The moment shawarma made it in America has to be at the end of The Avengers, when Iron Man and the rest of the gang reunite at a shawarma joint, the punchline of a running superhero inside joke. The scene, incidentally, was filmed at Shalom Grill on Pico, which is, yep, kosher. Until then, I hadn't realized that shawarma was a dish many Americans weren't familiar with, because I live in a psychic bubble encompassing shawarma row in Midtown.
It also never occurred to me to try to make shawarma at home, because authentic shawarma is street food par excellence. It requires a giant spit from which the meat is shaved, not to mention the dint of car exhaust and street banter. Janna Gur has a fakeout method in her Book of New Israeli Food, the first Israeli food cookbook in English I ever came across--no small thing to an Israeli-American immigrant kid. I combined her method with another one I found online, using chicken thighs mounded up on a skewer and set upright for oven roasting. Was it good? Yes. Was it like shawarma? Not enough for me to futz with the skewering bit.
Shawarma spice, on the other hand, you can and should put in everything. The blend is made with common spices: cumin, turmeric, paprika, coriander, garlic powder, just a touch of cinnamon, plus salt and pepper. You can use a premixed spice blend--I like Pereg's--or use the instructions below to mix up just enough for this recipe.
By using shawarma spice in meatballs, you get a lot of street food flavor in a one-pan dinner you can make on a weeknight. I've included instructions for some quick food-stall type toppings, tahini sauce (see a visual walk-through of making it here) and sumac shallots. If you're short on time, though, skip the eggplant and the shallots and serve the meatballs with just tahini, over salad or in pitas.
Making the dish
You start by searing the starch-dredged eggplant--a tip I picked up from Michael Solomonov's Israeli Soul. Either cornstarch or potato starch work. Because eggplant soaks up oil like there's no tomorrow, I recommend adding a little at a time to the pan, just enough over medium-high heat so the slices won't burn. You have to do the eggplant in batches, but they cook fast.
When the eggplant is nicely crisped, you put it aside to cook the onions and meatballs, together. Let the onions brown up a bit, then push them off to the side and put the meatballs in the center. While they're cooking, make the tahini sauce and marinate the shallots, and as soon as the meatballs are cooked through, you've got dinner.
Into Israeli street food? Head intrepidly over to my post about Jerusalem Mixed Grill (offal optional).
Shawarma Chicken Meatballs with Crisped Eggplant and Sumac Shallots (meat)
- 1 medium eggplant, sliced into thin rounds
- ¼ cup cornstarch or potato starch, for dredging - 30g
- olive oil, for frying
- ¼ cup raw tahini
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp garlic powder - or minced garlic, if you prefer
- ¼ cup ice water
- 1 large shallot, thinly sliced - or 2 small
- 1 tsp sumac - optional, but recommended
- 2 Tbsp cilantro, minced
- ½ Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Shawarma spice blend:
- 1 ½ tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp powdered turmeric
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- pinch cinnamon
Make the meatball mix:
- Combine the meatball ingredients together, working them well into the ground chicken. Set aside while you prep the eggplant and onions. (You can also make the mix up to a day ahead and keep in the refrigerator; it'll even be easier to roll.)
Crisp the eggplant:
- Cut the top off the eggplant, then slice the body into medium-thick, round slices. Lay the slices on your cutting board and salt generously. Prepare a small bowl with cornstach or potato starch for dredging the eggplant slices.
- In a large skillet, heat up about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over a medium flame.
- Working with one eggplant slice at a time, dredge both sides in the starch. It should adhere to the eggplant easily; but it need not be completely covered as with breaded eggplant.
- Place directly into the hot oil. Continue adding as many slices to the skillet as space will allow (I do 4-5 slices per batch). Fry for 3-4 minutes, then turn and fry on the other sides, adding oil as needed when the pan runs dry. Repeat for all the slices and set aside to cool and soften.
Carmelize the onions and cook with the meatballs:
- To the skillet in which you just fried the eggplant, add more olive oil if needed and place the sliced onion inside. Cook over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, until beginning to soften and darken around the edges. (You're going to keep cooking them, so they don't have to be all nice and caramelized yet.)
- Push the onions to the margins of the pan. Begin rolling the meatball mixture into balls about 2¼" / 3cm in diameter, placing each one in the center of the pan after you roll it.
- Cook the meatballs for 5-7 minutes on the first side, then gently turn over, still in the middle of the pan, and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Gently toss the meatballs and onion together and continue to cook for several more minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
Marinate the sumac shallots:
- While the meatballs are cooking, slice the shallot and mince the cilantro. Toss together with sumac and olive oil. Set aside.
Make the tahini sauce:*
- Using a whisk or immersion (stick) blender, combine the raw tahini and lemon juice, until thickened--it'll look awful for a moment, like gobs of paste in water, but it's supposed to, keep whisking. Season with salt and garlic and whisk again. Add in ice water last--the tahini will look broken all over again. Keep stirring, until you get a smooth, loose tahini sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Assemble the dish:
- You can serve by layering the eggplant, carmelized onions, and meatballs on the plate, then topping with tahini sauce and shallots. Or, serve the components separately, putting each in a separate dish and letting each person make their own plate. Pita and a simple green lettuce or Israeli salad go well alongside.