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Homemade Lamb Shawarma in Minutes + Giveaway

by Kristina Gill

Chef and author Anissa Helou has become synonymous with the food of the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa, having written books covering many aspects of these regions including mezze, sweets, baking, and street food. Her latest book is an incredible 500+ page collection of recipes covering the food of the Islamic world. Of the hundreds of recipes within the pages of Feast, we homed in on the Lamb Shawarma recipe. Shawarma is the descendant of Turkish döner kebab, which Anissa explains below. We chose this recipe because it is not usually something you would prepare at home and we were surprised at how quick and easy it is to make. If you don’t like lamb, you can use chicken. Keep this up your sleeve for your next outdoor BBQ and set up a station so people can make their own sandwiches or salads using the meat! —Kristina

Why Anissa loves this recipe: Shawarma, which is the quintessential street food in Lebanon and Syria, could be considered the Levantine version of hamburger: two layers of ultra thin pita bread rolled around copious quantities of thinly sliced grilled lamb that have been previously marinated in a heady mixture of spices including mastic (although not exactly a spice but rather a resin), turnip pickles made pink by adding beetroot to the brine, parsley and tomatoes all drizzled with a tart tahini sauce to make the most scrumptious wrap. As a child, my mother frowned on her “well brought up” kids eating anywhere else but at the table. It wasn’t until after I grew up that I could gorge on shawarma while walking through the streets of pre war Beirut. Now Shawarma has gone global, both as is and as its Mexican variation, tacos al pastor.

For a chance to win a copy of Feast: Food of the Islamic World, respond in the comments section below by June 20, 5PM EST to the following question: What is your favorite street food, and where were you when you had it for the first time? We will announce the winner in the comments section.

About Anissa: Anissa Helou is a chef, food writer, and journalist focusing on the cuisines and culinary heritage of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. Born in Lebanon to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, Helou is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks including Sweet Middle East; Levant; The Fifth Quarter, An Offal Cookbook; Modern Mezze; Savory Baking from the Mediterranean; Mediterranean Street Food; Café Morocco; and Lebanese Cuisine. Find Anissa on Instagram at @anissahelou

{Photography by Kristin Perers}

Image Above: Anissa Helou

Image Above: Lamb Shawarma

Lamb Shawarma (Shawarma Lahmeh)

Before Syria descended into the tragic situation in which it has been since shortly after the uprising, I visited often, and when I went to Damascus, I never failed to go to Siddiq, a restaurant specializing in shawarma grilled over charcoal, no easy feat given that the shawarma grill is vertical. They had that on the menu, plus a few select mezze items. You just sat down and waited for the mezze plates to be served, before the sensational shawarma was brought to the table, very thinly sliced, with some bits crisp and others very moist, depending on whether they were sliced from the first layer or the second inner one, all piled on pita bread and covered with more pita to keep the meat warm. Siddiq’s was and still is the best shawarma I have ever had. I suspect the restaurant is still there as Damascus has been untouched by the civil war, and hopefully it will still be there once the war is over and I can return to visit.

The word shawarma comes from the Turkish çevirme, which means “to turn or rotate,” describing how it cooks, slowly rotating in front of a fire. Shawarma is basically a very large, fat “kebab” that can be made with lamb or chicken. The meat is sliced into wide, thin pieces, marinated overnight, and threaded onto a long skewer. Lamb shawarma has slices of tail fat in between every few layers of meat to keep the meat moist during grilling. For chicken shawarma, the skin is kept on the meat to keep it moist and tender. The skewer is fixed in front of a vertical grill and left to rotate over a moderate heat for 2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is cooked through. Even before the meat is cooked through, the shawarma vendor starts slicing the outer, cooked layer to order, piling the thin slivers of meat onto pita bread to make a sandwich with tomatoes, onions, pickles, herbs, and tahini sauce if it is lamb shawarma or garlic sauce (toum) if it is chicken. Shawarma is basically street food and it is not usually prepared at home, but here is a great adaptation I learned from my Lebanese butcher in London. You can substitute chicken, both dark and white meat, for the lamb, and use toum (see Note) instead of the tahini sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • For the Lamb
  • 1 3/4 pounds (800g) boneless lamb shoulder, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium onions (10 1/2 ounces/300g total), thinly sliced
  • Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon Lebanese 7-Spice Mixture (see below)
  • A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
  • Sea salt and finely ground black pepper
  • For the Tahini Sauce
  • 1/2 cup (125ml) tahini
  • Juice of lemon, or to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced to a fine paste
  • Sea salt
  • For the Sandwiches
  • 2 to 3 round pita breads (about 8 inches/20cm in diameter) or 4 to 6 oval ones
  • 4 to 6 small firm-ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 small red onion, halved and cut into very thin wedges
  • 4 to 6 gherkins, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • Handful of mint leaves
  • A few sprigs flat-leaf parsley, leaves only

Preparation

1

To prepare the lamb: Put the meat in a large bowl and add the onions, lemon juice, olive oil, spices, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Let marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.

