Sometimes life events take on unexpected importance. A few years ago, I booked a last-minute flight to visit a friend in Tel Aviv. Expecting nothing more than a nice week with my friend, I returned with nothing less than a new approach to the food I was eating.
The way fresh ingredients were prepared, the way they were combined, the herbs, the presentation – everything was incredibly inspiring. I took it all in. And back in London, as was my home back then, I slowly but surely adapted much of it into my own cooking style. It shapes me to this day.
This chicken shawarma with tahini yoghurt is an attempt at recreating one of the best dishes I ate on that trip: a deconstructed chicken shawarma, server as one of several dishes as part of an affordable “business lunch” set meal in an upmarket restaurant. The title of the dish is a little misleading, however. Shawarma is arabic but assumed to come from the Turkish çevirmek, meaning to turn. As such, shawarma and döner (Turkish for rotating) is essentially the same thing: enormous amounts of meat stacked on a skewer which rotates around some sort of heat source.
Still, the two words bear different connotations. Döner is Turkish, shawarma Arabic. The spicing is different. And, therefore, so is the flavour.
So what do I mean, or rather, what does the restaurant I ate this dish at mean, by deconstructed shawarma? Quite simply the flavours of a shawarma wrap, as it is prepared Israel, served in a different way. And what a way! The gently spiced chicken is perfectly balanced by a tahini yoghurt, a handful of coriander adding not just freshness but binding the whole thing together. Simple and complex all at the same time – perhaps this is why it works so well.
I long used a spice mix I bought in the market in Tel Aviv to make this dish, but a couple of years ago I ran out and I never found a decent replacement. So I’ve been experimenting with various homemade spice mixtures (try googling shawarma spice mix and you’ll see why self experimentation is the only way forward). I’m getting close. It’s not exactly as the one I had. But it’s really good. Just the right amount of spice and fairly mild. Because shawarma is supposed to be mild. If you want head, add fresh or pickled chili.
When it comes to the chicken, thigh filets are far superior to breast for this dish. They make for a much juicier and tempting dish, and I wouldn’t even consider breast if you can get hold of thigh. But if you must, breast also works. It’ll just be a bit dried and less tasty. Serve with some fresh bread on the side; nothing else is needed. To make it a meal, I’d start off with a nice salad and then serve this as a main. Because with chicken shawarma with tahini yoghurt, you need nothing else except bread.
And of course there is nothing wrong with reconstructing the whole thing and serve it as a wrap or stuffed in pita. You can even serve it taco night style by putting all the constituent parts separately on the table, allowing people to build their own wraps or stuffed pitas, as the case may be. I would increase the amount of chopped salad, go lighter on the tahini yoghurt (even reduce the amount of tahini in it to make it fresher and juicier) and definitely serve some pickles on the side – even a splash of chili sauce if you have one lurking in the cupboard. Serves 2-4, depending on what else (if anything) is on offer.
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp sweet paprika
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp isot biber/urfa biber or 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- small pinch of ground cloves
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- juice of 1,5 lemons (each halve used on a separate occasion, see instructions)
- 600 g chicken thigh fillet (breast if you must), cut into strips
- 400 g yoghurt (preferably greek style)
- 100 g tahini
- 2 tomatoes, cut into 1 cm dice
- 3-4 Middle Eastern cucumbers, cut into 1 cm dice, or 1 large cucumber, core removed and cut into 1 cm dice
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil or other neutral oil
- 2 onions, peeled, halved and cut into 3/4 cm slices
- 20 g (small bunch) fresh coriander or another herb if you prefer
- salt and pepper
- See tips below for making wraps or stuffed pitas.
- Make the marinade by mixing the spices (the first 7 ingredients) with 1/2 tsp salt and some pepper. Mix with chopped garlic, olive oil and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Mix well with the chicken, making sure all pieces are properly coated on all sides, cover and refridgerate for two hours or overnight if you can.
- Make the tahini yoghurt by mixing the yoghurt, tahini and the huice of 1/2 lemon. Season to taste.
- Make the chopped salat by mixing the chopped tomatoes, cucumber, extra virgin olive oil and the juice of the last 1/2 lemon. Sizes of tomatoes and cucumbers vary but you want roughly equal amounts of tomato and cucumber. Season to taste.
- Fry the onion in the sunflower oil in a large pan over high heat until coloured on the outside but retaining its crisp, 2-3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, add the chicken and marinade and continue cooking while stirring regularly for a minute or two. Add a few tablespoons of water to mix the allow some of the spices to release from the chicken and to avoid the spices burning too much. You don’t want so much it becomes a runny sauce, but enough for it to look juicy and attractive. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through.
- Spoon the tahini yoghurt to a serving dish or individual plates and top with the chicken, chopped salad and fresh coriander.
Tips for making wraps or stuffed pita
- Make the tahini yoghurt thinner and more acidic by using a little less tahini. Use it as you would sour cream in a Mexican/Texmex style wrap. I’d also use a little more chopped salad, garnish with a few pickles (choose your favourite) and add a good splash of chili sauce, if you like.
- If there are a few of you, serve each part separately and let everyone make their own wrap, just like you’d normally eat tacos or fajitas. Use whatever wraps you prefer (or pita! Pita is always good).
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