Per definition this is a raw meat dish similar to steak tatare traditionally served as an appetizer. Çiğ means ‘raw’ and köfte means ‘meatball’. Relatively expensive and high-quality meat is essential for health reasons.
In Turkey the ciğ köfte actually served in fast food places by law can no longer contain raw meat. Instead a vegetarian version made from a mix of spices, ground walnut, vegetables and bulgur is used. As a fast-food the paste is commonly served in a durum wrap with lettuce and fresh herbs.
This was a most unexpected surprise. It seemed there were far more Çiğ köfte places in Istabul than kebab places, so how come we had never heard of this fast-food? In every Çiğ köfte shop we saw a big lump of unidentifiable red paste through the window. Asking Omer he told that Çiğ köfte is indeed more popular than kebab among the locals, and it has an interesting background story. As the story goes Çiğ köfte was originally a paste made with spices and ground raw meat served in durum wraps or on its own with lettuce. It was a fancy kind of food, almost like tatar, but as it became more popular among Turks more shops opened up and the quality of the raw meat lowered. Eventually people got sick from the raw meat not always being handled with care and sanitation and the dish was completely banned by law in the country. The shops then replaced the meat-paste with a vegan version and business was back up. “So” Omer said, “I actually have no idea what it is.”
It turned out to be far better than kebab. The thick paste is spicy and intense in flavor. The best Çiğ köfte shops add pomegranate sauce, which gives the wrap an interesting sweetness, and fresh herbs that really shine through and gives it character and freshness. I loved it so much I am determined to learn how to cook it myself once we stop traveling.