It’s a big claim, isn’t it? The best chicken kebab ever? If you are doubtful, you possibly haven’t tried this Lebanese specialty as many times as I have during my teen age years. You see, back in 1996 (the post war years), McDonalds and Burger King hadn’t yet entered the Lebanese market, and Lebanon was full of non-franchised eateries that served good quality fast food. The choice wasn’t restricted between a Big Mac and a Double Whopper, but instead we had a vast array of what you could call street food. This is food that is traditional and regional to our culture, food that we know and love and that is ingrained in our cuisine. Think crisp falafel bursting out of fresh Lebanese bread drizzled with lemony tahini and packed with pickles and parsley, or a moist chicken shawarma traditionally carved by a master craftsman, charred and full-flavoured, sitting on clouds of white garlic sauce. Manakish, kafta, lahm mishwi (barbeque beef or lamb), and the list goes on.
When McDonalds (now lovingly reffered to as MacDo by dolled up French-accented Lebanese girls oblivous to the giant’s impact on our local culture) opened in Lebanon, we rushed and queued to get a taste of what was on offer. In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have started my own Slow Food movement, but in our ignorance, as if in a bout of mass hysteria, McDonalds was accepted, and though we knew deep down that the food did not even compare to our local oldies, we embraced the terrible new. I personally haven’t eaten McDonalds for around six years now, and prefer to eat food prepared by individuals who are passionate about what they do. I also hope that my efforts here on my blog can help preserve the enthusiasm people have for regional specialties. One of these specialties is shish tawook.
What I love about shish tawook is that it is so popular all over Lebanon and that there isn’t a single recipe that is used by everyone to reproduce these skewered beauties, but that every home has its own recipe. I also love that though it seems so engrained in our culture, hardly any of us know what the word tawook means. Well, let me tell you. Tawook is a variant on the Turkish word tavuk, meaning chicken. So shish tawook means chicken skewers. The reason for this popular Turkish dish to be on our menu is because the Ottoman Empire ruled Lebanon between the years 1516 and 1920. Today, our generation can not easily identify the mark of the Turks on our history, mainly because the Turks goverened Lebanon through local leaders. But in reality, our love of backgammon and much of our food has been influenced by the Turks, and if we were try to get a positive out of every negative situation, I’d say shish tawook is certainly one positive to add to the list.
The shish tawook recipe below is one of many that you would find out there, but I think it’s the closest in flavour to my favourite version that I used to have in Lebanon. Eat it with plenty of toum and some pickled cucumber with Lebanese bread, and then tell me if it’s not the best chicken kebab ever.
Shish Tawook Recipe
- 1.5 kg chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 cup olive oil
- 3 tbsp dijon or mild mustard
- 3/4 cup lemon juice
- 10 crushed garlic cloves
- 2 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp white (or black) pepper
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 4 tbsp finely chopped thyme or 2 tbsp dried thyme
- mushrooms, optional but highly recommended
- 1 red and 1 green capsicum, optional but highly recommended
- Emulsify the mustard with the olive oil. This is done by whisking a little bit of olive oil into the mustard and continuing to do so until all the olive oil is encorporated
- Add and whisk the lemon juice, salt, pepper, tomato paste, garlic and thyme until well mixed
- Marinate the chicken in the sauce overnight in the fridge
- Skewer the chicken along with pieces of mushroom and capsicum and barbeque or grill until don . Don’t over cook otherwise the chicken would dry out
- Eat with lots and lots of toum, pickles and Lebanese bread
- Blissfully avoid social interaction for 4 days until all garlic symptoms have subsided