When you think of kebabs, you might think of veggie-laden skewers with dry cubes of chicken- in other words, not the most exciting offering at the cookout. But there’s a lot more to kebabs- which are generally defined as small cubes of skewered meat cooked over fire- than you might think. In fact, roasting meat on a spit over a fire is one of the earliest forms of cooking we know about (cue: the Paschal lamb, eaten by the ancient Jews on the night before the Exodus from Egypt), and it plays an essential role in many cuisines, especially those of the Levant.
Spit fire roasting, and by extension, kebabs, are thought to have gained popularity in the Middle East and in countries where firewood was scarce, as smaller cuts of meat proved more practical to cook over smaller fires. According to food historian Gil Marks, the word is derived from the ancient Persian kabab, which most likely stemmed from Aramaic. In fact, when speaking of Temple offerings, the Babylonian Talmud instructs that they not be kabbaba– burned.
While burning may have rendered Temple offerings impure, it certainly makes for a tastier kebab, and gradually, this method of cooking was adopted by countries globally, resulting in locally influenced versions like South American anticucho and Southeast Asian satay.
Today, their popularity holds fierce, especially in their countries of origin. Shish taouk, kebabs of marinated, spiced chicken, are widely eaten in Egypt, Syria,Turkey and Jordan. In Iran, Kebab Koobideh, kebabs of minced meat mixed with parsley and chopped onions, are served alongside rice and yogurt. In Israel, kebabs of ground meat and spice are ubiquitous at holiday barbecues, and often cooked on a portable mangal (grill). And shawarma, while not exactly a kebab, is probably the most internationally beloved example of spit roasted meat.
It’s shawarma, heavy with spice and slick with juice, that inspired these kebabs. Rescued from the dominion of mushrooms and zucchini, flavored with bright lime and onion, and made with juicy chicken thighs instead of breasts, these are kebabs you’ll actually want to bring to the barbecue. They take mere minutes to cook on a hot grill (you could do this on a grill pan, too) and it’s probably one of the best things about them, but they’re also just so versatile: delicious with rice, perfect with warm laffa and hummus, amenable to showers of mint and cilantro and refreshingly offset by tzatziki, or even bright arils of pomegranate. I never do, but if you have leftovers, un-skewer them and toss with greens, olives, hummus, tomatoes, red onion and good olive oil for a perfect lunch.
Get the recipe here!