toum | garlic spread

toum | garlic spread

I had been making toum (Lebanese garlic spread) one particular way for a while now—I would blend the garlic, and then alternate water and oil, drizzling them in very slowly. But no matter how careful I was, my emulsion would sometimes inexplicably break. One particular day, when I was making a big batch for a party of seventy-five, I tried making toum four times in a row, and was left with nothing but garlic and oil splattered glasses and a half gallon of garlicky swill. It was not my finest hour.

But I recently gleaned a really helpful strategy from my friend Cosette’s toum recipe. If you know anything about Cosette, this shouldn’t surprise you, because she is the unequivocal queen of toum. I’ve started incorporating this method into my own recipe, and ever since this shift I’ve been batting 1000 with my emulsion successfully taking. I don’t know if I can say my recipe is absolutely 100% fail-proof, because I’m not sure that a fail-proof toum recipe can actually exist, but it’s been working really well for me, and I hope you have the same success rate trying it at home.

Here’s the key thing I learned from Cosette: it works much better to add all the water at once toward the beginning, before slowly drizzling in the oil, rather than alternating between drizzling in water and oil. I prefer starting with garlic and salt, then grinding them up in the food processor until the garlic is puréed or finely chopped (the salt helps it break up a little more easily than just adding the garlic right in with the water). Then you simply add the cold water, blend it together even more until the garlic liquifies, and begin slowly drizzling in the oil. Once all the oil is added, it will have emulsified, and will even start to thin out into an aioli consistency, at which point you drizzle in the lemon juice to help it seize up and thicken a little more (and to give it some zing and preservation).

From there, the possibilities are endless. I’m going to post one of my favorite ways to use toum in just a couple days, but until then, feel free to experiment with using it as a marinade, in a little bowl with your favorite meze, as a dip for a ho-hum store-bought rotisserie chicken, and basically anywhere you want to add a lot of garlicky flavor, some richness, and a little acidity. But before you check out the recipe, make sure you also read over my list of ways to prevent your emulsion from breaking, which should help keep you out of trouble.

toum | garlic spread
toum | garlic spread

How to make sure your emulsion doesn’t break:

  1. Add the water all at once with the finely chopped garlic toward the beginning.

  2. Drizzle in the oil in a slow and steady stream. Whatever you do, do not add it all at once.

  3. Don’t let the food processor or blender run gratuitously (especially if you have a high-power blender, which can overheat quickly). If you’re taking a break from streaming in oil, don’t let it run longer than a couple seconds. But make sure you do let it run for 1 or 2 seconds after you stop drizzling in the oil to make sure it fully incorporates.

  4. Don’t make toum in large batches, even if your blender or food processor is big enough to hold that much liquid. This recipe is the maximum amount you should make at a time. This shouldn’t be a problem, because it’s incredibly strong, and easy to whip up whenever. If you’re cooking for a huge party and need to make extra, make it in a couple batches. You might sometimes get away with doubling this recipe, but it will most likely break about half the time, and anything more than doubling it will break just about every single time. Trust me when I say I’ve learned from experience.

  5. Use cold water and cold lemon juice.

  6. Use a very clean blender or food processor.

  7. Use fresh garlic (I learned this tip from Maureen Abood’s recipe, and I think it helps a bit with the emulsion taking, but either way, it certainly helps with flavor).

  8. Follow the recipe below, which accounts for all this advice, and it won’t steer you wrong.

toum | garlic spread
toum | garlic spread

toum | garlic spread

yield: about 2 cups*
total time: 15 minutes
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  • 90g very fresh peeled garlic cloves (heaping 1/2 cup, from a 105g head)

  • 1.5g salt (1/4 teaspoon)

  • 55g cold water (1/4 cup)

  • 315g neutral oil (1 1/2 cups)**

  • 30g cold lemon juice (2 tablespoons)

  • special equipment: a high-powered blender***

  1. Combine the garlic and salt in a blender or food processor. Blend at a low speed until the garlic is coarsely puréed. Add the water and blend at medium speed until it liquefies. Turn the blender off when you’re not using it, to prevent it from overheating.

  2. With the blender running at a medium-low speed, remove the cap from the lid (but keep the lid on so it doesn’t splatter/for safety), and start to slowly drizzle in the oil through the small opening. Try to aim the stream of the oil for the center of the blades. Do not pour the oil too quickly or the emulsion will break.

  3. Once all of the oil has been added, the toum should be thick and white, kind of like an aioli or thin mayo. Slowly pour in the lemon juice while the blender is running. The toum will thicken a bit more, and then it’s ready to use. You can store in in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks (adding more lemon juice will allow you to store it longer, for more like 1 month).

* Do not double this recipe. Toum is an eggless emulsion, so it’s very temperamental, and will break very easily. It must be made in small batches. Let the blender cool down between batches, because excessive heat can also cause the emulsion to break. This shouldn’t be a problem, because you probably won’t need more than 2 cups at a time. It’s strong stuff!

** Do not use extra virgin olive oil for this (although it works alright with super refined olive oil. I like to use canola, but any other neutral oil will work).

*** If you don’t have a high-powered blender, you can totally make toum in a food processor instead. The danger of making it with a high speed blender is letting it run too long, which makes the toum overheat and break. On the other hand, the danger of making it with a food processor is not puréeing the garlic enough at the beginning, so make sure you mince it finely with the salt, and then slowly add the water. In either case, it’s important to add the oil slowly, but you’ll want to add it a little extra slowly when using a food processor.

toum | garlic spread

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chicken shawarma

chicken shawarma

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

chicken shawarma
chicken shawarma
  1. Flip the boneless, skinless chicken thigh* over.

  2. Open it up just with your hands.

  3. 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.

  4. Flip the flap over and open it like a book.

  5. 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

chicken shawarma
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).

  1. Place a butterflied piece of marinated chicken thigh on one side of the skillet.

  2. Place another one next to it, slightly overlapping.

  3. Top with some onions.

  4. Top with another butterflied thigh, going in the opposite direction.

  5. Place another butterflied thigh next to it, slightly overlapping.

  6. Top with onions, and repeat, alternating the direction every time, until you use up all the chicken and onion.

chicken shawarma
chicken shawarma

chicken shawarma

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)

  1. Combine the lemon juice, baharat, olive oil, salt, and garlic.

  2. Toss the onions together with a tablespoon of the marinade until very evenly coated.

  3. 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.*

  4. Preheat the oven to 250° F (121°C) once the chicken is sliced, and lightly oil a 10 to 12-inch ovenproof skillet.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Remove the juices to a small bowl or measuring cup, and allow them to separate for a minute. Rinse out the pan.

  9. 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.**

  10. 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).

  11. Taste the finished shawarma. If it needs more seasoning use some of the juices.

for serving

  • Tahini lemon sauce

  • Romaine lettuce, dressed with a sumac lemon dressing, with a few of your favorite veggies (e.g., tomato, cucumber, and green pepper).

  • Lemon wedges

  • 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).

chicken shawarma

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