2

Meanwhile, make the tahini sauce: Put the tahini in a bowl. Alternating between the lemon juice and 6 tablespoons (90 ml) water, gradually whisk in the liquids—this is to make sure that you get the right balance of tartness while keeping the consistency of the sauce like that of creamy yogurt. The tahini will first thicken to a puree-like consistency before starting to loosen up again. If you decide to use less lemon juice, make up for the loss of liquid by adding a little more water or vice versa. Add the garlic and salt to taste. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

3

When the meat is ready, place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the meat and sauté for a couple of minutes, or until the meat is done to your liking.

4

To make the sandwiches: You can make 4 or 6 sandwiches depending on how generously filled you want them to be.

If you are using round pita breads: Tear them open at the seam to split them into separate disks—you can also use markouk or handkerchief bread like in the photo. Arrange equal quantities of meat down the middle of each disk. Garnish with equal quantities of tomato, onion, gherkins, and herbs and drizzle as much tahini sauce as you like, bearing in mind it will sog up the bread if you go heavy. Roll each sandwich tightly. Wrap the bottom half with a paper napkin and serve immediately.

If you are using oval pita breads: Open them at one wide end to create a large pocket. Drizzle tahini sauce inside the bread, then fill with equal amounts of sandwich ingredients. Drizzle with more tahini if you want—oval pita is a lot thicker and can take it. Serve immediately.

Note: For an alternative to the tahini sauce, make toum by mincing 3 cloves garlic and grinding them to a fine paste with a little salt. Then drizzle in 1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil the way you would with mayonnaise. To make this pungent dip a little milder, add 2 tablespoons labneh.

5

For the Lebanese 7-Spice Mixture
Sabe’ Bharat

This is a Lebanese/Syrian mixture that varies slightly from one spice merchant to another, or from one butcher to another—many like to make their own—and even from family to family if they make their own. You can buy it premade, either in a package or loose from a mahmassa (which translates as “roaster,” but is a term to describe spice merchants), where they roast, grind, and mix their own spices. Obviously the one from a mahmassa will be better and fresher than prepacked commercial brands even if some of these are pretty good. You can also mix your own following the recipe below, which is my mother’s, or have the spice merchant prepare the mixture to your own recipe. In prewar Aleppo, I used to buy Lena Antaki’s Syrian 7-spice mixture from one of the Hilali spice merchants in the old souk, sadly completely destroyed now. I never wrote down her recipe, but it is headier than the Lebanese mixture and I remember it including galangal, and actually being made with more than seven spices.

Makes about 1/4 cup (25g)

  • 1 tablespoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Mix all the spices well in a medium bowl. Transfer to an airtight container and store away from both heat and light.

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Comments

  • I loved roasted corn as served from street vendors in Cameroon. As a Peace Corps volunteer in training, so many foods were unfamiliar (meat with okra sauce, manioc, etc.), but a chewy, toasty cob of corn provided me with a delicious snack that gave me a sense of home.

  • At Christmas markets, I love the chocolate covered marshmallow bells! I had them first in Germany and then in France. Yum!

  • I took a look at Helou’s Feast this weekend and it is a beautiful book. I’d be thrilled to win a copy. My favorite street food is mahjouba, a type of Algerian stuffed crepe, which first ate in the Noailles market in Marseille. Saveur has a recipe that I’ve made several times at home. If anyone is curious they should definitely check it out – it’s delicious.

  • I remember having Simit (which is a Turkish version of a bagel) from a vendor in Istanbul. It was still warm from the oven and absolutely perfect since it was a chilly day.

  • In Istanbul the street vendors grill fish and serve this simple fish sandwich with lemon and urfa peppers. When I try to conjure the bright, slightly smoky flavor from memory I can picture sunlight glittering the water and smell coffee and cardamom. It feels like I’m right back there!

