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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sabzi khordan with baked feta

sabzi khordan with baked feta

When we were in grad school in the Garden State, we lived in an apartment in Central Jersey with a decently sized back yard and easy access to community gardens, but for some reason, I decided to wait until moving to Hong Kong to take up gardening on our two-by-six-foot little balcony. I’d love to have a grape vine someday, and maybe some tomatoes, but until then, I’m really happy with the big potted herb planters I’ve got going. Or, I should say, the potted herbs I was growing, until flying back to the US to visit family and leaving little scraggly mint/parsley/basil stubs behind. The week before leaving, I went a little crazy trying to use them up. I dried some mint, put fresh basil in everything, made lots of mint tea, and made an absurd amount of dolma. At the end of the week, I still had a lot of mint and basil, so I did the best thing I could think to do: sabzi khordan! I’ll take any excuse to eat herbs by the fistful.

sabzi khordan with baked feta
sabzi khordan with baked feta

Sabzi khordan, a Persian classic, is simply a big plate of herbs and crunchy, fresh ingredients, which you can serve with feta and flatbread. It’s easy, stunning, and delicious all at the same time, and I’ve recently been throwing it on top of a big sheet pan of baked feta for a fun change of pace.

I don’t super reliably share Persian recipes on here, because it wasn’t the primary food I grew up with at home, and my mind usually goes to Iraqi and Syrian food first. And since many Assyrians are from Iran, this year I’ve been trying to include more Persian recipes. I’ve been off to an okay start, with my favorite date frittata, and Persian love cake-inspired pop tarts. And now I’m so excited to be sharing this one, because it’s one of my family’s favorites. It actually reminds me of the way my grandmother describes the masgouf restaurants in Baghdad. They’d bring the fish out with lots of herbs, scallions, and radishes, and you’d pile as much as you want on top of the grilled fish, squeeze it with some lemon juice, and dig in. In either case, the lesson is the same: eat herbs in heaps and piles, not in sprinkles.

sabzi khordan with baked feta
sabzi khordan with baked feta

sabzi khordan with baked feta

serves about 10 as an appetizer
active time: 10 minutes
total time: 20 minutes
feta roasting technique inspired by
Amanda Hesser at Food52
download a
PDF to print
for a vegan version, see my
whole roasted cauliflower

  • 12 oz piece of feta (340g)

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half (300g)

  • Extra virgin olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons apricot preserves or honey

  • 1 bunch bunch basil, leaves only

  • 1 bunch cilantro, leaves and small stems only

  • 1 bunch watercress

  • 1 small bunch whole chives

  • 1 small handful mint leaves

  • 3 or 4 radishes, sliced

  • flatbread for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C).

  2. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Blot the feta dry, and place in the center of the sheet pan. Coat the feta with a little olive oil. Coat the tomato halves in a little more oil, and place them around the feta, cut-side-up.

  3. Bake the feta and tomatoes for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the feta softens and starts to melt slightly. Remove from the oven and set it to broil. Brush the feta with the honey or apricot preserves (warm the preserves in the microwave for a few seconds if they aren’t thin enough to brush), and place under the broiler for a couple more minutes to brown the top (keep a very close eye on it—it may only take 1-2 minutes, depending on your oven).

  4. Remove from the oven once it’s warmed through and brown on top. Let it sit at room temperature until the pan is no longer extremely hot, but while the feta is still warm (about 3 minutes). Top the pan with the basil, cilantro, watercress, chives, mint, and radishes. Lightly drizzle the herbs with olive oil. Serve immediately with flatbread, and encourage guests to eat a big heaping pile of herbs with every little bite of feta and tomato.

Note on cook time: I’ve made this with a few different broilers, and they all work very differently. If your broiler is weak and you leave it in longer to compensate, it will become crumbly, and if you broil it less, it will be gooey and spreadable. Either way is delicious, just different. If your broiler runs cold, you might need to bake it longer to get enough caramelization, or you can pull it out before it caramelizes if you don’t want it to get crumbly. Use your discretion, and don’t sweat it too much. But don’t broil it longer than 5 minutes, even if it’s not caramelizing, or it will dry out too much.

Note on herbs: Feel free to substitute your favorite leafy herbs, like dill, fennel fronds, fenugreek leaves, parsley, scallions, or tarragon.

sabzi khordan with baked feta

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