Chicken thighs fragrant with Middle Eastern spices, threaded on skewers and served in a flatbread are the best approximation of everyone’s beloved street food: shawarma.
Meat in small chunks, spiced and seasoned, cooked over a hot grill or threaded on a skewer, is the basis for favourite street food in many parts of the world.
Greek gyros, Turkish shish and Middle Eastern shawarma are all more or less the same thing: spicy, juicy, succulent and delicious chicken or lamb pieces, wrapped with or stuffed into some kind of flatbread.
Shawarma or kebab?
The two are very similar, doner kebab in particular being close in shape and position to shawarma.
Kebab is a Turkish dish though while shawarma is of the Arab and Levantine provenience.
Doner kebab tends to be made from ground meat and is seasoned rather mildly. Shawarma is a stack of meat slices flavoured with strong, earthy spices.
The cooking process
Shawarma, technically, is a vertical rotisserie spit that spiced meat slices are threaded on. The word comes from Arabic and means ‘turning’ which describes the cooking technique. As the outside cooks, the meat can be shaved off with a very sharp knife and served, while remaining shawarma on the spit continues cooking.
This is of course impossible to imitate at home. But if your seasoning is right and you thread your meat slices onto a skewer tightly, a home oven, especially fan assisted, will do the job pretty decently.
Ideally, of course, you want to suspend the skewers or at least prop them up somehow over a roasting tray so they can be turned, ‘shawarma-ed’, every now and then as they cook.
For that purpose metal skewers are the best. Wooden ones tend to burn at ends, however long you soak them in water beforehand. And the meat on them always wants to find its own gravity centre, refusing to turn evenly.
No matter – as I already said, the flavour and the tenderness of the chicken pieces will make for a wonderful experience anyway.
Shawarma was traditionally made with lamb or mutton, but these days other meats are widely used too: beef, veal and even turkey.
Chicken is universally popular, but of course it needs to be the dark chicken meat: thighs. Breast will dry out and there’s no fat on it to baste the roasting, turning slices, so it’s a definite non-starter.
For your shawarma cooked at home, boneless and skinless chicken thighs, sliced each into three or four pieces, will do very well.
My spice mix is sourced from Ottolenghi’s recipe for chicken shawarma with toum, so you can trust it is a vibrant, lively mix. Cumin and coriander, smoked paprika and turmeric penetrate the chicken meat beautifully via Greek yoghurt which is the base for the marinade.
Allow it to marinate for as long as you can, with an overnight spell in the fridge granting the best results.
Oven roasted shawarma
You won’t get the same result in your home oven as from the whole elephant leg rotating ceaselessly on a spit in your local chippy but the point is the quality of meat and its flavour rather than the Friday night kebab shop experience.
As mentioned above, try to suspend the skewers propping them across a deep-ish roasting tin. Metal ones will work best.
But even if you lay the skewers down on the tray, lined with parchment for ease of washing up, and turn them once halfway through the roasting, it will taste gorgeous too.
What to serve with shawarma?
Shawarma is traditionally served with a flatbread, pickles and salads, and a yoghurt-based dip or topping. But you can also slide the meat off the skewers and serve it alongside rice, with perhaps a sabzi-style radish and cucumber salad.
If you decide to go for flatbread, you can serve homemade or decent quality shop-bought pitas.
You can make your own lavash bread or bazlama, both cooked on the hob in a sturdy frying pan. Or buy some good naan.
For a fusion, use wheat tortillas to wrap the shawarma in, or even toasted ciabatta.
Unless the bread is freshly baked, refresh it by spraying with water then warming it up at the bottom of the oven when the shawarma is resting.
The salads and dips
Already mentioned sabzi-style radish, cucumber and herb salad will be a lovely accompaniment. A crunchy hispi cabbage salad will also be wonderful, as well as cucumbers or a slaw.
And my dips suggestions: Persian mast-o-khiar, cucumber and yoghurt combo or red pepper muhammara.
More Middle Eastern recipes
The ultimate lamb shawarma recipe, featuring tender lamb leg marinated in 11 Lebanese spices for two days, then cooked to perfection. This authentic Middle Eastern recipe by Ottolenghi is perfect for a special occasion or weekend dinner.
Persian baked rice with saffron and dill. Recipe for Persian rice (tahchin) with tahdig, burnt, crisp and crunchy layer of rice at the bottom. The easiest Persian rice recipe with perfect tahdig every time.
Roasted Romano peppers charred under the grill to skin and core them easily, marinated in an Ottolenghi-inspired dressing. They will disappear in a flash from your meze party.