Shawarma, an Arabic word thought to come from the Turkish çervirmek, meaning to rotate or spit-roast, is the Levantine cousin of the Greek gyros and the Turkish döner: skewers of sliced or minced meat, turned in front of a vertical grill, and slowly cooked in its own delicious fat until it’s sliced on to your plate. It’s unsurprising that such a clever idea has spread so widely, but each version has its own distinct character, and the shawarma, found from Egypt to Iraq, is quite different from the herby gyros or the more mildly spiced, oniony döner – and different again in every country where it’s popular. The thing that binds them all together, however, is the difficulty in recreating this much-loved street food at home, if one doesn’t live in the vicinity of professionals and, unaccountably, also lacks a metre-long rotating skewer in front of a four-burner gas grill in one’s own kitchen. Happily, I’ve discovered it is indeed possible to get great results without investing in either.
Though shawarma is also made from lamb, beef and turkey, I’ve stuck with chicken, because there seemed more than enough possibility to explore with that alone, though much the same technique could be adapted for other meats. Most recipes call for chicken thigh, with only Joudie Kalla (who writes in her book Baladi, “who doesn’t like shawarma? It is a staple of Palestine … I adore it – as long as it’s done right”) using breast instead. My testers and I all agree that, tender as it is, it also feels a bit dry in comparison with the thigh; that said, the fatty chicken skin in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s recipe on the Ottolenghi website doesn’t have many fans around here, either. Much as we love crisp chicken skin, it stays a bit chewy here, and the thighs seem to have enough fat in them to keep them basted during the relatively short cooking time.
The spices and marinade
Yasmin Khan’s book Zaitoun and Michael Solomonov’s Israeli Soul are responsible for the two simplest marinades I find: the former uses just (!) lemon juice and zest, garlic, turmeric, allspice, cumin, olive oil and pepper, while the latter eschews the lemon and garlic, but puts in cardamom and coriander instead of allspice. The Ottolenghi team adds fresh ginger and coriander, paprika, sumac and the north African spice blend ras el hanout, which generally contains Kalla’s ginger, cinnamon and sometimes cloves, though not her red onion. Like Obi and Salma of the YouTube channel Middle Eats, Kalla also calls for garlic powder – in addition to most of the spices listed above, they also pop in onion powder, smoked paprika, baharat, ground ginger, bay leaves and nutmeg. Nigella Lawson brings bay and nutmeg to the party, and contributes some chilli flakes of her own.
In short, there are a lot of options in the spice department before we even address the choice of acid both to flavour and to tenderise the meat. As well as lemon juice, recipes use vinegar, sometimes in quantity: Kalla adds both white- and red-wine versions), while Obi and Salma, like Sabrina Ghayour, marinade their meat in yoghurt and also add tomato puree.
I cannot deny that all of the above are tasty, but we prefer the less aggressively tangy examples, though we do miss the acid element in those that omit it altogether. Lemon seems a gentler option than vinegar, and garlic feels a must, though not too much, given that there will also be garlic in the sauce, and even the more robustly meaty chicken thigh is easily overwhelmed. For the same reason, I’ve kept the spicing relatively simple: the canonical cumin, coriander, turmeric and pepper, plus some sweet spices, because I love them, and Obi and Salma’s smoked paprika for a touch of fire that’s reminiscent of a charcoal grill.
If you’re daunted by the list of ingredients, and don’t have all of them in the house, be reassured that even the simplest versions I tried were extremely good – either Khan or Solomonov’s will make you very happy.
Spicing is, of course, a matter of personal preference; more important is how you cook the chicken. Everyone but Lawson cuts their chicken into thin strips – Kalla and Khan before marinating, Solomonov, Obi and Salma afterwards, but before cooking, and Ottolenghi and Tamimi after cooking. I find the middle approach preferable, because marinated strips take on so much flavour that the chicken itself gets lost, while cooking whole thighs means you miss out on some of the crisp edges you get from exposing more of the meat’s surface to the heat.
You can get delicious results by packing the chicken into a roasting tin, as Lawson does, inspired, she says, by Sam Sifton’s recipe for the New York Times, or by frying it, as Kalla does, or cooking it in a griddle pan, like Khan. You can mix it up by griddling the meat and finishing it in the oven, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi do, or by roasting it in a hot oven (“or air fryer, till the fat has dropped out of its skin and it has crisped up”), then slicing and frying it with more seasoning as Paul, founder of the I Am Döner chain, recommends. But for the very best results, I think you need to make a little more effort.
Solomonov poaches the marinated meat, wrapped tightly in clingfilm, then chills it, slices it thinly and fries it briefly until just charred around the edges, which leaves it both tender and tasty. My favourite method, however, and not just because it involves less work, comes from Obi and Salma. As Obi says, “It’s hard to get the same texture and flavour … if your meat is in direct contact with the pan”, so their technique packs it on to ordinary skewers, as tightly as possible to keep it juicy, then puts it under the grill, “for direct heat but without any actual surface contact, to get a more authentic taste and texture”. Not only is this a one-step process, but the results genuinely taste like the real thing. It’s a stroke of genius, and I sincerely commend it to you.
Once you’ve got the chicken right, it’s up to you whether you serve it over rice, stuffed into a fluffy pita or wrapped up in a paper-thin lavash – and which sauce you go for, if any. Most of the recipes I try include a tahini-based sauce, often with yoghurt, unless they’re Israeli (dairy and meat not being a popular combination for much of the population), but I’m actually more taken with Obi and Salma’s toum, or garlic sauce – “you can’t make the sandwiches without it and to use hummus instead is a cardinal sin!” – topped with a generous dollop of chilli sauce (though you could also use spicy Yemeni zhoug, as Solomonov, Ottolenghi and Tamimi suggest – their recipes are online).
Accompaniments include the latter’s cucumber and red onion salsa with dill and sumac, or simple chopped cucumber, tomato and onion, but I would urge you to seek out some brined cucumbers, turnips, chillies or other vegetables to finish the dish; if you don’t have a local stockist, they’re easily found online, or made at home, and, for me, they finish the dish perfectly.
Perfect chicken shawarma
Prep 30 min
Marinate 3 hr+
Cook 10 min
Serves 2, and easily upscalable
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
For the marinade
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp ground coriander
2 cardamom pods, seeds removed and ground
¼ tsp cinnamon powder
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
To serve (all optional)
Toum or tahini sauce
Zhoug or chilli sauce
Brined vegetables and/or chopped cucumber, tomato and onion
Bash out the chicken until it’s all of a fairly even thickness.
Put a small pan on a medium heat, then add the ground spices and toast until fragrant.
Whisk into the remaining marinade ingredients …
… then rub the mix all over the chicken and put in a sealed container in the fridge for between three and eight hours.
Cut the chicken into thin strips, then thread one end of each strip on to a metal skewer. Put a second skewer through the other end of each strip, and push the strips down to the far end of the skewers, so they’re tightly packed.
Heat the grill to medium and find a tray over which you can balance the skewers so they’re suspended rather than touching the base.
Grill for five minutes, then turn over and grill for another five minutes – the chicken should be charred and cooked through.
Rest the chicken in its own juices to cool down a little while you heat any breads and prepare the accompaniments, then serve immediately.
• Chicken shawarma: why is it so popular around the world, and which regional version is your favourite? How do you like to eat it, and where serves the best you’ve ever eaten?