Middle Eastern-inspired shawarma will spice up your chicken dinner

October 9, 2020

Looking through my pantry last week, searching for dinner inspiration, I realized my menu planning is in a very boring rut. It seems I always reach for the same set of seasonings, rarely venturing beyond spice drawer standbys such as basil, garlic, onion and oregano. Then I remembered a gift from my friend Lina – a jar of brightly colored powdered turmeric.

Those of you who may not be familiar with turmeric might be surprised to discover you have probably seen its colorful effects the last time you opened a jar of yellow mustard. A member of the ginger family, turmeric roots or rhizomes are the part of the plant that is harvested and used to flavor and color a variety of dishes, most commonly curries.

In recent years, turmeric has gained a reputation for its active ingredient, curcumin, which has shown positive anti-inflammatory properties. As a result, turmeric now shows up in recipes for smoothies and chai teas promoted for their health benefits. All that aside, one of the best aspects of turmeric is the warm, earthy flavor and bright color it imparts in dishes like shawarma.

Shawarma (also spelled shawurma or shawerma) gets its name from the Arabic word for “turning,” which describes how the dish is cooked. With origins in the 18th century Ottoman Empire (the region seen as Turkey on today’s maps), shawarma is the Middle Eastern version of the Greek gyro.

In both cases, thin layers of meat are stacked in a cone-like shape on a vertical rotisserie or spit which slowly turns, cooking the meat as it passes before the heat source. To serve, the outside layer of meat is shaved off and stacked in pita bread with onions and tomatoes. The name of each dish refers to the meat (originally lamb, but now often made with a mixture of meats) as well as the style of cooking.

When shawarma is made with chicken, it’s marinated to infuse the potentially bland flesh with a complex set of flavors and the signature color of turmeric. While both gyro and shawarma are served with sauces, they differ: it’s yogurt and cucumber tzatziki for the gyro and a tahini lemon juice mixture for the shawarma.

Without a vertical rotisserie, I opted for a sheet-pan approach to make an approximation of shawarma in my oven. Before cooking anything, the first step is to stir together a marinade that features several spices: cumin, turmeric, coriander, paprika and cloves. As you may imagine, the aroma is enticing and the color quite rich, and after a few hours in the refrigerator with the mix, the chicken pieces are beautifully marinated.

Some recipes will advise using boneless chicken thighs because boneless breast meat can be too dry. In some cases, instructions have you leave the chicken parts intact, while others direct you to cut them into pieces before cooking. I found using breasts and marinating them after cutting them into strips worked just fine.

I’ve included a recipe for the chicken shawarma and tahini sauce in the photo. If you’re pressed for time and don’t want to make the sauce, thin some store-bought hummus with a little lemon juice as a substitute. Of course, if you prefer the flavor of chicken thighs, they work just as well. And, if you toss a teaspoon of powdered turmeric into your next smoothie, you’ll have a glass of golden milk.

Oven-baked Chicken Shawarma

2 t ground cumin
2 t powdered turmeric
2 t ground coriander
2 t paprika
1/2 t ground cloves
1/2 t cayenne pepper
2 grated garlic cloves
1/4 C olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 sliced onion
2 boneless chicken breast halves
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
1 t olive oil
chopped parsley, for garnish

Measure spices into a large zip-top bag. Add grated garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and onion. Mix well to combine; set aside. Cut chicken into 1-inch wide strips and add to marinade. Seal the bag and refrigerate for 3 hours or up to overnight. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Arrange the chicken and onion in a single layer, including marinade. Toss cherry tomatoes onto baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes. To serve, arrange chicken, onion and tomato on a piece of pita bread and drizzle with pan juices. Garnish with parsley and tahini sauce.

Tahini Sauce

2 garlic cloves
1/2 t salt
1/2 C tahini
juice of 2 lemons
water, as needed
1/4 C chopped parsley

Peel and coarsely chop the garlic. Place the pieces in the bowl of a mortar with salt; use the pestle to create a paste. Transfer garlic paste to a bowl and whisk together with tahini and lemon juice. If mixture is too thick, add water a tablespoon at a time and blend to desired consistency. Stir in parsley and serve.

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