Shish Taouk: Lebanese Grilled Chicken Skewers
Hot on the heels of shawarma and falafel, one of the most popularly known Lebanese street foods would have to be shish taouk (also spelled shish tawook, shish ta’uque, etc). Generously seasoned chicken, redolent with garlic and lemon, skewered and perfectly chargrilled can truly be a thing of beauty…even for a chicken-shrugger like me.
Look, I have nothing AGAINST chicken, and truth be told we eat a fair bit of chicken in our house, but I wouldn’t really cross the road for a chicken breast, if you know what I mean. Well, unless it was some exotic and spicy Jamaican jerk chicken, and then I would consider it. Okay, or maybe some kid friendly buttermilk marinated and panko crusted chicken fingers. I suppose that I might also cross the road for some messy, sticky maple pulled chicken as well, but now we’re just splitting hairs. My point, not that I really had much of one, is that if I can find an alternative to chicken I’ll usually take it…..except where shish taouk is concerned.
Running the gamut from restaurant fare to street food, there are many variations on the basic shish taouk recipe. The only real constant that you’ll see, which is what makes shish taouk taste like shish taouk, is a boat load of garlic, a sweetly sour punch that usually comes from lemon juice, tomato paste or ketchup, and paprika for color and depth. After that, the variations begin in earnest. Some cooks will swear six ways to Sunday that shish taouk must have a pinch of turmeric for color, while others scoff and say that anything more than garlic, lemon and thyme is sacrilege.
I feel the main reason that shish taouk is taking off so speedily in North America is that it’s easy to make at home, there are no fussy or exotic ingredients that will have you scouring the grocery stores for days on end, and it’s remarkable how a simple chicken kebab, made with ingredients you likely already have in your pantry and fridge, can so quickly evoke the scents of souk-like Middle Eastern markets and enticingly exotic fare.
Serves 4 – 6
- 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 800 g/ 1.75 lbs)
- 1/4 cup yogurt
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 lemon (juice only)
- 1 tbsp sweet paprika
- 3/4 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice *
- 1 tsp salt + 1/2 tsp ground pepper, or to taste
For skewers (optional, but recommended)
- 1 medium red bell pepper
- a dozen or so plump white mushrooms
- 1/2 large sweet white onion
* The least common ingredient on this list is allspice, I would think. If you don’t have ground allspice, you could substitute 1/4 tsp cinnamon and a pinch of ground cloves.
I’ve been trying to buy more locally grown food lately, and that includes a few bulbs of robust albeit deformed garlic. I’m trying to convince myself that these were just a few poor bulbs, and I will definitely try again, but shamefully I actually prefer the papery white garlic from China. I know, I KNOW! Stop yelling at me! The cloves on this garlic were all asymmetrically malformed, difficult to peel, and incredibly tiny. The average clove was about the size of my fingernail. I pulled it apart until I found three “average” sized cloves, and then substituted with a few more of the tiny ones…and I used the rest of the bulbs in a few varieties of pickle. Anyway, onwards and upwards!
Finely chop the garlic and put it in a medium bowl along with the yogurt, tomato paste, olive oil and lemon juice. Add in the dried spices, salt and pepper and stir or whisk until the mixture is uniform.
Cut the chicken into bite sized cubes, each about 1 – 1.5″ in length and as uniform in size as possible. You want the chicken to cook at a fairly consistent rate. Coat the chicken with the marinade and leave it to soak up those flavors in the fridge for 2-8 hours . The yogurt marinade will make the chicken decidedly juicy, but if you leave it in the marinade too long the meat will actually get soft and lose it’s texture.
Assemble the skewers, ahoy! If you’re using bamboo skewers, be sure to soak them for at least 30 minutes in cold water before you start threading on the meat. Not that it matters, really, because your skewers are just going to burn anyway. Look, I love bamboo skewers and I use them all the time, but after many years of watching the last piece of meat fall off the ends and into the fiery abyss of my barbecue pit, I’m starting to come to terms with their limitations.
If you’re using vegetables (which I recommend), start by threading a mushroom onto the bottom of the skewer, top with 2-3 pieces of chicken, a slice of onion and pepper, 2-3 more pieces of chicken, and so on until the skewer is full. Tuck one more mushroom onto the top and you’re done. I have an exceptional fondness for vegetables and I’ll try to sneak more into a meal whenever possible, but in this case you really don’t want to layer a single piece of chicken in between each vegetable. For one thing, no matter how diligent you tried to be the pieces are likely different sizes and you’ll have some meat which is overdone and dry while other pieces are suspiciously pink. The second consideration is that packing the chicken pieces side by side keeps the moisture trapped and yields juicier, more succulent chunks.
Grill the chicken over moderately high to high heat for about 5-7 minutes per side, flipping only once, until you see visible char marks and the chicken is cooked through.
If you buy shish taouk from a street vendor it will usually come wrapped in a pita with a healthy dollop of toum, a Lebanese garlic spread reminiscent of mayonnaise which is used in the same way as Greek tzatziki. However, if you order it in a restaurant you’ll normally get 1-2 skewers on a bed on Lebanese rice with a dollop of toum, a pocket of warm pita bread, a side salad (green or chopped) in a lemony vinaigrette, and possibly some grilled tomatoes. The grilled tomato is really more of a nod towards Iran than Lebanon, but….it’s tomato season. Cut me some slack.
The succulent and juicy meat (thank you, yogurt!) is garlicky and incredibly full flavored, with a bit of sweet tang from the lemon and tomato.
People can sometimes be intimidated by international cuisine, particularly that from the Middle and Far East. However, if you spin these to your pool party guests as just, “garlic chicken kebabs”, instead of, “shish taouk, a Middle Eastern skewer of chicken with traditional seasonings”, you’re sure to get a good response. After all, just look at them? Guys, that’s some golly good chickin’.
Served as an entree alongside buttery rice pilaf and braised vegetables, these skewers are divinely spiced and delicious. In our house though, the vote more often than not goes to wrapping the kebab in fresh pita pocket. And if that pita pocket just happens to be slathered with thick, garlicky creamy toum? All the better, I say!