat until it is brown then remove and place on kitchen towels to drain. If you’re using lamb, the meat only needs about one minute per side. For chicken brown for 5 minutes per side.

Bring together the sauce

In the same dish, adding a little more oil if the meat soaked up all the butter, gently fry the onions for about 5 minutes until soft and slightly golden. 

Stir in the tomato puree and cook for another 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring often to prevent the mixture sticking to the pan.

Add the garlic, carrot, clove, green pepper and about 3 teaspoons of the Kabsa spice mix. Stir and cook on a low heat for another 2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste.

Next, add the chicken stock, lamb stock or vegetable stock. Turn up the heat, stir and bring back to the boil, then turn the heat low and cover.  If you’re using chicken, add the chicken back in, ensuring it is well covered by the sauce.  Lamb doesn’t need so long, so if you’re using that we’ll add it later.

Prepare The Rice

Boil some water in the kettle.  For 2 cups of rice, use about 3 and a half cups of water.

Add the water to the rice together in a pan, along with a small cinnamon stick (snapped in half), a black cardamom pod and a pinch of salt. I also like to add 1/2 teaspoon of Turmeric to turn the rice yellow, but this is up to your preference.

Bring the rice to the boil, then immediately turn down the heat and carefully place a folded tea towel or muslin cloth over the top of the pan and then replace the pan lid, squeezing it down to sealing the steam. Take care that the cloth isn’t near the flame of course!

Cook the rice on a very low heat for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave it to rest for a further 5 minutes.

Then remove the cloth, fluff up with a fork and and let the rice continue to rest until the Kabsa sauce is ready (timings as above).

Final Stage - Bringing The Al Kabsa Together

Al-BabsaCarefully add the rice to the pot along with the sauce and gently stir.  Taste and season accordingly.  At this stage, if you’re using lamb, you can now add it and it will be succulent yet properly cooked through at the end.

Continue to cook the sauce, meat, and rice together for another 30 minutes, adding the raisins about 10 minutes from the end.  At this stage, you can also add a little chili if you want a little heat. One finely chopped bird’s eye chili with about 1/2 of the seeds should be enough.

Check the Al Kabsa regularly and lower the heat and stir if it sticks to the bottom of the dish. If it keeps sticking or looks like its drying out, add some boiled water or vegetable stock to keep it moist.  However, you don’t want the rice to be too wet, think more biriyani than risotto in texture.

Serve and Enjoy your Al Kabsa

Check your meat is cooked, by carefully removing a piece and cutting into it. Chicken should have only clear juices running from the incision.  Lamb is fine if it’s a little pink inside, but should not be too bloody for this dish. If the lamb is overcooking and drying out, remove it from the pot, cover with a kitchen towel and let it rest.

Serve the rice on a platter and arrange the meat on top.

Serve with chopped fresh coriander and maybe a raitha of yoghurt and chopped cucumber (add a teaspoon of mint sauce if you’re having lamb).

This dish goes really well with a Shakka sauce.  Watch this space for the recipe…

I hope you enjoy this dish. It’s easier to make than it might sound, especially if you’ve previously made a batch of the Kabsa spice mix.

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