This classic Lamb Kabsa is one of the most fragrant rice dishes you will ever eat, with tender lamb throughout, and garnished with crunchy nuts and raisins. It takes just 10 minutes of prep time but tastes like hours of labour!
What is Lamb Kabsa?
Okay first things first, I am going to shamelessly proclaim that I know how to make a mean rice dish. I have published some of the best Middle Eastern Rice dishes out there, and I take particular care with rice-based dishes simply because I am obsessed with rice. And whilst there is definitely Chicken Machboos on that list of published recipes, up until today, I have not shared a Lamb version.
And if it wasn't clear from the above, the Arabic words "Kabsa" and "Machboos" are actually interchangeable because they are the same, just in different dialects. The "Machboos" is using the Arab Gulf dialect. Which now explains that Kabsa/Machboos is actually a national dish of many Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and the UAE. Also, while there are definitely some strong Indian Biryani influences, some say this interpretation of the dish originated in Yemen. In Yemen, a very similar rice dish (albeit slightly different in a nuanced way) exists called Chicken Mandi, which is also a favourite.
If you're still with me, Kabsa or Machboos means "Pressed" in Arabic, and the term comes from the fact that the meat and rice cook together in one pot. This makes the dish magical because the flavour from the meat and whole spices infuses the rice. The other distinguishing feature of Kabsa is the use of dried lime, a common ingredient used in Iraqi and Arabian Gulf cuisine, to impart a deep and subtle sour note. Finally, Kabsa also uses some tomato paste and tomato sauce and the final rice colour is a red-ish brown (unlike Chicken Mandi which has yellow rice).
Kabsa is almost always served with a simple chopped Arabic salad, plain yogurt, and a spicy tomato sauce called dakoos.
What cut of lamb is used in Kabsa?
This recipe is super forgiving, so you can use any cut of lamb. I recommend bone-in lamb to get more flavour from the bones, and typically will ask my butcher for either medium sized bone-in shoulder or leg pieces. You can also easily substitute veal for the lamb and follow this exact recipe, which will also yield delicious and tender meat. I actually find veal to be even better than lamb for cooking and often has a less gamey taste.
Watch how easy it is to make Kabsa
Ingredients for Lamb Kabsa
The ingredients for this lamb kabsa are all in the whole and ground spices! And the lamb, of course. Here's a run-down of the ingredients and my thoughts on each one:
- Lamb: use bone-in medium sized pieces, either shoulder or leg, OR use veal bone-in chops
- Long-grain Basmati rice; don't try this recipe with anything other than long-grain!
- Whole spices: the magic combination is cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, black peppercorns, bay leaves
- Ground spices: salt, pepper, cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom
- Dried Limes: these are a specialty ingredient but highly recommended! look for them at your local Middle Eastern shop
- Onions: can't make this delicious without the onions!
- Tomato paste and tomato sauce: a combination of both works best.
How to make this recipe, step by step
Let's get started! The first step is to finely dice the onions and sauté them with the oil on medium heat for 7-10 minutes until they soften and brown (make sure you really cook them for that long so you get the flavour!). You can do this in a non-stick pot if you plan to cook on the stove top, or in the Instant Pot if you plan to pressure cook the meat. Next, add your washed and dried lamb pieces to the pot and brown them on each side.
When the lamb is browned, add all of the whole spices and ground spices and allow them to toast in the oil for a few minutes. Next, add the tomato paste and ensure it caramelizes at the bottom of the pan for a few minutes to deepen the flavour.
Next, add the tomato sauce and the water. Now it's time to either pressure cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or if you don't have an instant pot or pressure cooker, you can cook on the stovetop for roughly 45 minutes until the meat is tender. If cooking on stovetop, make sure you keep an eye on the water level and replenish as needed. Meanwhile, make sure you wash the rice and soak it for 30 minutes.
Once the meat is tender, strain the broth and set aside to use for the rice. Remove the lamb pieces and place them back in a non-stick pot. You can also add the cinnamon sticks and dried limes. Pour the broth over top, ensuring that you use the exact amount stated. If you end up with less broth, just top it up with water.
