tacos árabes | pork shawarma

tacos árabes

Tacos árabes are pork shawarma tacos from Puebla, Mexico; they were created by Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants in the early 20th century. This ingenious adaptation combines Middle Eastern technique (spit-roasting layers of marinated meat) with local Mexican ingredients (pork and lime).

My oven is about the size of a large shoebox, so you can bet that I, like you, do not own a spit or anything remotely like it. But regardless, I’m always trying to recreate shawarma at home. Luckily, there are a bunch of good ways to approximate it without a spit, and while no at-home version will ever taste exactly the same as the real deal, each technique has its own unique pros and cons.

tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes

I go back and forth about which is my favorite, but lately I’ve been obsessively using this really easy technique where you marinate, layer, slow-roast, thin-slice, and sear. It’s partly inspired by Serious Eats’ Tacos Árabes technique, but with one really important difference: instead of cooking it in a loaf pan, I roast it in a wide skillet, which allows the juices to run off and concentrate, and the outside to roast beautifully. Because it’s got so much exposed surface area, the outside bits end up tasting exactly like real shawarma, and the inside ends up getting all seared and delicious eventually.

In order to roast it in an open pan without the whole thing toppling over and falling apart, you’ve got to layer the slices in particular way, which actually approximates spit-layering. Instead of just stacking them straight up, you create an overlapping rough pentagon, and continue layering this way. It has a lot of structural integrity, which means you don’t actually need a skewer going through the center (or the sides of a loaf pan) to hold it together.

tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes

tacos árabes | pork shawarma

yield: 6 to 8 servings
active time: 35 minutes
total time: about 6 hours
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  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons lime juice (90g)

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cumin (8g)

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon oregano (2g)

  • between 2 teaspoons - 1 tablespoon salt (12-18g), to taste

  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (1g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom (1g)

  • 2 teaspoons paprika (4g)

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper (2g)

  • 1 large onion, sliced thinly (250-315g sliced)

  • 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder (1350g)

  1. Place the pork shoulder in the freezer, and set a timer for 1 hour (this makes it easier to slice thinly).

  2. Combine the lime juice, cumin, oregano, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, paprika, and black pepper.

  3. Toss the onions together with a few tablespoons of the marinade until they are very evenly coated.

  4. Thinly slice the semi-frozen pork, and toss it together with the rest of the marinade until it’s very evenly coated.*

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

  6. Build a layer of overlapping pieces of pork, leaving a border of at least 1 inch between the pork and the walls of the skillet. Add a layer of onions, followed by another layer of pork, and continue until all the ingredients are used up. When layering, make sure your pieces of pork overlap a little, aim for making a pentagon or square with them, 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.

  7. Bake for about 4 1/2 hours, until the pork is very tender and crispy on the outside. About once every hour or so, baste the shawarma with the juices collecting around the edges.

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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.**

  11. 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 of the surface of the reserved juices, and add it to the hot skillet. Swirl to coat, and then add about 1/3 of the sliced shawarma. Stir it frequently for about 5 minutes, until nicely browned. Remove to a bowl, and repeat with the remaining batches, adding a little more fat each time.

  12. Taste the finished shawarma. If it needs more seasoning, discard the remaining fat from the surface of the juices, and use some of the juices at the bottom to season it a little more. They’re quite salty and acidic, and add a ton of flavor, so use them very sparingly.

for serving

  • banadurah harrah, or your favorite salsa

  • thin pita bread, or tortillas (best for wrapping, rather than stuffing)

  • lime wedges

  • labneh or Greek yogurt

  • cilantro

* 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).
** 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).

tacos árabes

sheet pan ras al asfour

sheet pan ras al asfour

My great grandfather, baba Paulos, always said that hot drinks cool you down. He was known to sip scalding hot chai outside in the middle of summer. And apparently, science agrees. But I’ve always been more of a cool drinks in summer/hot drinks in winter kind of person, despite this inherited familial wisdom. And as it starts to heat up in Hong Kong (hello, perpetual nose sunburn! Even with all the SPF50 in the world...), I usually start moving away from stews and toward sheet pan dinners this time of year. As it starts to warm up wherever in the world you are, I highly recommend taking your favorite soups and stews, throwing all the ingredients on a sheet pan, coating everything in a combination of seasonings and oil, and roasting until cooked through and nicely caramelized.

Today I’m sharing a sheet pan version of my family’s ras al asfour (which literally means “birds’ heads,” but just serves as a description of the teeny tiny meatballs). All the flavors and features of the original stew are present here (most prominently: tomato, potato, tiny little meat balls, tangy pomegranate molasses, and baharat), but in a much less stick-to-your-bones mid-winter kind of way. Or if you’re like my great grandfather, stew season is just starting up, and you might want to give the original a try instead. In any case, stews are appropriate year-round in my book, so you can’t really go wrong, but if you’re looking for something a little lighter, this is the ras al asfour for you.

sheet pan ras al asfour
sheet pan ras al asfour
sheet pan ras al asfour
sheet pan ras al asfour

sheet pan ras al asfour

yield: 4 servings
active time: 25 minutes
total time: 50 minutes
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PDF to print

the meatballs

  • 3/4 pound (340g) ground beef

  • 2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses (14g)

  • 1/2 of 1 jalapeño, seeds and pith removed, finely minced (15g)

  • 1/3 cup finely minced parsley leaves (25g)

  • 1/4 cup finely minced red onion (35g)

  • 1 garlic clove, crushed through a press (5g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (3.5g) (or to taste)

  • 1 teaspoon baharat (2g)

  1. Combine the ground beef, pomegranate molasses, jalapeño, parsley, red onion, garlic, salt, and baharat. Stop mixing once it's well-combined.

  2. Shape into about 50 very small meatballs, about 1 heaping teaspoon (not tablespoon) each. To shape, squeeze one in the palm of your hand, and then use both of your palms to gently roll the ball around to smooth it out.

everything else

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil (14g)

  • 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses (7g)

  • 2 teaspoons baharat (4g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (3.5g) (or to taste)

  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, chopped in half (300g)

  • 1/2 of 1 small red onion, sliced (55g)

  • 2 cups 1/2-inch-diced potatoes (240g)

  • the above meatballs (raw)

  • (optional) rice or bread for serving

  • (optional) greens for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 475°F (245°C).

  2. Stir together the olive oil, pomegranate molasses, baharat, and salt.

  3. Combine the tomatoes, red onion, and potatoes, and pour the olive oil mixture over the veggies. Toss everything together to coat evenly. Add the meatballs, and then very gently fold everything together to coat the meatballs.

  4. Spread everything out on a sheet pan into 1 even layer. If any of the meatballs have fallen apart, nudge them back together. Bake for about 20 minutes, just until the potatoes and meatballs are cooked through, and the whole thing is caramelized (if it’s caramelizing too quickly, cover with aluminum foil for the last few minutes). Serve over rice or alongside bread, and optionally also with greens.

ras al asfour sheet pan