Have you ever heard about a new food so often that it became the only thing you wanted to eat? That’s how I started to feel when I first learned about Döner Kebab, and Shawarma from my German textbooks in 4th grade. It was a lot harder to find Middle Eastern food in Atlanta back then, so I wouldn’t actually get to taste it until I started travelling halfway through high school. I couldn’t believe how ubiquitous it was in nearly every European city I explored–every corner seemed to have some variation of Shawarma, Felafel, or Döner, with a myriad of different toppings, and even different styles of bread. By the time I came back to the US, I was craving mad (HA!)–since there wasn’t anywhere to get my fix.
Fast forward to college, where I started developing “copy cat recipes” for restaurant food in my dorm– I set my sights on Shawarma, and I think I’ve been getting closer to the real thing every since.
The key to this recipe is the prep–you have to slice the chicken as thinly as possible to help the marinade penetrate, and promote the caramelization/char that maximizes flavor. Speaking of marinade, you’ll want to use plain yoghurt (don’t use greek yoghurt like I did on my first attempt) and marinate for no more than 3 hours, or the acidity might start to mess up the meat’s texture, and flavor. If you have time, marinade the chicken in the spices, and olive oil overnight, then add the yoghurt and lemon juice a few hours before cooking. In fact, you could even add it while you wait for it to reach room temperature.
After that, you can either grill, or stir-fry the chicken (I’ll write both methods into the recipe below, but you know you want to grill–doesn’t that look awesome?) I was trying to stimulate the giant rotating rod they use to grill the meat vertically. I saw some places roast tomatoes, onions, and even eggplant above the meat so that the juices would drip down and add flavor– play around with it to see what you like best.
Then all that’s left is to decide which toppings you want. I like a mix of herbs, peppers, and pickled cabbage. Finish it off with some yoghurt, or tahini sauce, and it’s ready to go. Hungry yet?
2 lbs Chicken Thighs & Breasts, sliced thinly
1/2 Onion, grated (for marinade)
1/2 Onion, diced (for topping)
4 Cloves of Garlic, grated
2 Roma Tomatoes, chopped (for grill method)
4 Cherry Tomatoes, chopped (for topping)
4 Cups Plain Yoghurt
1/4 Cup Parsley, chopped
1 Lemon, juiced and zested
2 Cups Pickled Red Cabbage (optional)
2 Tbs Cumin
2 Tbs Paprika
1 Tbs Chili Powder
1 Tbs Kosher Salt
1 Tbs Turmeric
1 Tbs Black Pepper
1 Tbs Cinnamon
1 Tbs Dried Mint
1/2 Tbs Ginger Powder
1/2 Tbs Coriander Powder
1/2 Tbs Sumac
1/2 Cup Tahini Paste
1/2 Cup Warm Water
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
2 Tbs Vegetable Oil (for stir fry method only)
Regardless of cooking method, the basic prep is the same:
- Combine yoghurt, olive oil, onion, garlic, lemon juice, dried mint, and spices in a bowl, and mix thoroughly. Set aside. Chop extra fresh herbs, onions and tomato for toppings, and store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
- Slice chicken as thinly as possible, then transfer into a large ziplock bag. Pour yoghurt mixture into the bag, remove excess air, and seal. Mix to coat all chicken evenly, then place the bag on a flat surface in the refrigerator for roughly and hour and a half, flipping halfway through.
- Whisk tahini, water, olive oil, lemon zest, and salt (to taste) in a bowl to form a thin sauce. Cover, and let stand on the counter until ready to serve.
- Remove chicken from the refrigerator, and allow it to come up to room temperature.
Now you have a choice: stir-fry or grill.
- Heat 1 Tbs of olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high. Remove chicken from bag with tongs, shake off excess marinade, place in the frying pan, and sear. Lower the heat to medium, and stir rapidly until fully cooked. Remove from heat, and let cool.
- Preheat your (gas) grill to medium or light charcoal, and allow the flames to die down, and the coals to ash over before grilling the meat.
- Skewer chicken on metal grilling skewers, alternating meat with large chopped onions, and tomatoes. Allow excess marinade to drip off.
- Grill skewers on both sides until grill marks form, and meat is fully cooked. Allow the meat to rest, then slice meat vertically off of the skewers, and set aside.
- Serve Shawarma in warm pita or flatbread with your desired toppings.