History of the Kebab

Our July Meeting is designated as “Picnic On a Stic,” that is all kinds of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables cooked on metal or wooden skewers, known as a kebab, brochette, satay, yakitori, shashlik, and souvlaki. Kebabs are made from chunks of beef, chicken, lamb, seafood and vegetables. (Pork is seldom used because kebabs originated in muslim countries). Several Middle East and Eastern Europe countries prefer to make kebabs from minced meats mixed with herbs and spices then shaped like an oval burger on the skewer.

The preferred cooking method is over a very hot charcoal fire, however a hot, covered gas grill will also work. Traditionally the skewers are served by removing the cooked food with a piece of bread on a large plate, surrounded by rice, couscous, or bulgur and vegetables. The delicious juice filled bread is given to the elders as an appetizer. Nowadays, most people like to wrap the skewered food covered with sauces in bread, such as pita, flatbread or naan. Skewered meats or chicken, eaten out-of-hand, are a universal street food no matter where you travel in this world.

The practice of cooking meat on a stick or skewer originates in prehistorical times, when early humans began cooking with fire. Excavations in Santorini, Greece, unearthed stone sets of barbecue for skewers used before the 17th century BC. The kebab, as it came to be known, predates Turkey's Ottoman Empire which spread the popular meat style around the Mediterranean to the Middle East, North Africa, and Greece. As time passed Kebab became a common dish in the cuisines of India, Asia, North and South America, eventually worldwide.

Some say the dish originated in Persia where a similar term has been used since the Middle Ages to designate skewers containing tiny pieces of meat. "Kebab" referred to meat, more specifically lamb or mutton. The lamb was often interleaved with pieces of tomato, onion, and green pepper, making it a meal. This is the shish kebab style that was popularized in the United States, where beef and chicken are preferred over lamb and pork. Kebab styles are unlimited, let’s review typical recipes from from around the globe.

Turkey, the “Stans” and the Balkan States

The classic shish kebab is usually lamb or beef, marinated in a blend of yogurt, oil, herbs (oregano, mint, sumac) and spices and served with tomatoes, onions and peppers. 

Adana kebabs are also popular, they are prepared from minced meat mixed with onions, herbs and spices also called Koftah. Souvlaki,​ Greek skewers are marinated with a blend of oregano, thyme, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and onions. Another version is a marinade of tomato paste, herbs and onions. souvlaki are served  in a pita with tzatziki sauce, made with shredded cucumbers, garlic, oregano and yogurt.

Middle East, and Persian Kebabs Persian kebabs, Koobideh, are generally minced lamb, beef or chicken, combined with minced onions, garlic, eggs and saffron and  served with Chelow Kabab, Iran’s national dish. Chelow Kabab is steamed, saffroned Iranian rice. The other countries in the middle East have distinct recipes for the type of meat or poultry. Shish Taouk - chicken kebobs are blended with olive oil, lemon, garlic and cumin. Beef and lamb kebabs are prepared with a similar mixture with one or more of these herbs and spices - coriander, parsley, sumac, mint, saffron, black pepper and red pepper, and served with sauces made from tahini or yogurt.

India’s seekh kabobs include start with lamb or chicken, either cut in pieces or ground. They are usually very spicy, using onions, mint, cilantro, ginger, chilis, cumin, coriander, and a curry powder such as garam masala. A Northern version is minced meat shaped into patties called chapli. Kebabs are served with either, raita, (cucumbers, garlic, mint or cilantro and yogurt), or a chutney.

One of the most popular Asian kebabs or satay come from Indonesia. They are usually cooked and served with a peanut sauce including peanut butter, sweet soy, brown sugar, garlic, and lime juice. Southeast Asians prefer chicken over other meats and rely on a sweet marinade heavily laced with kejap manis (sweet soy) and molasses.

Japanese kababs, usually chicken, are the other popular Asian skewers, the signature styles are called yakitori and teriyaki. Teriyaki sauce is made from soy  sauce, saki, sugar, garlic, ginger and seasonings, while yakitori includes mirin, a sweet rice wine. Yakitori is the preferred marinade and sauce for grilling chicken and meat. Teriyaki dishes are stir fried or braised.

Let’s jump to South Africa where they cook lamb or beef kebabs (sosaties) on the braai (barbecue), a very popular social ritual in South Africa, much like the Aussie “cooking own the barbie.” Sosaties are marinated in a spicy curry marinade and threaded onto skewers with apricots and onion. If you are really adventurous, try their peri peri chicken. Just mix a typical marinade of lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, olive oil, chopped onion and HOT bird peppers. Just be sure to keep a fire extinguisher handy. 

Americans have borrowed kebabs from every where, although there is one unique and beloved recipe from New York State, called “Spiedies.” Cubed chicken, beef or lamb is marinated one to 3 days in a mix of oil lemon, vinegar, basil, oregano, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper, then skewered and grilled on a hot fire. The chicken or meat is eaten in fresh Italian bread or buns (no sauce) and usually served with salt-roasted potatoes and a salad.

The Portuguese love espetadas, a beef kebab marinated in wine and bay leaves then roasted on an open fire. They are served on fresh Portuguese bread.

In China, one of the most delicious ways of serving skewered lamb is a simple combination of ground cumin, chili flakes, salt and Sichuan pepper. Interestingly, this dish is popular as street food  in Beijing in the Northeast and Yangisar, Xinxiang Province, thousands of miles away, on the Western border of China and Tajikistan. The peoples on the border are Uighurs, who consider  themselves Turkic and dislike the Chinese, except when it comes to lamb skewers. (In all fairness, they have modified the recipe to include ground coriander.)

Be prepared to enjoy an amazing food experience as our culinary committee serves six different types of kebabs from around the world. And don’t forget to bring a cold salad,* appetizer or dessert.

Your favorite Pasta, bean, grains, potato, vegetable, lettuce, or tomato salad.

Previous Culinary Themes

June 2016

May 2016

April 2016

Culinary Themes         2016 - Herbs and Spices of the Empires

July 2016

Picnic on a "Stic"

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