  • Tacos. Super simple, made to order and eaten right away with a little twist of lime. First had them at night on a corner in Tijuana after a long road trip when I was 14. Can still taste them and make a point to have one at any opportunity when I am back in Mexico.

  • It would probably be a tie between the roasted nuts (preferably cashews and almonds) in NYC, or the falafel we got exiting the subway on our way to the Met. I’m not even a NY fan girl, but you can sure eat good there…

  • I am a Californian so my first experience with street food was tacos, which I will always consider the taste of home. Traveling abroad for the first time, in Paris, I ate crepes with champignons from street vendors and years later in St. Petersburg a version of the same thing, both delicious. This book looks incredible. Thanks for the giveaway.

  • Grilled mochi with nori basted with soy sauce and a little sugar. My mom occasionally made it at home but in Japan you can buy it from street vendors who grill it over charcoal. One of the comfort foods of my childhood. :-)

  • Bulgarian banitsa! I was born there and was probably a young child when I had it for the first time. Although every family makes it at home as well, it is always a treat to get one from a bakery for breakfast. Traditionally, people drank bosa, a fermented wheat drink, with their banitsa, but I am on the fence about that ;)

  • Oh! Doner kebab in Jena, Germany. Cheap delicious eats for starving grad student! Still dream about it!

  • Oh, I wish I had something exciting to share about street food, but our family hasn’t had much outside of fair food.. The most delicious was elephant ears for me, haha, it sounds so lame, but it is true I can come up with nothing better I’m afraid.

  • Tortillas… freshly made in Old Town San Diego… I don’t travel far so I take what I can get :)

  • I couldn’t believe the amazing sandwiches I could buy on the street in Paris– A crispy baguette with salami, ham or pate. So simple and so rich:)

  • My favorite street food were the amazing crepes we had when we went to Paris. We loved them sooo much, we went back every day to eat them!

  • Grilled cheese on a stick on the beach in Brazil, where I just returned from a two-week trip with my boyfriend, who is Brazilian. The beach culture there is completely different than here in the US – there are lots of food vendors who walk up and down the beach all day selling delicious things like shrimp skewers and caipirinhas. It was the trip of a lifetime.

  • Gyros in Istanbul Turkey. I was in the Navy and it was our Portof call around mid summer 1986. Sliced right off the spit into warm pita type bread. Fresh veggies and Tzatziki Sauce. So yummy at noon served with a Stella beer from Egypt.

  • Cornish pasties from the South West of England! Tasty meat and vegetable pastry crescents. Best eaten on a Cornish beach after surfing. The food of my childhood holidays.

  • Chicken satay in Jogjakarta in central Java. Even the goat satay was good when they were out of chicken.

  • The best street food in my experience was fries in Amsterdam, in a cone with mayo. . . also warm waffles with caramel sauce at the outdoor Christmas market. Not things that are available in my small town!

  • I love, love, love tacos with all the fresh, pickled and creamy toppings I can get! My native Minneapolis has TONS of great taquerias all over the city, which is my first and favorite place to eat them.
    I just went to Lebanon and fell in love with the extremely fresh, beautifully prepared and presented food we ate at every meal. I would be really happy to get the chance to try my hand at it myself!

  • Growing up in the midwest, t was always food you could only get at the state fair, corn dogs, ice cream, roasted corn on the cob. Not really street food, but brings back summer memories.

  • In my hometown, Iloilo City, Philippines, you can find the best fish balls at a stall outside the Molo Cathedral. They’re not made from frozen stuff. They’re freshly made from real fish! It’s the best street food ever and I miss it so bad!

  • I spring of 2014, my wife – in the early stages of pregnancy – and I visited Oaxaca, Mexico. One night, in darkness, at maybe around 9 or 10pm, we walked across town from where we were staying in order to hit up the sidewalk tlayuda stall on Calle de los Libres. These particular tlayudas – big corn tortillas smothered with a bit of pig fat, a paste of black beans, grilled meat and cheese, then folded and charred over charcoal – are the ultimate late night street food. It was a revelation.

  • Churros! My family lived in a small town in Andalusia for half a year when my brother and I were young, and we attended the local school. Every day when school let out for the midday lunch break, the churro man would be waiting outside, offering freshly fried churros made on the spot in his huge kettle. They were piped into a large “O” shape, then threaded onto a long, thin grass reed whose ends were knotted together, like a big bracelet, then handed over to us. They were such a wonderful treat.

