Chicken Shawarma Recipe

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When I think of shawarma, I envision a large vertical spit slowly rotating and coated with juicy, flavorful meat in a cone-like shape. The meat’s exterior is browned and crispy and shaved off into thin strips for serving. But in recent years, and with the advent of globalization, shawarma has transformed into a myriad of unique dishes, each with its own twist. 

Traditionally a Middle Eastern meat-based food sold in shops, it’s not uncommon nowadays to find eclectic spins on the original, such as vegan “cauliflower shawarma” and “chicken shawarma hummus bowls” or “shawarma poutine.” 

All About Chicken Shawarma 

Chicken shawarma’s ingredients, method, and style vary from region to region. Usually, the chicken marinates in spices and an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or yogurt. The chicken can marinate for as little as one hour, up to overnight. While this shawarma recipe doesn’t use the traditional technique of a vertical spit, it’s inspired by the flavors of the original dish.

  • Chicken thighs: Here, we use boneless skinless chicken thighs because they roast quickly in the oven without drying out. 
  • Extra-virgin olive oil: Oil adds moisture to the marinade and the resulting chicken. 
  • Spices: Chicken shawarma typically uses a mix of warm earthy spices. I marinate the chicken in a blend of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cumin, cardamom, and garlic powder. This might seem like a lot of spices, but that combination helps develop a complex, balanced flavor. Smoked paprika is an optional ingredient but often brings color to the chicken. 
  • Lemon juice: Lemon juice helps cut the deep earthy flavors of the spices, bringing a bright, tangy flavor to the chicken. If marinating the chicken for more than two hours, reserve the lemon juice and add it to the marinade two hours before cooking. Otherwise, the lemon juice can denature proteins in chicken, leading to an unpleasant, mushy texture. 

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan


A Short History of Shawarma (Shawerma)

Shawarma’s origins hail from Turkey, where the technique of grilling meat on a vertical stack produced the doner kebab. That technique made its way to other regions of the Middle East, adapting and changing to fuse with the local culture, eventually leading to the creation of shawarma as we know it. 

Traditional Elements of Shawarma

As I set out to develop a recipe for chicken shawarma, I wanted to learn more about the dish’s history. I scanned my own memories to concoct a basic set of ingredients but noticed many differences across street food carts, fast-casual restaurants, and traditional dining. Some versions featured thick, puffy pita, while others wrapped the meat in a thin flatbread. At Taim, a fast-casual restaurant I frequented in New York City, I recalled picking out a rainbow of sauces and condiments, from harissa to amba (a tart, pungent mango-based sauce) to tahini sauce. 

To better understand some of these distinctions, I spoke to a few friends from different regions of the Middle East who grew up with shawarma. 

  • The pita: Doaa Elkady, a Cairo-born New York City-based photographer and co-founder of Spice Tree Organics, told me that Arab countries typically serve the meat “in a large, thin, pliable flatbread that can be wrapped and sliced, rather than served in thick pockets.” The benefit, here, is that the thinner texture of the bread, typically known as shraak, markouk, or khubz arab, “allows you to get plenty of toppings and meat in every bite.” On the other hand, shawarma in Israel often features a soft, thick pita and less frequently a thinner flatbread called laffa
  • The sauces: Tahini sauce (usually a mix of tahini paste, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt) and toum (toumeya), (a creamy, pungent garlic-based sauce) are the two most common sauces across these regions. But Doaa notes, “Now you can find sauce options ranging from white sauce to yogurt sauce to dakkous (a spicy tomato sauce) to shatta (hot sauce).” Shani Litwin and Itai Hadari, two Israeli shawarma enthusiasts, informed me that in addition to tahini, amba, and schug (hot sauce) are common pairings.

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan


Ways to Cook Chicken Shawarma

Though this recipe calls for roasting shawarma in the oven, there are several options for cooking the chicken:

  • Oven-roasted: Oven roasting yields juicy chicken thighs surrounded by a pool of flavorful, spiced chicken fat. The chicken can roast on the ‘convection roast’ setting for a slightly crispier exterior (and a faster bake) or the standard ‘bake’ setting; both yielded moist interiors in testing.
  • Stovetop: You can sauté the marinated chicken on the stovetop for a quicker weeknight dinner. If attempting this method, cut the chicken into thin strips before marinating. 
  • Grill: Skip the oven and stovetop, and try grilling the chicken for a crispy, charred exterior. 

Tips and Tricks for Making Shawarma

This recipe is flexible, so you can make it work on a weeknight or prep ahead of time for a dinner party. To ensure a successful dinner, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Keep the chicken in its juices: Don’t throw away the pool of liquid rendered from the chicken fat. You can spoon some onto the chicken before serving, ensuring it retains all of that delicious flavor. 
  • Broil the chicken for additional browning: On its own, roasting the chicken won’t yield a crispy, browned exterior. After the chicken bakes at 425°F, you can broil it for 1-2 minutes to brown it further.
  • Warm your pita: A warmed, slightly toasty pita can make the dish all the more enjoyable. Wrap your pita bread in aluminum foil and place in a 350°F oven for 5 to 10 minutes until warmed through. Keep the warmed bread wrapped in foil or a dishcloth before serving.
  • Use ample sauce: Thicker pitas will need more sauce (and filling) to cut through the breadiness. If the wrap tastes “bready,” try adding more tahini sauce. 

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan


Swaps and Substitutions

  • Swap the lemon juice for 1/4 cup of yogurt, especially if you’re marinating the chicken overnight. Yogurt is gentler on chicken than lemon juice and can handle an overnight marinade. 
  • Instead of making the spice blend from scratch, you can purchase a shawarma spice blend (I like Spice Tree Organics blend) or Lebanese seven spice. These blends are incredibly flavorful and save you a lot of time!

How to Serve Chicken Shawarma

There are so many ways to serve shawarma and so many delicious toppings to serve it with. Instead of serving shawarma in a pita, you can also serve it with rice or a salad. Here are a few of our other favorite pairings and toppings:

  • Sliced lettuce and tomatoes
  • Tangy cabbage salad, fattoush, or tabbouleh 
  • Onions, cucumbers, and herbs
  • Pickled cucumbers and pickled turnips

Sauces: And of course, a good tahini sauce is essential. The recipe provided (adapted from Michael Solomonov) is nutty and slightly tart, a perfect pairing for the chicken. Toum/toumeya, amba, and hot sauces are great options. 

This recipe makes a large batch of chicken, enough for 6 to 8 people, ideal for entertaining. You can marinate the chicken, prep any sauces and sides the night before, and then roast the chicken just before your guests arrive. 

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan


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