Skip to main content
Boom Calendar for Grown-ups ~ Curated for Us @ Fifty Plus
Share this article

Shish kebabs, hot off the grill, make great summer eating. 

These fragrant skewered treats evolved over many centuries from their origins among the nomadic peoples in Asia Minor. Shish kebabs once were simply chunks of lamb roasted near fire after seasoning and skewering onto a sharpened stick or iron rod or, more romantically, a Turkish warrior’s saber. They grew widely in sophistication and geographic reach. 

Roasting or grilling meat is ancient. Until five thousand years ago, when terracotta pots were developed that permitted boiling, direct cooking by fire was the only way to make hunted or herded animal flesh more palatable and nutritionally valuable. 

“Kebab” (also kebap or kabob), meaning grilled meat in Turkish, derives from Old Persian, but has origins back into Aramaic and even into Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Kebab applies to grilled meat in general, not specifically on a skewer. The “shish” is from the Turkish “şiş,” meaning skewer or saber. 

Developing and refining skewered kebabs is associated with the Turks as they settled and flourished in Anatolia over the past ten centuries. And being at the end of the spice routes from Asia, Turks had access to, and skillfully used, seasonings. But kebabs extend far beyond modern Türkiye, especially among the Muslim Turkic and Iranic peoples of Central Asia, including the Uighurs of western China. With Ottoman Turkish ascendancy in Asia Minor and Ottoman imperial control over the Arab Middle East, southeastern Europe, and North Africa, Turkish kebabs spread to non-Turkish and non-Muslim populations and became part of their cuisines too. 

For skewered kebabs the standard meat is lamb, but that varies. Local names for shish kebabs also vary: “Souvlaki” among Greeks (meaning a small skewer), “Shashlik” among Russians (a variant of the Turkish “şiş”), “Brochettes” among the French (diminutive of “broche,” a spit,), “Pinchos” in Spain (“spikes”). 

An important skewered kebab not called “shish” is the Turkish Döner Kebab (meaning “turning” kebab). Slabs of seasoned meat are impaled onto a large upright metal skewer that turns in front of grills (originally walls of glowing charcoals). Then the hot, sizzling exterior is shaved down with a long knife and the cut meat rolled in flat bread. 

The Döner has gone worldwide, particularly as street vendor food. Greeks call it “Gyro” (meaning ‘turning”) and introduced it to the U.S.  Arabs call it “Shwarma” (Arabic for “turning”). And Lebanese immigrants introduced Shwarma to Mexico in the 1930s, calling it “Al Pastor” (“shepherd’s manner”). Originally made of lamb and served on wheat flatbread, it’s now pork and served on corn tortillas. It’s my favorite taco. 

That’s a long journey to grilling our own shish kebabs. (But an old saying maintains that “hunger is the best sauce.”) Here’s how I prepare Turkish-style chicken shish kebabs. They reflect what I learned from my friends Kazim and Kalo, the founding chef/owner and his successor at Café Istanbul in Decatur, where I hung out for years as “Guest Chef.” 

Flat, blade-like skewers are superior to round metal or bamboo skewers, since they keep the meat from twisting during cooking. (They can be purchased on-line.) If round skewers are used, insert a second one through the meat so it won’t twist during grilling. For bamboo skewers, soak or boil them so they burn less over fire. 

Proper etiquette in Turkish cuisine involves pulling the grilled meat off the skewers as it is served. Vegetables are generally grilled on the side (after rubbing with olive oil then salting), not on the skewer. American style is to serve kebabs on their skewers, and sometimes to insert pieces of vegetable between the meat pieces. 

The recipe serves six but is easily multiplied for a summer party. 

Turkish-Style Chicken Shish Kebabs 

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast 
  • 1 medium clove of garlic 
  • 2 teaspoons salt 
  • 1 teaspoon paprika 
  • 1 teaspoon oregano 
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander 
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 
  • 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch 
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 
  • 1/4 (or more) teaspoon cayenne 
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (bottled is OK) 

Skewers, metal or bamboo, flat metal skewers preferred 

Prepare and marinate the chicken at least 4 hours ahead of cooking time, even up to a day in advance, refrigerated. 

Trim away tough parts and excess fat from chicken. Cut meat into pieces 1-1/2 inches long, 1-inch wide and 1-inch thick. Place in a bowl. Put garlic through a garlic press or mince it finely. Add it plus the other ingredients to the chicken and mix well. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or transfer contents to a zip-lock plastic food bag. Store cold. Mix chicken occasionally for even seasoning or squeeze the contents of the bag to mix. 

Thread chicken onto skewers, through the length of the pieces. If flat, wide metal skewers are not used, stick a second skewer into each kebab, so the meat won’t twist around. If wooden or bamboo skewers are used, soak or boil them in water first so they don’t burn when grilling. Make 12 medium kebabs, or 6 long ones. 

Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under the oven broiler, for 3 minutes. Rotate the skewers a quarter turn and grill another 3 minutes. Do this twice more. After 12 minutes grilling, check a piece of chicken for doneness by cutting it in half. Grill a little more, if needed. 

Ideally, serve the kebabs over a bed of rice pilaf on a large platter, pulling the meat off the skewers, if desired. Surround with grilled vegetables and accompany with lemon chunks for squeezing onto the meat. 

Tim Dondero, co-owner and executive chef of Donderos’ Kitchen is a culinary enthusiast who has taught international cooking in Atlanta and Athens for years. His redesigned blog is at

Join the discussion!

Your comment will be reviewed before it appears here, so please be patient.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.