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Taking inspiration from lula kebabs, these lula meatballs with spiced tomato sauce burst with flavor in every bite. Top them with a fresh sumac onion salad for a complete meal.
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What makes this dish special
When I'm not getting my inspiration from dining out or reading cookbooks, I get it from watching food shows. Lately, I've been watching Mark Weinz and his exotic travels. In one of his videos to Georgia, I was drawn to one specific dish. It looked like beef lula kebabs but unlike the ones I've eaten, these kebabs were served with a tomato sauce and served with a shaved onion herb salad on the side. Just by watching the video, I knew that this was a dish I would enjoy.
I was immediately inspired to create a version of this dish. And although I've never tasted it before, I cooked what I would enjoy eating. These lula meatballs with spiced tomato sauce are not traditional by any means but it has similar flavors and spices that make them reminiscent of the classic lula kebab. Pair the meatballs with a warm sauce and fresh salad and you have one balanced, flavorful, and incredibly satisfying meal.
What are lula kebabs?
Lula kebabs, also known as luleh kebabs or lule kebabs, are a popular dish in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. They are a type of grilled kebab made from ground meat, typically a mixture of ground beef or lamb, and various spices and herbs. The meat mixture is seasoned with a blend of aromatic spices and herbs, such as onion, garlic, paprika, cumin, and sometimes sumac or Aleppo pepper, depending on regional variations.
The seasoned ground meat is then shaped onto skewers, forming elongated cylindrical shapes, and grilled over an open flame or on a barbecue. The skewered meat is cooked until it's well-browned and cooked through, resulting in juicy and flavorful kebabs.
Lula kebabs are often served with various accompaniments, such as pita bread, grilled vegetables, yogurt-based sauces like tzatziki or tahini, and sometimes rice or salad. They are enjoyed as a main course or as part of a larger meal, and their savory and aromatic flavors make them a favorite at gatherings and outdoor grilling events.
The name "lula" is believed to be derived from the Turkish word "lüle," which means "pipe," referring to the cylindrical shape of the kebabs. This dish has variations in different cuisines across the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia, and it's a delicious representation of the diverse flavors of the region.
- Ground beef: Contributes a rich flavor and higher fat content to the meatballs which help keep them moist. I like to purchase my ground beef from Snake River Farms.
- Ground turkey: A leaner option with a milder flavor, but when combined with ground beef, creates a well-balanced meatball. I purchased my ground turkey from Farm Foods.
- Tomato paste: A concentrated tomato product that adds depth of flavor and color to both the meatballs and tomato sauce.
- Spices: To season the meatballs and tomato sauce, we're using a combination of spices including smoked paprika, coriander, cumin, fennel, red chili flakes, dried oregano, and dried parsley. For a mild tomato sauce, you can omit the red chili flakes. If you can't find smoked paprika, you can use regular paprika instead.
- Panko: A type of breadcrumb that is lighter and crunchier than traditional breadcrumbs. You can also use regular breadcrumbs.
- Milk: Adds moisture and richness to the meatballs.
- Red onion: The purple-red-skinned onion has a milder flavor compared to yellow or white onions.
- Mint: The aromatic herb with a refreshing and slightly sweet flavor compliments the sharper red onion flavor.
- Sumac: Sumac is a tangy and slightly fruit spice made from dried sumac berries.
How to make lula meatballs
Step 1: Prepare meatballs
Begin by preheating the oven to 425 degrees F and lining a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a bowl, combine ground beef and turkey with grated onion, panko, parsley, milk, egg, tomato paste, garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper. It seems like a lot of ingredients but each one serves its purpose. The milk and onion add moisture, the spices add flavor, and the egg and panko help bind the meat together.
Shape this mixture into around 14 large meatballs, placing them on the prepared baking sheet. You can make them smaller, but you will need to adjust the cooking time accordingly. I personally like to make them large because they don't dry out as easily and stay tender and juicy.
Pop the meatballs in the oven and roast them at a high temperature for 10 minutes to get the lovely char on the outside. Then, reduce the heat to 325 degrees and allow them to finish cooking slowly.
