Kebabs are the burgers of the Middle East. From Israel to Syria and from Armenia to Turkey, you’ll rarely go wrong choosing among its many variants. Both of us enjoyed kebabs for countless meals during our travels. Although we had not planned to feature the dish for this column, a dearth of plantains forced us to hold off on making Dominican mofongo. (Stay tuned, kids.) We realized that Genuardi’s didn’t carry this essential ingredient approximately seven minutes before the Target shuttle driver had agreed to pick us up, and we settled on kebabs with four minutes to spare. What ensued was a real-life, low-budget rendition of the classic 60s gameshow Supermarket Sweep.
A Staple of our Travels
DÃ¶ner kebab (shawarma to Arabs and Israelis) is carved off of a large spit and often enjoyed in pita with a variety of toppings ranging from cucumbers to french fries. Armenians prefer khorovats, a particularly salty type of barbecued kebab. The word shashlik is used throughout the former Soviet Union, and typically uses meat marinated overnight. For our column, we chose to make shish kebab, which is simple to prepare and requires nothing more in the way of equipment than some skewers and a barbecue.
Kebab has figured prominently in both of our Middle Eastern sojourns. In Aleppo, where Turkish cuisine is ubiquitous and the savory roasted meat is practically a separate food group, Clara ate shawarma wraps with pickles and the creme toum sauce nearly every day between Arabic classes. The garlicky cream sauce is a natural match for the spicy roasted chicken, and an absolute necessity for a proper Syrian shawarma sandwich. Aleppans love their kebab, and are known for such exotic dishes as sour cherry kebab and the heavily spiced Aleppo kebab.
Jasper’s favorite shish kebab of all time was one he had in a small stand near Istanbul’s Spice Market. The Spice Market is perhaps one of the seven culinary wonders of the modern world, and Jasper and the slightly geeky German guy he had been hanging out with that day were getting hungry from walking around it endlessly. The shish kebab was perfectly seasoned and cost only a couple lira. Of course, the whole event might have been a hallucination as the he could not find the stand on multiple return journeys to find that perfect kebab. While traveling in Poland, Jasper woke up one morning with a mysterious map in his pocket that showed where the best falafel and shawarma in Jerusalem can be found – just inside the Damascus Gate.
Cooking Kebab on April 1st
These anecdotes pale in comparison, however, with the epic journey that was preparing kebab at Swarthmore College. It was approximately 9 am when snows unseen since Snowpocalypse 2010 began falling, an inauspicious omen on the first day of the cruelest month. So much for “out like a lamb,” March. Among the near catastrophes faced during our April Fool’s Snowstorm Kebab Cookout: a woeful lack of lighter fluid or dry twigs, bitter rivalries between the would-be fire starters, and Siberian temperatures (around 40 degrees Fahrenheit — shut up, Brice). We persevered, however, cooking late into the night and finally feasting on kebab over couscous in the Mephistos lounge.
Our biggest mistake was not investing in quality lighter fluid on the wet and rainy day we chose to barbecue. Make sure that you start your coals early so that you won’t waste time waiting for the coals to catch. We didn’t plan ahead, and so it took us around an hour to get the charcoal started.
What began as a group effort to start the fire soon devolved into competing boys’ and girls’ sides of the barbecue. The girls focused on carefully placing small sticks around rolled up newspaper, but the boys created larger flames. (Note: This claim has been disputed.) Neither produced usable coals. In the end, we reunited and started the fire with a self-lighting hookah coal. However, we would have saved a lot of time (and faux animosity) with a chimney or lighter fluid.
These trials were made worthwhile by our finished product. The kebabs were perfectly balanced, charred on the outside and tender on the inside. The seasonings enlivened the the meat, and the vegetables rounded out the meal. Once inside and enjoying the fruits (and meats) of our labors, our fire-starting showdown was all but forgotten.
Genuardi’s cost: $31.52
Prep time: 25 min
Cook time: 45 min
Notes: the prep time assumes that lighter fluid is available. Barbecuing at Swarthmore in the spring quickly becomes a social activity, which is why this dish costs more and feeds more people. For $5 more, you can make couscous as a side. Using chicken broth and a little water, cook the couscous according to the directions on the box.
1.5 lb beef (use London broil and tenderize to keep costs down), cut into 1-inch cubes
3 large bell peppers
2 small packages cherry tomatoes
2 red onions
Few sprigs cilantro
Olive oil to taste
3 tbs pineapple juice
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp shawarma spice (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Several hours prior to grilling, marinate the cubed beef in the pineapple juice and spices. A half hour before preparing the kebabs, soak the skewers in water. Slice the onions and peppers into 1-inch cubes and string onto skewers. Drizzle olive oil over the kebabs and salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare the coals. They should be ready when orange and glowing. Place the grilling rack 1 – 2 inches above the coals and cook the kebab, turning often. When the meat is well browned, remove from heat. Serve with couscous, in a pita, or straight from the skewer.
We’ll leave you with the Turkish for Bon Appetit: Afiyet olsun!