On Shish Kebabs

Who has never heard of shish kebab? In Turkish, shish kebab, literally means “gobbets of meat roasted on a spit or skewers.” Probably the most famous preparation for grilled lamb, there seems to be countless recipes. It is said that shish kebab was born over the open field fires of the soldiers of the Turkic tribes that first invaded Anatolia, who used their swords to grill meat, as they pushed west from their homelands in Central Asia. Given the obvious simplicity of spit-roasting meat over a fire, I suspect its genesis is earlier. There is iconographical evidence of Byzantine Greeks cooking shish kebabs. But surely the descriptions of skewering strips of meat for broiling in Homer’s Odyssey must count for an early shish kebab.

    In the Arab world, the same preparation is called shish kabab or lahm mishwy (grilled meat). The true shish kebabs are pieces of marinated lamb affixed to flat or four-sided bladed metal skewers that are grilled over a fire suspended by a skewer holder, without the meat ever touching the grilling grate. The varieties of marinades are wide and could include any combination of olive oil, lemon juice, onion juice, milk, yoghurt, rigani (wild marjoram), crumbled bay leaves, cinnamon, allspice, and other spices. Using tomatoes, onion wedges, and green bell pepper to separate the meat on the skewers has been suggested by several food writers to be a modern concoction invented by Turkish restaurateurs to make the skewers look more attractive to customers.

    The variety of kebabs are seemingly endless. The word kebab means “to roast,” which is what grilling is, properly speaking. Besides the familiar shish kebab there are orman kebabi which is whole roasted lamb, çoban kebabi a shepherd’s-style roast of meat stuck through a stick that is driven into the ground before an open-field fire; hacci osman kebabi, a roast on a revolving spit; süt kebabi is meat parboiled in milk, then skewered and roasted; kushbashi kebabi is another skewered and roasted kebab; koyun kebabi is a whole lamb roasted in a covered pit; kabarma kebabi is a grilled spatchcocked fowl (split open at the belly, kept whole, and flattened with a mallet); kefenli kebabi is roast meat wrapped in a “shroud” of bread. Every Turkish cookbook has a chapter called kebaplar, where dozens more recipes exist.