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Meat on a Stick : Of Skewer Events in the Shish Kebab Zone

August 17, 1995|By CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The original shish kebab, they say, was broiled over campfires on Turkish nomads' swords.

Oh, sure. Give me a break. A nomad warrior, whose life depended on his razor-sharp blade, would ruin the temper of his sword's steel by sticking it in a fire, just to make lunch? In reality, shish kebab must have been invented many times in many places, whenever it occurred to somebody that you could cook little bits of meat without burning your fingers if you impaled them on something long and sharp, like a stick.

Traditional nomads don't even eat much shish kebab. Most of the year, they scarcely eat meat at all because they're saving their flocks to sell in town. So when an occasion comes for cooking meat--like entertaining an honored guest--they're inclined to do it big-time. Bedouins will roast a lamb whole and serve it with mountains of buttered rice.

We probably think of shish kebab as nomad food because of its Near Eastern associations. At the time of the Crusades, Europeans tended to cook large hunks of meat, even whole animals, on large rotating spits, but the Saracens mostly cooked smaller pieces on little skewers. (The reason had a lot to do with the fact that small pieces of meat cook faster. Firewood was more expensive in the Near East than in forest-covered Europe.)

Nice though large hunks of meat can be, shish kebab is more responsive to marinating, so the variations are endless. Marinades make the difference between the rustic comforts of Afghanistan, the heady elegance of Iran, the herb-mania of the Caucasus and the perfumed spiciness of North Africa.

Although there are lots of regional styles, certain shish kebab motifs show up over and over everywhere from Morocco to India. Garlic or onion marinades. A garnish of raw onion sliced paper-thin, often mixed with sliced tomatoes. Fresh herbs. A pita full of shish kebab topped with sliced onions and cilantro. These could come from just about anywhere in the shish kebab zone.

In the Middle Ages, the Arabs liked sweet-and-sour marinades--say, vinegar, raisins and pomegranate juice--although a lot of their shish kebabs were simply rubbed with garlic and oil, perhaps with a few flavorings like mint and coriander.

To judge from medieval cookbooks, the preferred cooking method was to stick the skewers in a tandoor oven, like an Indian tandoori kebab, rather than cooking over a brazier of glowing charcoal in the back-yard barbecue style, which is how shish kebab is more usually cooked today. One reason was that medieval Arabs liked to put a pan of rice pudding on the floor of the oven to catch the juices from the broiling meat.

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A 13th-Century cookbook gave some quaint instructions for cooking chicken this way if you didn't have a tandoor. You were supposed to "excavate" a hole in the wall of your house (a brick or stone house, of course) big enough to build a charcoal fire, then stick your chicken in front of it to cook. This way, you could catch those juices in your pan of rice pudding. (But hey, don't try this at home.)

Sometimes medieval cooks would put a skewer of meat in a pot and seal the lid, making a sort of Dutch oven, and stick the whole business in a tandoor. Then they started putting the meat in the pot without a skewer, and eventually there were a lot of dishes called kebabs that were actually stewed or even fried. This was particularly true in Turkey, which has dozens of non-grilled dishes with names like tas kebabi and islim kebabi , so the Turks coined the term sis kebabi (skewer kebab) to refer to the old-fashioned kind.

In many places, shish kebab is just pieces of meat on a skewer, perhaps alternating with bits of lamb fat. What most of us think of as full-scale shish kebab--meat alternating with cherry tomatoes and pieces of onion and bell pepper--is the Turkish sis kebabi or Greek souvlaki . In Istanbul, the meat is cut in fairly small pieces ( kusbasi , "the size of a bird's head") and marinated in onion juice and a little oil, perhaps with some bay and thyme. Greek cooks are a little more likely to use a garlic and wine or lemon juice marinade and such louder herbs as rosemary.

Shish kebab is mostly a street food. You take a flat bread in your hand like a washcloth and strip the meat off the skewer with it, and presto--there's your sandwich. The Turks consider it a mere snack and wouldn't dream of serving it to a guest as a main course.

But Turkey, particularly the southern part of the country, has a number of fairly elaborate shish kebabs that are served on plates. First there's a layer of pita, then a layer of meat, then various garnishes. One variety comes with peppers, onions, tomatoes and yogurt sauce. Another, made from spicy marinated meat alternating on the skewer with slices of eggplant, is topped with tomatoes, onions, parsley and the sour spice sumac.

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