Add the soaked rice which should have soaked for 30 minutes, gently mix it around. Place a paper towel on top and seal the pot with a tight-fitting lid. Cook on low heat for 20 minutes. You can use this time to prepare the almonds and raisins by toasting them in a skillet for a few minutes until browned. After 20 minutes, turn off the heat and allow the kabsa to stand for 10 minutes. Then, open it up, fluff it gently with a fork, and serve!
Important tips to get fluffy rice!
I know some of you folks find it hard to cook super fluffy rice. I have some detailed tips when cooking any rice over on this Middle Eastern Rice Dishes post. The most important tip to keep in mind is to follow the rice to water ratio I specify in the recipe, which is 1 cup rice to 1.5 cups liquid. That's why it's important to strain and measure your broth before you add the rice.
Also, it's important not to add too much tomato paste or sauce and end up with a thick broth. Thicker broths will interfere with how the rice grains cook and will result in mushy grains on the outside, and hard on the inside. Make sure your broth is just about the consistency of water or a tad thicker, no more!
What to serve with Kabsa
Kabsa is typically served with a simple chilli sauce made by blending green chillies, tomato, garlic, and coriander, with a pinch of salt and pepper. I usually serve mine with a fresh chopped salad and some full fat yogurt on the side, or with some Jajik (a cucumber yogurt salad).
Storage and Re-heating Tips
Listen, I'm not even sure why you would have leftovers. But if you do, simply store the leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week. To re-heat, you can use a microwave, but for best results, I like to heat the rice and meat in a non-stick skillet for 10-15 minutes, making sure to splash it with ¼ cup of water, covering it, and heating on low heat.
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Fragrant Lamb Kabsa (10 Min Prep Time!)
- 1 Instant Pot optional (you can also use stove top method)
For the meat
- 1.5 kilogram bone in lamb shoulder or leg, medium pieces (veal is also a good option)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 medium onions diced
- 3 dried limes (optional)
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 3 bay leaves
- 6 green cardamom pods
- 5 whole cloves
- 1.5 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ cup tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4 cups water
For the rice
- 3 cups basmati rice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4.5 cups broth
For the Garnish
- ½ cup slivered almonds
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup raisins
For the meat:
- Start by peeling, washing and dicing the onions.
- Next, in a non-stick pot (or in the instant pot), sauté the onions until soft and lightly brown, for about 7 minutes, on medium heat.
- Next, in the same pot with the onions inside, sear the lamb pieces for a few minutes on each side. Don't worry if the pot is crowded, aim to get some colour on the meat.
- Next, add the whole spices and the ground spices to the pot with the meat and onions and cook for a few minutes.
- Next, add the tomato paste and cook for a few minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce and the water to the pot, and now you have the option to cook the meat on the stove top or the pressure cooker.
- For the pressure cooker (or instant pot), pressure cook for 20 minutes. Manually release the pressure and move on to the next step.
- For the stove top, cook on medium high heat for approximately 60 minutes until the meat is very tender, making sure to replenish the water as required.
- Once the meat is soft, remove it from the broth and place it in a plate to the side. Strain the broth from the onions and whole spices.
For the rice
- While the meat is cooking, wash the rice until liquid runs clear, then soak it for 30 minutes.
- Layer the meat at the bottom of the pot that you will cook the rice in (this can be the same pot you used for the meat if you cooked it on the stove top).
- Then, pour over the meat broth that you strained, making sure that you use exactly 4.5 cups (for 3 cups of rice). If you don't have enough broth, just top it up with water. If you have too much broth, save it for a future use.
- Place the pot onto high heat for 5 minutes until liquid is bubbling.
- Place a paper towel over the pot, then cover it with a tight-fitting lid and simmer on low heat for 25 minutes.
- After 25 minutes, turn the heat off and fluff it with a fork.
- Toast the almonds on medium heat in the olive oil, stirring frequently until lightly golden. Remove and add the raisins in the same skillet for 1-2 minutes until warmed through.
- Serve in a large platter by adding a layer of the rice and meat, then garnishing with almonds, raisins, and finely chopped parsley if desired. Enjoy!
- You can use veal in this recipe as a substitute for lamb
- Make sure you use long-grain rice, preferably Basmati
- Ensure you follow the exact rice to liquid ratio specified in the recipe to ensure you succeed
- You have the option to cook the meat in the pressure cooker, which is my preferred and much faster method. But if you don't have one, you can cook on the stove top until tender, which takes roughly 60 minutes