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Nov 16, 2020

The history and how-to behind this grab-and-go classic.

Stroll the streets of any crowded city in the Middle East, and you’ll catch the scent of roasted meat spiked with cumin, cardamom, cinnamon floating above the street vendor stalls and pushcarts.

Shawarma is a dish consisting of slices of meat—lamb, chicken, beef, veal, or even turkey—stacked in a cone on a vertical spit, and roasted slowly. To serve, it’s sliced vertically, the meat falling into a fresh pita or flatbread and drizzled with garlicky sauce and a side of pickles and fries.

It’s cheap, quick, and everywhere, for good reason: It’s also delicious.

The Start of Something Good: Shawarma’s History

The technique of stacking and roasting meat on horizontal spits dates back to 19th century Turkey, and the name shawarma is an Arabic rendering of the Turkish word “to turn.” Vendors would pile strips of fat and seasoned meat on skewers and roast it slowly, sometimes overnight, in front of cages with hot charcoals. A sliced onion, lemon, or tomato sometimes topped the stack, for flavor and decoration.

When cooked, the shawarma would be sliced vertically with a knife as shreds of the juicy meat fell into a circular pan below, where it was then wrapped in some kind of bread and served with fresh or pickled vegetables to be eaten quickly on the go.

Similar street foods have a similar story—the Greek gyro also roasts on a vertical spit and comes from the word gyros, to circle or turn.

Try It Yourself: Quick and Easy Chicken Shawarma

The warm spices and juicy flavors make this a family-friendly dish, easily customized for picky eaters—change up the bread, add fries, swap the pickles for fresh cucumbers, make it your own!

This recipe from The Mediterranean Dish skips the skewer and oven roasts spiced and marinated chicken thigh strips straight on the grill. The secret here? The spices, a blend of cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, and cloves.

Timesaver tip: Serve with store-bought tztaziki or tahini sauce and pita bread.

Shopping List

Spices:

  • Cumin
  • Turmeric powder
  • Coriander, round
  • Paprika
  • Cloves
  • Garlic powder

Other:

  • 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • Large onion
  • Lemon
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pita pockets
  • Tahini or tztaziki sauce