Shwarma, shawarma, donair, döner, or kebap, is a Middle Eastern preparation of spiced and marinated meat that is slowly roasted upright, on a spit. No matter what you call it, it’s delicious and one of my all time favourite foods. It can be made with chicken, beef, lamb or any combination. You can find it served in a pita, on a laffa, or any other type of local flat bread. It is also commonly eaten as part of an entrée with salad, rice and/or potatoes. If you venture to central Mexico you will find a very similar dish, typically made using pork, called ‘al pastor’ (shepherd style), which likely arrived with Lebanese immigrants. If you ask me, the Mexicans do it best by serving their version on a tortilla! What can I say? I’m partial to tacos!
Shwarma typically takes at least two days to prepare. The meat needs to be marinated for at least 24 hours before it is arranged on a very large metal spit and slowly roasted for hours. Before serving, the meat is sliced (either by hand or with an electric meat shaver) and usually crisped over a griddle top. The whole process is time-consuming and requires specialty kitchen equipment, which makes it particularly difficult for home cooks who want to enjoy some freshly-made shwarma at home. Sure, you can order some take-out if you want, but I think shwarma needs to be eaten fresh and on the spot. The meat needs to be juicy and crispy and the only way to get that magical combination of textures is to devour it immediately.
For the past year or so I’ve been tinkering with this recipe. I’ve worked diligently to figure out a way to not only recreate the flavours and textures I love so much, but also to do it without any of the kitchen gadgets I lack. Yes, I could have purchased this Shwarma Grill on Amazon for a hundred bucks, but I have this odd feeling that I would use it only once before it got stashed away, never to see the light of day again.
I also wanted to see if I could cut the prep time. There is a time and place for marinating meat and yes, this chicken does taste better when left to soak in all of those beautiful spices overnight. However, it tastes very, very good without any of the marinating time. As with my Emergency Roast Chicken recipe, you can make the decision to marinate or not.
I’m very happy to say that at long last, I think I’ve finally done it! At least, I’m as close as I’m going to get to delicious homemade shwarma without taking a trip to the Middle East and begging vendors to share their secrets with me. If I’m being honest, I knew for a long time that the secret to this dish was cooking the meat in a cast-iron skillet.
What took me forever to figure out was the spice-mixture. I tried countless combinations but nothing really brought me back to my memories of eating shwarma in Israel or my favourite spots in Toronto. Speaking of, you’ll notice that there are quite a few spices used in this recipe. Each is as important as the next, no matter how small the measurement. I, therefore, encourage you to use all of the spices and if you don’t have them, seek them out! A Middle Eastern grocery store is probably your best best. Otherwise, you may have to order online if that is an option.
Given the fact that this recipe takes less than 20 minutes to prepare, start to finish, I have to go on record in saying that I hesitate to call it proper shwarma. Instead, I would call it a bootleg version since I skip all of the marinade time and don’t use a spit. Having said that, I would put this up against the top spots in my city and think you will love it. Oh, it just so happens to be Whole30 compliant as well!