The Origin of the Kebab
If you’ve ever watched movies set in the ancient world, it’s not difficult to imagine soldiers roasting chunks of meat on their swords over the fire. Or we’ve all seen hunters depicted turning game – a rabbit or a deer – as it roasts on a spit over the flames at their campsites. On the streets of the world today, we see restaurants showcasing vertical cones of stacked meat roasting in front of an open gas burner. Even today’s home grills and firepits offer spit and rotisserie accessories, and most grilling sets come with skewers for threading meat, vegetables, and even fruit on to be cooked on the grill. These handy foods on a stick are also known as kebabs.
The kebabs we are most familiar with here in the U.S. are shish kebabs and are thought to have originated in ancient Turkey. In Turkish, “sis” means sword and “kebab” refers to meat. It is believed that Turkish soldiers used their swords to grill meat in open field fires during their invasion of Anatolia. Some say the dish originated in Persia – modern-day Iran – where a similar term has been used since the Middle Ages to designate skewers containing tiny pieces of meat eaten as accompaniments to glasses of wine.
Kebabs were a natural solution for nomadic tribes in the desert, but the kebab went in many other directions and was introduced along the Silk Road by traders who found cooking meat over an open flame on a stick to be quick, cheap, and efficient. Cooking small pieces of meat required less cooking time and less fuel, in a land with few sources for wood.
When the kebab made it to Greece, it turned into something different. While the chunks of meat remained small, often lamb was spaced with hunks of tomato, onion, and green pepper, making it like a visually appealing meal unto itself.
This is the kebab style that was popularized in the United States; although beef and chicken are preferred over lamb and pork. Here, the chunks of meat also became way bigger, so cooking kebabs became a longer and more laborious process. Backyard kebabs became very popular in the 1960s, when Greece was a featured setting for movies and became a frequent tourist destination for Americans.
Meats used in shish kebabs are usually marinated prior to cooking which tenderizes, infuses flavor, and has health benefits as well. The technique varies, but a basic marinade may include olive oil, lemon juice, and onions, while a more complex one would include milk and yoghurt, onion juice, cinnamon, marjoram, bay leaves, allspice, tomato juice and other spices.
Most culture’s cuisines feature some form of skewered, grilled meat. Some get dipped in spicy sauces, some are served with bread or over rice, and many are sold by street vendors, but at its most basic, a kebab is a skewer with meat and sometimes vegetables and is usually cooked over an open flame. It can contain lamb, beef, fish, or chicken, as well as vegetables like tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Whether you’re enjoying kebabs in the comforts of your backyard, on the streets of a bustling city, or at any of our three Paymon’s locations, there is no denying that this is an historic food favorite shared by many around the world.