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.

Shish Taouk

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!

  • Tara

    First, I didn’t even read the recipe before I decided to make this for dinner tomorrow night. Second, when are we getting a recipe for toum?

  • Kristie

    You can put tomatoes with anything during tomato season. It’s a known fact. If God didn’t want us to have fresh tomatoes with our meals, he wouldn’t have invented the New World or sent Cortez to destroy it. Or something.

    Kebabs are sexy food. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they’re skewered and it’s all symbolic of a good, deep drillin’. Or maybe I’m a giant, hormonal pervert and it has nothing to do with that. All I know is I think they make really good…third date food.

  • Jason

    Tina, I really have to complement your compositions and photos, which really set you apart from a number of other food sites… not too staged, but able to capture the food beautifully and demonstrate ways to best plate the dishes.

    I disagree with downplaying the Lebanese nature of the food when describing it to friends… serving chicken skewers may be good, but ‘Shish Taouk’ lets them enter culinary space they’re unfamiliar with or have never been before, not to mention the cool factor 🙂 Now that I have a fresh batch of Yogurt a la Tina, this will be on the menu at home tonight.

  • Nicole

    And this is going on the grocery list now…

    I don’t have a grill though. This could cause problems but I’ve improvised in the past in potentially dangerous but definitely effective fashion.

  • Kulsum

    One of my favorites things to eat!

  • Brit

    This is one of my favorite Middle Eastern foods! Our local restaurant does a lemon-oregano shish tawook. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten.

  • Sally Jackson

    My husband said he wanted chicken tonight, sooo…I made this. Fabulous! Tender chicken, excellent flavoring and definitely a do-again. I served it with a mixture of za’atar, olive oil and lemon juice to drizzle over the top for some added flavor. Wonderful!

    • Tina

      Sally, we’re thrilled that you and your hubs enjoyed this!! I love the idea of your flavorful drizzle (particularly as I have 4 za’atar blends in my cupboard right now that are just waiting to be enjoyed) and you clearly know your Middle Eastern food!! Thank you for your comment, and we’re just chuffed that you enjoyed this dish!

  • Kulsum

    by the way! Love the plate with the black thing.

  • Pingback: Toum: Lebanese Garlic Spread | Choosy Beggars()

  • Medicka

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  • Tina

    Tara – I can’t wait to hear how your shish taouk turns out! As for the toum, it’s…uh…not exactly diet food, if you know what I mean…..not that I would discourage anyone from making it, but consider yourself warned!

    Kristie – Chris is a very, very lucky man.

    Jason – you’re making me blush and I really don’t deserve that kind of praise!! Thank you (my face is burning) for the exceptionally nice comment 🙂 I’ve always wanted to learn more about photography, but sadly my knowledge is limited to, “Ah, here’s how you use AUTOFOCUS!” As for the plating, it’s normally a somewhat rushed job as I run around trying to snap photos while simultaneously wailing, “DINNER’S READY! IT’S READY! GETTING COLD! COME NOW!!” I’m glad that you’re an adventurous eater who enjoys exploring the world through taste! A man after my own heart. If you make the shish taouk, please let us know what you think!

    Nicole – I used to live in an apartment where grills (of any size or fashion) were not allowed on the balconies. You know, safety regulations and all that! Even so, I LOVED making skewers, and would do kafta et al in my oven under the broiler. It’s a bit trickier with timing, but worth a shot!

    Kulsum – mine too! The plate was a hand-me-down from a friend of my parents. He was throwing it out so of course I leaped in to claim it! The bowl might look like it matches, but that was actually thrown and glazed by my Aunt who is an artist. I love my motley assortment of random dishes!!!

    Brit – ooh yeah. Okay, if you like the lemon and oregano version flavor, can I make a suggestion? If you try this recipe, eliminate the tomato sauce and double the lemon juice. Eliminate the cumin and allspice (leave the thyme and paprika) and add 2-3 tsp of dried oregano. I know the flavor that you’re talking about, and that should bring you closer.

    Medicka – thank you for your comment and we hope to see you again!!

  • Tara

    I made this for dinner and my aunt and cousins were over, as well as all my immediate family. They loved it! My aunt demanded the recipe so she can make it at home!

    P.S. I used very little of the toum, but a little goes a long way. My cousins were having fun breathing at each other as a way to torment.

    It was awesome so thanks for the recipe!!

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Shish Taouk: Lebanese Grilled Chicken Skewers | Choosy Beggars --

  • Andrea

    Made these yesterday for date night let them marinate for about 6 hours they were so delicious and easy. Made toum to go with them and homemade pita pockets. With 2 bite skor brownies for dessert. Needless to say my hubby and I love your blog.

  • Pingback: Couple’s Dinner: Siwa Oasis « Grow, Gather, Nourish()

  • Lisa

    This was absolutely fantastic. I have been looking for a chicken kabob recipe. We made this Friday and I am making it again Weds. – it was THAT good. THANKS

    • Tina

      Lisa – thank you for the kind comment, that totally makes my day! Actually, considering that you liked it enough to make it twice in the same week, I’m going to go ahead and stay chuffed for 2 days too. Thanks again and we’re so pleased that you enjoyed the recipe!!

  • Annejo

    I’m not sure how I found your website, but this recipe was SO GOOD. Best chicken I ever made!! Just wanted to say thanks 🙂

  • Sara M. Mendez

    I used this recipe today, but on chicken breast that I broiled.. It was absolutely fantastic! Thank you so much!

    I recently started a food blog, and this was the first thing that I’ve posted… I included a link for your page!

  • Maureen

    Thank you for sharing this recipe, it’s really great and the family approves! I make it every two weeks or so. We serve with homemade hummus and whole wheat pita, and sides of celery, baby carrots and sliced cucumber. We either grill it, (depending upon the weather), or saute in large frying pans. Either way it’s so tasty!

  • Tala

    This is such an awesome recipe!! Tina, your pictures and step by step directions make the recipe easy to follow and prepare. When I tasted the marinade before adding the chicken, I wasn’t too sure I liked it, but after cooking it, it was like a party in my mouth- AMAZING!! Also, instead of breaking out the indoor grill, I decided to just cook it in a pan on the stove top instead. It turned out soooo good. Just make sure you keep a close eye on it, cause it burns pretty quickly.

  • Heather

    The all spice is actually suppose to be baharat. It is a special middle eastern blend of spices. You usually have to go to a specialty store to find. or make your own. It uses
    allspice, black pepper, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, ground cardamom, ground nutmeg and ground rose petal powder. It can be used in many other middle eastern dishes as well.

  • paige

    Read this four years ago and finally got inspired. It was so delicious and easy I am seething that I took so long to make it. Now I’ll have to unearth the Choosey Beggars homemade cookbook I cobbled together and try the rest!