What is shish kebab?
Shish kebab is one of the most emblematic dishes of Middle Eastern cuisine, found throughout the former Ottoman Empire and is highly appreciated in Iraq where it is flavored with sumac, cumin and paprika.
It’s prepared with metal skewers on which minced lamb or beef meat is mounted. These skewers can be garnished with onions, parsley and tomatoes to give them even more flavors.
Shish kebab are sprinkled with fresh parsley and served with grilled vegetables such as tomato or bell pepper pieces. These vegetables are never skewered and cooked with the meat but are cooked separately. Shish comes from Turkish which means “sword” or “skewer”, kebap comes from Arabic and means “roasted meat”.
What is the origin of shish kebab?
The first appearance of the shish kebab dates back to the 14th century in the Turkish work Kyssa-i Yusuf.
According to etymologist Sevan Nisanyan, the word kebab means frying or cooking and comes from the word kababu in the Akkadian language. The word kbaba is found in Aramaic. According to translations by the assyriologist Jean Bottéro, the famous translator of the Mesopotamian tablets of Yale, Babylon already has traces of minced and roasted meat in different forms.
Before the 14th century, the word şiş was mentioned in the 11th century as a kitchen utensil in the book Diwan Lughat al-Turk (Mahmud of Kashqar). This tool is described as a skewer or a noodle arranging tool (mimzam tutmaj).
With the Ottoman Empire, shish kebab spread throughout the region and into the Caucasus. The presence of the English in India and the Arab countries contributed to the spread of kebab throughout the world.
However, if shish kebab is often presented in the form of skewered meat pieces, the Iraqi version differs in the use of ground meat. Thus, in Iraq, kebab known in Europe will bear the Indian name of tikka and shish kebab for ground meat. In other Middle Eastern countries, when kebabs are made with ground meat, they are usually called kufta or kafta kebab.
How to prepare shish kebab
For a shish kebab to be perfectly roasted, it is essential that the basic preparation is not wet, which is why tomatoes and onions are pressed through a cheesecloth in order to extract all the juice.
These vegetables are then mixed with minced meat. Depending on its quality, it can be chosen from different muscles of lamb or beef. It is important to find the right balance between fat and lean parts. The fat will bring unctuousness and will be a carrier of flavours while the leaner muscle will bring juices and an interesting taste to the preparations.
Lamb meat can also be mixed with beef. Lamb breast is often used to make minced meat. It is inexpensive, contains just the right amount of fat and lean meat on its own.
Shish kebab are shaped manually on metal skewer spikes. Metal being a better heat conductor than wood, it ensures a more uniform cooking of the meat inside the shish kebab.
The skewers are made by hand to avoid the formation of air pockets inside the meat that could weaken it. They are then uniformly roasted on charcoal, which gives them a delicious flavor.
What is sumac?
Sumac is a widespread shrub in the region, its name comes from the Arabic summaq which means “red”. The berries of this shrub are dried and ground to obtain a fine red powder. The taste of these berries is acidic and astringent.
In Lebanon, sumac is sometimes used in the composition of the famous zaatar, a mixture of thyme and sesame. In the Middle Ages, sumac was regularly used in Arab medicine, as people thought it was a great ally in case of high blood pressure.
What are the variants of shish kebab?
While shish kebab is usually prepared with lamb, mutton or beef, it is not uncommon to find versions made from veal, chicken and even swordfish.
There are many varieties of skewers around the world such as satay in Southeast Asia, pinchos morunos in Spain and espetedas in Portugal.
In India and Pakistan, skewers are close to those of the Middle East and are also called kebab for Muslim Pakistan and tikka for Indians. They are often marinated in yoghurt and spices such as turmeric or tandoori spices that give them very special colors.
The Chinese also cook skewered meat, they are called chuan and are flavored with cumin and chili. Generally, they are prepared with a fairly fatty lamb meat.
This recipe is validated by our expert in Iraqi cuisine Nawal Nasrallah. An award-winning researcher and food writer, Nawal is the author of the definitive cookbook on the Iraqi cuisine Delights from the Garden of Eden.
- 1½ lb ground beef (or lamb) meat
- ⅓ lb lamb fat , chopped
- 1 onion , diced
- 1 tomato , diced
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon sumac
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- For the garnish
- 1 tablespoon parsley
- ½ teaspoon sumac
- Place the diced tomato and onion in the center of a large cheesecloth. Close the cheesecloth and squeeze very hard on the tomato and onion to extract the juice. Discard the juice.
- In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients as well as the squeezed tomato and onion.
- Let the mixture rest for 1 hour in the refrigerator, kneading it every 15 minutes.
- Take a piece of meat and squeeze firmly on a long, wide metal skewer and form a long kebab.
- Renew the process until the meat is all used.
- Grill the skewers for about 3 to 4 minutes per side, preferably on a charcoal fire. It is important to turn the skewer regularly otherwise the meat may come off the skewer.
- Sprinkle the skewers with 1 tablespoon chopped parsley and ½ teaspoon sumac and serve immediately with bell peppers and tomatoes, grilled on the same fire.
Make sure that the meat is firmly fixed on the skewer and that there are no air pockets between the meat and the skewer.
Do not place the skewer on a cold grill, as the kebab will remain stuck.