Intro to Kebabs

Dear Up in Smoke Reader,

This month’s issue is packed with tips and recipes for kebabs—those irresistible combinations of bite-size pieces of meat (or seafood or vegetables or even fruit) and flavorings grilled on a stick. Kebabs are some of the oldest barbecue on record (you can read about them in Homer’s Iliad) and they’re certainly universal, embracing everything from Russian shashlik to Japanese yakitori. Below you’ll find everything you need to know about skewers, seasonings, and assembling kebabs.

Yours in great grilling,
Nancy Loseke
Features Editor

Intro to Kebabs
In the 1914 novel Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis, the eponymous character escorts his landlady’s daughter, Lee Theresa Zapp, to an Armenian restaurant in Lower Manhattan. Once seated, she overhears a waiter call out an unfamiliar-sounding order to the kitchen.

Shish kibub?” Who’s ever heard of such a thing!” she exclaims.

“Kebab…. It’s lamb roasted on skewers,” Mr. Wrenn explains. “I know you’ll like it.”

Like it, indeed! Kebabs are truly a trans-cultural phenomenon. A Peruvian pushing tiny cubes of chili-marinated beef heart on a skewer has much in common with an Indonesian street food vendor weaving a strip of marinated chicken onto a bamboo skewer—both grilled on portable charcoal braziers. Look closely, and you’ll observe the same primeval flame flickering in their eyes, that same realization of the power of live fire and what it can do to transform raw food.

In fact, the invention of kebabs was one of three great leaps forward in the early evolution of barbecue:

1. Grilling meat on the embers (precursor to direct grilling)
2. Grilling meat on a rock next to the fire (precursor to indirect grilling)
3. Grilling meat on a stick over a fire (precursor of spit-roasting and shish kebab)

There are many variations on this ancient theme; over 100 different kinds of satés, for example, in Indonesia alone. For fun, take this quiz and see how many examples of kebabs you can match to their respective countries:

1. Yakitori A. Nigeria
2. Pincho B. Italy
3. Seekh kebab C. Poland
4. Brochette D. Peru
5. Souvlaki E. France
6. Spiedini F. Japan
7. Saté (or satay) G. Portugal
8. Shashlik H. Spain
9. Szaszlyki I. Greece
10. Espetada J. Malaysia
11. Antichucho K. India
12. Suya L. Russia


You’ll find the answers at the bottom of the newsletter!

In many parts of the world, skewered meats have military origins. The English culinary term, shish kebab, is a derivative of the Turkish words for “sword” and “meat.” Thus, Russian shashlik is often served theatrically on a sword. Portugal’s espetada comes from espada, the Portuguese word for sword. In Greek, souvlaki means “little sword.”

But mankind has discovered almost any slender, sharp implement will do—sticks, wires, even the tines of pitchforks.

I’m all for improvisation, but owning a variety of different shaped and sized skewers and matching them to the foods you’ll be grilling will help you overcome some of kebabs’ biggest technological challenges—the tendency of certain foods to slip, spin, fall off, or cook unevenly. Here are some of the options:

Asian skewers:

Slender round bamboo skewers: Sold in a variety of lengths. Good for grilling small Asian-style kebabs, like Japanese yakitori and Indonesian and Thai saté. Widely available.

Flat bamboo skewers: Used throughout Asia for grilling ground meat kebabs and watery vegetables, like cherry tomatoes. We’ve added two lengths to this year’s Best of Barbecue line: 6.5 inch and 12 inch, with a sharp point for easy penetration.

Two-prong skewers: Popular in Japan for grilling delicate foods, like tofu, and shellfish. Two lengths available in the Best of Barbecue line: 6.5 inch and 9 inch. These work particularly well for mini bell peppers and shrimp. Note: you can improvise by threading the meat or seafood onto two parallel bamboo skewers. (The skewers should be about 1/4 inch apart.)

