Shawarma spiced chicken with tahini yoghurt

Easy and delicious twist on shawarma style chicken, inspired by a restaurant meal I had in Tel Aviv.
Chicken shawarma with tahini yoghurt - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul
Chicken shawarma with tahini yoghurt - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul
Chicken shawarma with tahini yoghurt - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul
Vidar Bergum

A “deconstructed” chicken shawarma at a Tel Aviv restaurant left a lasting impression on me. This recreation of that dish is just as scrumptious as the one I had nearly a decade ago. Juicy, shawarma spiced chicken served on a bed of tahini yoghurt with chopped salad alongside. Simpler to make than it sounds, and super delicious!

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.

What is shawarma anyway?

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, which was really not a shawarma at all but rather shawarma spiced chicken. It was one of several dishes as part of an affordable “business lunch” set meal in an upmarket restaurant, .

Admittedly, the title of the dish is a little misleading. 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. 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, but prepared and served in a different way.

And what a way!

Juicy shawarma spiced chicken with delicious flavours!

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 I’ve long since run out of it. 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.

How to serve shawarma spiced chicken

In the spirit of the “deconstructed” shawarma, I like serving the chicken and salad on a bed of tahini yoghurt. Alongside, some fresh bread (pita or lavash goes really well, but so does pide, focaccia or even fresh sourdough bread).

To make it a meal, I’d start off with a nice salad and then serve this as a main. Because with shawarma spiced chicken, tahini yoghurt and bread, you need nothing else.

Make it a sandwich!

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in reconstructing the whole thing and serving 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.

In that case, I’ve given some hopefully helpful tips in the notes below. I’d definitely add some pickles on the side – even a splash of chili sauce if you have one lurking in the cupboard.

The recipe serves 2-4, depending on what else (if anything) you’re offering up.

Shawarma spiced chicken with tahini yoghurt in traditional saucepan seen from eye level

Chicken shawarma with tahini yoghurt

Yield: 2-4 portions

Ingredients

  • 600 g chicken thigh fillet (breast if you must), cut into strips
  • 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
  • water
  • salt and pepper

Shawarma marinade

  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 tsp Urfa pepper (isot biber
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • small pinch of ground cloves
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp ground pepper

Chopped salad

  • 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
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper

Tahini yoghurt

  • 400 g yoghurt (preferably greek style)
  • 100 g tahini
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Make the marinade by mixing all the marinade ingredients. Mix well with the chicken, making sure all pieces are properly coated on all sides. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or overnight if you can.
  2. Make the tahini yoghurt by mixing the yoghurt, tahini and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Make the chopped salat by mixing the tomatoes, cucumber, extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  4. Heat a large, thick bottomed frying pan over high heat. Fry the onion in the sunflower oil until coloured, 2-3 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure to give the onion time to brown properly.
  5. Lower the heat to medium. Add the chicken along with its marinade. Continue cooking for a minute or two, stirring regularly. Add a few tablespoons of water to the mix to allow some of the spices to release from the chicken and to avoid the spices burning. You only want enough water for it to look juicy and attractive, but not enough for a proper sauce. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through, adding more water if necessary.
  6. Spoon the tahini yoghurt to a serving dish or individual plates. Top with the chicken, chopped salad and fresh coriander.
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Notes

To make chicken shawarma style wraps

  • 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.
  • Middle Eastern lavash or pita works best, but use whatever wraps you prefer.

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Hey, there!

I’m Vidar. For the past few years, I’ve been exploring the foods of Turkey, the Middle East and beyond from my house in Balat, Istanbul. Let me show you around!

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