Shawarma-spiced Chicken Skewers
My return to sustained grilling this year has been severely hampered by a number of factors. This situation has become especially frustrating as the perfect outdoor whether has been upon us here in North Carolina for well over a month, so I finally just forced myself to drop a number of obstacles to get in a simple grilled meal of shawarma-spiced chicken skewers with saffron rice and za'atar bread. This still was not without its challenges though—on the day I originally planned to cook this meal, I became so inundated with work that I had no time to prep the meal and ended up chowing down on leftovers from the fridge instead. I then had to rush out of town the next day, and totally forgot to freeze the chicken and try to preserve what else I bought, so when I came home a few days later and found everything still in a fine state for consumption, I whipped up the meal I was hoping to have four days earlier and basked in eating grill-side on a beautiful and crisp evening.
I chose these skewers not only because they were relatively simple to put together, but I've fine-tuned my chicken shawarma enough over the years that I didn't have really have to do any experimentation to come out with something I knew would work well and would love. My previous shawarma recipes were all meant to be stuffed inside a pita with various other fillers, and since that was not going to be the case here, I did tinker with the spices just a tad to dial back the heat and introduce a couple additional seasonings to optimize the flavor for standalone eating.
For the protein, I opted for tried-and-true chicken thighs, which deliver on flavor while remaining quite juicy when cooked in high heat scenarios, such as grilling. The one disadvantage of chicken thighs though is that they don't cube up as perfectly as breasts do, so I often cut larger strips that I can then fold over when skewering to create chunks more akin to one-inch cubes.
The shawarma seasoning is quite heavy handed and I felt a tempering sauce was going to be needed, so I pretty much used almost all ingredients I had out already to make a simple dip. The base was Greek yogurt because that's what I had on hand, with a bit of tahini mixed in. Then it was lemon juice, garlic, cumin, coriander, and sumac that built up more of a depth that I knew would compliment the chicken quite well.
I would usually make some sort of accompanying vegetable salad to go with a meal such as this, but didn't this day, so to still get a little bit of that idea in, I decided to thread some red onion onto the skewers between the chicken chunks. A good piece of advice I learned early on in grilling is to always use onions in stacks of a few layers in this scenario, which stay on the stick much better than single pieces.
After getting the grill going, I first cooked off six pieces of za'atar bread while the fire was at its hottest, and munched down on one of those incredibly fresh and satisfying rounds while I then cooked up the skewers. The coals were still pretty damn hot, so the chicken gained great color very quickly and clocked in at under ten minutes of cooking, which occasional turning, until they were fully done.
While I do grill all year around, there's always that moment in Spring where I'm really kickstarted into full on outdoor cooking mode, and in 2023, that happened with the first bite of these skewers. This shawarma marinade hits a lot of deep earthy, spicy, and citrusy notes that deliver the immensity of flavor that I'm attracted to, so I was immediately taken with what came off the grill. That depth did benefit from the cooling action of the sauce, while the red onion ended up being more key than I had considered with a sweet crunch that would have been a missed opportunity if omitted. It's been an unusually busy entry into spring for me, but after finishing this meal, I knew I needed to reprioritize getting back to the grill that I take so much comfort and enjoyment in and make use of the ideal weather now because the misery of a North Carolina summer is going to hit in the not to distant future.
Shawarma-spiced Chicken Skewers
- Yield 4-6 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Inactive 2 Hours
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 2 Hours 30 Minutes
- For the Sauce
- 3/4 cup Greek yogurt
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice from 1-2 lemons
- 1 tablespoon tahini
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic (about 1 medium clove)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon sumac
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For the Chicken
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice from 1-2 lemons
- 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon sumac
- 2 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless, chicken thighs
- 1 large red onion, sliced into 1 1/2-inch cubes (about 3 onion layers each)
- To make the sauce: In a small bowl, mix together yogurt, lemon juice, tahini, parsley, garlic, cumin, coriander, and sumac. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer sauce to an airtight container and place in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
- To make the chicken: In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, paprika, black pepper, cumin, salt, turmeric, coriander, hot paprika, and sumac. Place cubed chicken in marinade and toss to evenly coat. Cover bowl, place in refrigerator, and marinate for 2 to 4 hours.
- Thread chicken onto skewers so each piece is touching the next, placing stacks of onion between every second or third piece of chicken as desired.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Grill chicken, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides and center of meat registers between 160-165°F on an instant read thermometer, about 10 minutes total. Transfer skewers to platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve immediately with sauce for dipping.