Step 2: Cook tomato sauce
As the meatballs roast, prepare the flavorful tomato sauce. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large saute pan and sauté minced garlic. Add dried oregano, parsley, red chili flakes, ground coriander, and fennel, allowing their aromas to meld. Keep an eye on the heat level, making sure the aromatics don't burn.
Once the spices release their fragrance, add tomato paste, allowing it to caramelize for a deep, rich flavor. Pour in 2 cups of water, and whisk until well combined. Allow this mixture to simmer for about 10 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld.
Then, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of water with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, to create a slurry. This will help thicken the sauce. I know this is not a traditional step, but I wanted a slightly thicker sauce to help coat the meatballs.
Add the cornstarch slurry and stir until well combined. Season the spiced tomato sauce with a touch of sugar, salt, and pepper and simmer until the sauce is thickened. Finally, remove it from heat and add a sprinkle of chopped fresh cilantro.
Step 3: Toss salad and assemble
While the sauce is simmering, make the sumac onion salad. Although you don't have to prepare the topping, it adds a bright, refreshing element to the lula meatballs with spiced tomato sauce.
Thinly slice half a red onion and combine it with chopped mint, parsley, the juice of half a lemon, and a drizzle of olive oil. If you have a mandoline, you can also thinly shave the red onion. If you're not fond of the onion flavor, you can also soak it in ice-cold water for 10 minutes before combining it with the remaining salad ingredients.
Spoon the spiced tomato sauce on a serving platter and arrange the meatballs on top. Garnish with the sumac red onion salad or serve the salad on the side and enjoy with pita bread or rice pilaf.The California Wine Club's Premier Series, the most popular of all the clubs.
In just an hour, you've woven together the robust flavors of the lula meatballs with spiced tomato sauce. Each bite unveils a fusion of rich meatiness, aromatic spices, and a burst of freshness, offering a taste of the Middle East that's both satisfying and memorable. Whether shared with family or savored among friends, this dish will surely leave a lasting impression.
Frequently asked questions
Absolutely. I like to use a mixture of beef and turkey but you can use just one of the proteins. Alternatively, you can use a combination of beef and lamb for a more traditional dish or ground chicken for a different variation.
Tomato paste is concentrated tomatoes so the flavor is much more intense than canned tomatoes. You can use canned tomatoes instead however, the flavors and consistency will differ from the original dish.
The tomato sauce and meatballs can be cooked ahead of time and reheated right before serving. However, I would recommend seasoning the sumac onion salad with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, right before serving and not ahead of time.
More Middle Eastern recipes
Looking for Middle Eastern-inspired dishes? Try these:
Lula Meatballs with Spiced Tomato Sauce
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 lb ground turkey
- ½ medium onion grated
- ½ cup panko
- ⅓ cup chopped parsley
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
Spiced tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground fennel
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 2 cups water plus 2 tablespoons water divided
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- salt and pepper
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Sumac red onion salad
- ½ medium red onion thinly sliced
- ¼ cup chopped mint
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- juice of ½ lemon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Prepare meatballs. Combine all of the ingredients including ground beef, ground turkey, grated onion, panko, parsley, milk, egg, tomato paste, garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Mix until well combined. Shape mixture into about 14 large meatballs. Place meatballs on prepared baking sheet.
- Bake meatballs for 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 325 degrees F and continue baking for 15 minutes or until golden brown and the juices run clear. Remove from the oven and keep warm.
- Meanwhile, make the spiced tomato sauce. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Add oregano, parsley, red chili flakes, coriander, and fennel and saute for another 30 seconds, stirring frequently.
- Add tomato paste and cook until caramelized, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 2 cups of water and whisk until well combined. Bring to a simmer and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons of water with 1 tablespoon cornstarch until well combined. Pour slurry into sauce and stir to combine. Season with sugar, salt, and pepper and simmer until sauce is thickened. Remove from heat and stir in chopped cilantro.
- Make sumac onion salad. Combine red onion with mint, parsley, juice of ½ lemon, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Let sit for 5 minutes.
- Pour spiced tomato sauce in the bottom of a serving plate and place meatballs on top. Top with sumac onion salad or serve salad on the side. Serve immediately.