  • On the streets of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, we would start our day with a breakfast of a fried egg wrapped in naan from a street vendor Delicious! A comfort food found in a foreign land.

  • My favorite street food is hot dogs. I had the best in the streets of Chile. They are known as Completos and are topped with avocado, diced onions, and tomatoes.

  • I grew up in Sevilla, Spain, and my favorite street food is Churros con Chocolate. I must have been in elementary school the first time I tried it. The churros are fried dough, and you dip them in hot chocolate. The chocolate is scalding, and as a kid I did not have the patience to wait till it cooled, so I burned my tongue many a time!

  • My favorite Street Food is Gyros. I first tried them from Agha’s Gyro Express when I moved to San Jose a few years ago. It still remains one of my favorite places!

  • I have fond memories of sharing beignets out of a paper bag while walking with friends along the river in New Orleans … covered in powdered sugar, and laughing at each other. The sharing element of street food is magic. “Try a little of this …”

  • My favorite street food is the Egyptial style shwarma. I was in Cayro for four days and I had this delicious shawarma sandwish every day. I was hooked! The sandwish was very simple but explosive with flavor, the meat was mixes with some veggies and placed into Arabic bread with a creamy sause on top. AMAZING!

  • Jambalaya outside of the French Market in New Orleans. Bought from a street vendor and the best version of this dish I have ever had.

  • what a beautiful recipe! similarly, the street food i am dreaming about is doner kebab … the first time i ate it was after a long night dancing, a chilly spring night in berlin. everyone and anyone was waiting in line at the tiny stalls, since there is little reason to be awake that late unless you can hold a warm doner in your two hands, that garlicky tahini sauce wafting around you.

  • Bread with za’atar from a street vendor in Beirut. While my folks played softball in the American Embassy league, and we little ones ran around, climbed trees, gossiped, and did what kids all over the world have done forever. Circa 1972. Love that country and city and miss it so.

  • When I studied at the ICCS in Rome, I developed a deep love of pizza, specifically pizza al taglio. Certainly there are a million and one places to enjoy this quintessential Roman street food, some excellent and some not so much. My favorite pizza was the potato from Pizzeria da Simone in Monteverde Vecchio, which I probably ate at least twice a week. It was the perfect combination of crispy crust and soft, tender potato that somehow was always exactly what I needed.

  • When studying at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, I unsurprisingly developed both a deep love for and strong opinions about pizza. The quintessential Roman style, pizza al taglio, makes for the perfect snack or quick lunch. Throughout the city there are innumerable places to pick up a slice, some excellent and some far from it. My favorite slices in the city were the potato and the squash blossom from Pizzeria da Simone in Monteverde Vecchio.

    • I worked in the admin office of ICCS as an undergrad filing all the applications that came in and making sure that the labels for people who were accepted (and waitlisted and not) were prepared properly and generally keeping things in order!!! -K

  • Doner kebab in Germany – easy to find in so many cities we stopped it. Later that year, it was nutella crepes in Paris.

  • Takoyaki! The first time I legitimately had it as street food was at the foot of the Fushimi inari shrine in Japan. They were so great. I can get them in NYC once in a while but it doesn’t compare to the fabulous experience of that awesome little stall. Also, a dear friend got married in India and for her rehearsal dinner had carts with all of her favorite street foods that her western guests (she married a European man) could try without worry, especially for liquidy things like pani puri. In addition to being totally delicious, it was super thoughtful and a lot of fun!

  • Bagels (with cream cheese, of course) for breakfast from a cart at Broadway & 122nd St in NYC was the perfect way to start the day while doing a summer session at Teachers College. I had had bagels before, but I think that NYC bagels are in a class by themselves!

  • My favorite street food is gyros stuffed with crispy fries. It’s the perfect filling, savory treat – especially with lots of tangy tzatziki to dip the fries in and drip down your chin. I had them for the first time on “Greek Street,” in the Latin Quarter of Paris. As a broke college student studying in Paris it was one of the only meals I could afford out.

  • Pho served on a busy street corner in Hanoi, Vietnam. We had just arrived on the night train from Sapa and couldn’t check into our hotel. It was about 7am and an older woman was cooking delicious broth in a big vat over a kerosine burner. We joined the workers getting a quick breakfast on little plastic stools. I could have bathed in that broth. It was better than anything I ate at fancy restaurants that whole trip.

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