You can travel the world, and you’ll find shawarma on menus in populous places everywhere. The Middle East. Northern Africa. Expat communities in Toronto, New York, São Paulo, Los Angeles, and Buenos Aires.
Thousands upon thousands of vendors will proclaim they have the best shawarma in the world. And not one of them is lying.
That’s the great thing about shawarma. Whether it’s spelled that way or as chawarma, shaurma, showarma, or any other variation, the things that make it great are universal. It’s spit-roasted, thinly-sliced, lightly-spiced, twice-cooked meat with all the fixings, and there’s nothing wrong with that in any variation.
When Mr. Mike Ballard and I were dating, one of the things I loved most about him was the fact that he’d spent several years of his childhood in the Middle East. As a middle schooler in Saudi Arabia, he made many afternoon visits to the Lebanese shawarma cart near his school, eating the wrapped sandwiches three, four, sometimes five at a time, always accompanied by a Mirinda orange soda.
He described the dish to me I don’t know how many times before I summoned the courage to attempt making it. It’s pretty daunting to try to recreate a dish you’ve never tasted before, particularly when it has so many visceral, seminal memories attached to it.
Then pile on top of that the added pressure of cooking it for his parents, with his mother being a terrific cook and both of them being adults who were likely to remember the details far more specifically than their son, who was an adolescent at the time.
But I love a good challenge. So I spent a couple of years picking their brains about the components, researching traditional Lebanese recipes, studying the differences between regional variations, and putting together my initial approach.
While it doesn’t happen with every recipe I build or dish I attempt to recreate, I hit the shawarma ball out of the park with my first go. All of the Ballards loved it, including our boys who were picky eaters of 10 and 14 at the time.
And while I’ve refined my approach over the years, it’s still one of our family’s most-requested meals, which I take as the ultimate compliment.
I really hope you and your family love it, too.
This week’s subscriber-only recipes: As a wrap, a sandwich, or a platter, shawarma is never just about the meat. The condiments are equally important. You’ll definitely want to break out the Pink Pickled Radishes and add a bit of Lebanese Tahini Sauce to give that perfect balance of crispy and smooth, meaty and vegetal, spicy and salty.
One of my favorite side dishes for shawarma is the Levantine vegetable and grain salad known as tabbouleh. I often add it to my shawarma wraps, and Traditional Tabbouleh Salad is a beautiful addition when you serve the meat as a platter rather than a sandwich. It’s also a burst of springtime flavor filled with lush, green herbs and juicy, ripe tomatoes that’s delicious as a vegan and vegetarian lunch.
Subscribers to Around the World in 80 Plates have exclusive access to these flavorful Middle Eastern essentials.
Lebanese Chicken Shawarma
While you can make traditional shawarma using lamb, mutton, turkey, beef, or veal, the one Mr. Mike Ballard loves best is chicken shawarma. I don’t have a shawarma spit (yet) that allows me to roast the large cuts of poultry on a rotisserie and shave them off to cook a second time in their own drippings, but I have a method for cooking the chicken twice that’s more accessible to the average home cook.
When we visited Beirut a couple of years ago, we went to the famed Lebanese shawarma restaurant Barbar, which is, by some accounts, the best shawarma in the world. I obsessively watched them season and cook the chicken and did a bit of fine-tuning to my recipe when we got back to the States to further emulate their process. Then I streamlined it from there so it doesn’t have to be an all-day affair.
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Prepare a gallon-sized plastic bag inside a bowl. You’ll place the chicken and marinade inside this bag and seal it shut, using the bowl to catch any drips or spills while the chicken is marinating in the refrigerator. In the bag, combine the olive oil, cumin, paprika, coriander, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, salt, garlic powder, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Stir or whisk to combine.
Cut the chicken into nugget-sized chunks, removing any excess skin, fat, and tendons, and place the pieces in the plastic bag. Seal the bag, removing any excess air, and massage the chicken to coat it thoroughly with the marinade. Refrigerate for at least two hours, ideally overnight.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place the chicken pieces on a single layer on the sheet, pouring any remaining marinade over the chicken. Bake for 15 minutes, turning pieces halfway through.
Use a butcher’s knife or kitchen shears to chop the chicken into smaller pieces. Reserve any marinade and drippings remaining on the baking sheet.
Add a small amount of olive oil to coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet and heat over medium heat. In batches, cook a single layer of chicken until the edges are crispy and it is golden brown throughout. Use any remaining marinade and drippings to lightly baste each batch while it’s cooking. Repeat with remaining chicken. Serve warm with flatbread, tahini sauce, pickled radishes, and tabbouleh. Makes approximately six servings.
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This week’s subscriber exclusives:
- Lebanese Tahini Sauce: As a wrap, a sandwich, or a platter, shawarma is never just about the meat. The condiments are equally important. You’ll definitely want to break out the Pink Pickled Radishes and add a bit of Lebanese Tahini Sauce to give that perfect balance of crispy and smooth, meaty and vegetal, spicy and salty.
- Traditional Tabbouleh Salad: One of my favorite side dishes for shawarma is the Levantine vegetable and grain salad known as tabbouleh. I often add it to my shawarma wraps, and Traditional Tabbouleh Salad is a beautiful addition when you serve the meat as a platter rather than a sandwich. It’s also a burst of springtime flavor filled with lush, green herbs and juicy, ripe tomatoes that’s delicious as a vegan or vegetarian lunch.