Knotted bamboo skewers: When it comes to kebabs in Asia, small is definitely beautiful. Think of the garlic kebabs served with Korean barbecue, or Indonesia’s tiny saté lalat, literally “fly” saté, made with a tiny oval of spiced ground lamb not much bigger than a horsefly. You can use a large toothpick or our Best of Barbecue knotted bamboo skewer, with a decorative “knot” at one end.

Middle Eastern Skewers: Forged from metal (usually steel) and available in multiple lengths and widths; some are elaborately wrought.

Slender flat metal skewers: 3/8 inch wide—used for skewering chunks of lamb and other meats.

Medium flat metal skewers: 5/8 inch wide—used for skewering onions, mushrooms, peppers, eggplants, and other vegetables.

Wide flat metal skewers: 7/8 inch wide—use for skewering and grilling ground meats (to make dishes like Turkish koefta and Indian seekh kebab). Think of these kebabs as skinless sausages. Also good for watery vegetables, like plum tomatoes.

Skewer shields: Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to keep the exposed wooden ends of bamboo skewers from burning is to soak the skewers in cold water. Conventional wisdom has never done a simple experiment: place soaked and unsoaked skewers on a hot grill and watch them catch fire at about the same time. The most effective way to prevent the ends of bamboo skewers from burning is to slide a skewer shield under them. This can be a simple as a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil folded in thirds like a business letter. Or as sturdy as the stainless steel skewer shield I recently invented and added to the Best of Barbecue line. The raised fluted forward edge holds the skewers in neat alignment.


  • Never put a metal skewer to your lips or eat the meat right off a metal skewer. You’ll risk burning your lips.
  • One of the coolest ways I’ve seen to remove food from a hot metal skewer is to use a piece of pita bread, naan, or lavash like an edible potholder and carefully pull the food off the skewer.
  • Group foods that have similar cooking times. Turkish grill masters grill quartered onions on one skewer, diced eggplants on a second, plum tomatoes on a third, and the lamb on a fourth. The onions take the longest to cook, so they go on the grill first, then the eggplants, and finally the tomatoes and lamb. The result: All are cooked perfectly at the same time. It’s all about control.
  • When marinating kebabs, drain well before grilling. Otherwise, the meat will stew rather than grill. Never use a marinade that’s contained raw meat for basting or as a sauce to avoid the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Keep kebab accompaniments simple. A starchy side dish of rice, couscous, polenta, bread, or pilaf is all that’s needed. Dessert needn’t deviate from the kebab continuum; see the following fruit kebabs below.

Here are some easy and intuitive ideas for combining ingredients to make killer kebabs for your next cookout, plus two new recipes. But there are so many possible kebab equations; we are sure you’ll want to come up with your own. Just do us a favor and share your successes with the community on the Barbecue Board, or drop us an e-mail. And don’t forget, the Board is a great resource when you have grilling or equipment questions.

    • Strip rosemary skewers of their leaves and finely chop the leaves. Mince garlic cloves. Thread beef or lamb cubes on the skewers, alternating with segments of onion and bell pepper pieces. Brush with oil, and season with chopped rosemary, garlic, and salt and pepper.


  • Cut skinned salmon, swordfish, or tuna, or other firm fish into cubes. Alternate on flat bamboo or stainless steel skewers with wedges of lemon or lime and fresh bay leaves. Brush with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
  • Thread large shrimp—peeled, tail-on—on double-pronged skewers (or use two slender bamboo skewers to stabilize shrimp) with pieces of fresh pineapple and green bell pepper. Brush with your favorite Asian style barbecue sauce. Of course, we’re partial to Best of Barbecue Shanghai Barbecue Sauce.
  • Cube beef tenderloin and marinate in Chimay ale (an aromatic Belgian beer available at liquor stores and many supermarkets) with bruised cloves of garlic. Drain beef, and season with salt and pepper. Thread onto stainless steel skewers with fresh mushrooms and wedges of red onion. Serve with a sauce made by mixing 3 parts sour cream with 1 part prepared horseradish. Add dry mustard, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Many fruits lend themselves well to skewering and grilling: the short list includes fresh figs, apricot halves, quartered peaches, nectarines, plums, and chunks of fresh pineapple and bananas. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or our Best of Barbecue Dessert Rub. Serve over ice cream with caramel sauce, like the one in the Grilled Peach Caramel Sundae on page 281 of Raichlen on Ribs.

Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 4
Advance preparation: 1 to 2 hours for marinating the shrimp

24 jumbo or extra-large shrimp (about 1-1/2 pounds), rinsed, dried, peeled, and deveined

For the marinade:
2 large shallots or 1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam) or soy sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

for serving:
3 tablespoons chopped roasted peanuts
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)

You’ll also need:
12 two-prong skewers or 24 bamboo skewers; skewer shield or 12 by 18 inch sheet of aluminum foil, folded in thirds

1. Skewer the shrimp on the skewers, two to a skewer if using two-prong skewers; two to a set of skewers if using single bamboo skewers. Arrange the kebabs in a baking dish.

2. Make the marinade: Place the shallots, garlic, and sugar in a food processor and finely chop. Add the fish sauce, lime juice, oil and pepper and puree to a coarse paste. Pour this mixture over the kebabs, turning to coat the shrimp on both sides. Cover the shrimp with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, turning several times to coat with marinade.

3. Make the dipping sauce (recipe follows).

4. Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate.

5. Drain the shrimp kebabs well and arrange on the grate. Slide the foil shield or grill shield under the exposed part of the bamboo skewers to keep them from burning. Grill the shrimp until sizzling, browned and cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes per side.

6. Transfer the shrimp skewers to a platter or plates and sprinkle the peanuts and cilantro on top. Serve immediately with the Vietnamese Dipping Sauce.

Yield: About 1 cup

One 2-inch piece of carrot, peeled
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
1/3 cup Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam), or soy sauce (or more to taste)
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 small hot red chile, thinly sliced, or 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced

1. Slice the carrot lengthwise with a vegetable peeler and pile the slices on top of one another, then slice lengthwise with a sharp slender knife into the thinnest imaginable strips.

2. Combine the water and sugar in a small bowl and whisk until the sugar is dissolved; stir in the fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar, chile, garlic, and carrot strips (see Note). Taste for seasoning, adding fish sauce or sugar as necessary; the nuoc cham should strike a delicate balance between salty, tart, and sweet.

3. Serve the sauce immediately, or at least the same day it’s made.

Note: You can also blend the ingredients for the sauce by shaking them in a sealed jar.

Note: variations on this simple recipe are found throughout the Middle and Near East. Works equally well with lamb, beef, or chicken.

Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 4
Advance preparation: 1 to 2 hours for marinating the meat

For the marinade:
1 cup plain yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or 2 teaspoons dried mint
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon
1 teaspoon each coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1-1/2 pound lamb shoulder or leg or beef tenderloin or sirloin or boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large onion
1 bunch fresh mint leaves, stemmed
2 tablespoons melted butter (optional)

You’ll also need:
Flat metal or bamboo skewers (12 inches each)

1. Make the marinade. Place the yogurt in a large nonreactive bowl. Add the garlic, mint, and olive oil. Grate 1 teaspoon lemon zest with a Microplaner or fine grater and add it to the yogurt. Add the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the meat and cover with plastic wrap. Marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, stirring several times.

2. Cut the onion into 6 wedges and cut each wedge crosswise in half. Break the resulting pieces into individual segments.

3. Drain the meat and thread it onto the skewers, placing a piece of onion and a fresh mint leaf between each.

4. Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate.

5. Arrange the kebabs on the grate and grill until cooked to taste, about 2 minutes per side (8 minutes in all) for medium. For extra flavor, you can baste the cooked kebabs with melted butter. Serve at once.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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ANSWERS: 1. F; 2. H; 3. K; 4. E; 5. I; 6. B; 7. J; 8. L; 9. C; 10. G; 11. D; 12. A.