When my family lived in Baghdad in the 1960s, they were close with their next door neighbors. A fence separated their two yards, and both families would leave the gate open so that the kids could come and go. The boys played cards together every week, and then they’d usually stay over for lunch, which my great grandmother cooked for everyone. On special occasions, they shared food and traditions. During Ramadan, as soon as their neighbors broke the fast, they would bring a plate of baklawa, stuffed dates, nuts, and dried fruit to our family’s house, and on Christmas my grandmother would take a plate of kadeh and kleicha to their house right after our family returned from church.
When my family emigrated from Iraq, they couldn’t even tell their extended family that they had been granted their visas, but they told their neighbors a half-truth, that they were going on a month-long trip to the Netherlands (the second stop on their way to the US). The morning they left, the family’s matriarch stopped by to give my grandmother a box of mann al-sama for a sweet trip, and my grandmother remembers bursting into tears because she knew she would never see their friends again, and wishing she could tell them goodbye. Her friend told her not to worry, that they’d all see each other again in a month, wished her a good trip, and kissed her on the cheeks three times.
When my grandmother got to the airport, their things were searched and an officer rifled through the mann al-sama, so my grandmother left the gift behind, boarded the plane with my grandfather, mom, and uncle, and never returned. But she sometimes thinks about the friends they left behind, and wonders if they felt betrayed by their sudden leaving. She hopes that they’re alive and well, and hopes that they forgave them for never saying goodbye.
This Easter, I posted a recipe for tacos árabes, a pork shawarma taco with a history of Iraqi migration and diaspora, and in the spirit of Baghdad hospitality, I wanted to make sure I also posted a halal version for my Muslim friends and readers observing Ramadan (I’ve also got a little recipe roundup below this post). So I developed this delicious recipe for chicken shawarma cooked in the same style, and put together step-by-step instructions for thinly slicing chicken thighs, layering them together, and roasting them in a conventional oven without a rotisserie. It goes great with a simple side salad or fattoush. Wishing you a blessed Ramadan, full of joy, reflection, and love, and I hope our yards are always open to each other.
butterflying boneless skinless chicken thighs
Flip the boneless, skinless chicken thigh* over.
Open it up just with your hands.
Use your knife to slice parallel to the surface. Start from about halfway or a third of the way toward the center, and slice out. Stop short of the end, and don’t detach it. Always cut away from your hand, and hold onto the opposite side of the thigh to steady it.
Flip the flap over and open it like a book.
Do the same thing to the other side, and flip it open so you’re left with one long, thin strip (the whole thing will have opened a little like a trifold pamphlet).
* If you can’t find boneless, skinless chicken thighs, you can debone them yourself and then proceed with the butterflying from there.
layering chicken shawarma
These 6 giant thighs added up to 1350g, but you may have a larger number of smaller thighs. This is how to stack bigger thighs, but for smaller pieces, butterfly them the same as the above instructions, but then follow the layering instructions in my tacos árabes post (the tacos árabes instructions are also helpful if you have a tough time butterflying your thighs, and end up with several smaller slices).
Place a butterflied piece of marinated chicken thigh on one side of the skillet.
Place another one next to it, slightly overlapping.
Top with some onions.
Top with another butterflied thigh, going in the opposite direction.
Place another butterflied thigh next to it, slightly overlapping.
Top with onions, and repeat, alternating the direction every time, until you use up all the chicken and onion.
yield: 6 to 8 servings
active time: 35 minutes
total time: about about 6 hours
download a PDF to print
1/4 cup lemon juice (60g)
2 tablespoons baharat (12g)
1 tablespoon olive oil (15g)
about 2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste (12g)
2 cloves garlic, crushed through a press (10g)
1 small onion, sliced thinly (200g sliced)
3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (1350g)
Combine the lemon juice, baharat, olive oil, salt, and garlic.
Toss the onions together with a tablespoon of the marinade until very evenly coated.
Thinly butterfly the chicken thighs (according to the above photos/GIF), and toss together with the rest of the marinade until it’s very evenly coated.*
Preheat the oven to 250° F (121°C) once the chicken is sliced, and lightly oil a 10 to 12-inch ovenproof skillet.
Build a layer of 2-4 slightly overlapping strips of chicken, leaving a border of at least 1 inch between the chicken and the walls of the skillet. Add a layer of onions, followed by another layer of chicken going in the other direction, and continue until all the ingredients are used up. When layering, make sure it doesn’t taper too much as you build upwards, and squish it down every few layers to make sure it’s stable and compact. Hide any scrappy pieces toward the center.
Bake for about 4 1/2 hours, until the chicken is very tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. About once every hour or so, baste the shawarma with the juices collecting around the edges.
Once it’s done, remove the shawarma from the skillet to a cutting board (don’t throw out the juices!) and let it rest for about 20 minutes before slicing.
Remove the juices to a small bowl or measuring cup, and allow them to separate for a minute. Rinse out the pan.
Peel off the top of the shawarma, thinly slice it, and then thinly slice off the crispy edges from the shawarma. Set these aside in a bowl (they don’t need to be seared). Thinly slice the rest of the shawarma.**
Heat the empty cast iron skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Use a spoon to skim about a tablespoon of the fat off the surface of the reserved juices, and add it to the skillet. Swirl to coat, and then add about 1/3 of the sliced shawarma. Stir it frequently for about 4 minutes, until nicely browned. Remove to a bowl, and repeat with the remaining batches, adding a tiny bit more fat each time (if you run out, switch to olive oil).
Taste the finished shawarma. If it needs more seasoning use some of the juices.
Romaine lettuce, dressed with a sumac lemon dressing, with a few of your favorite veggies (e.g., tomato, cucumber, and green pepper).
Yellow rice (you can make my perfect pot of rice recipe, and add 1 teaspoon turmeric and a small pinch of saffron if you have it).
* You can make ahead to this point, and let it marinade up to overnight, or you can bake it right away (it makes little difference). If you can’t find boneless skinless chicken thighs, you can debone them yourself, but make sure you buy enough extra to make up for the loss of weight (they should weigh 3 pounds after deboning them).
** You can even make the whole dish ahead up to this point. Cook and slice the shawarma the day before you plan to serve, reserve the juices, and then sear at the last minute. The fat will solidify in the fridge overnight, and the juices will gel, but you can use it just like butter the next day (throw it in the pan and let it melt).