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Kebab and Taouk
It’s summer, so boys will be boys and grills will be grills. Steak is probably the number one choice for BBQ meisters at home but good cuts are expensive and, frankly, there are only a few ways that a sirloin or rib steak can be served: rare, well done, or occasionally chez nous, Pittsburgh (burnt on the outside, raw within).

But walk into a Middle Eastern take out restaurant and it is obvious that steak is the least common way to grill meat. Along Ste. Catherine street downtown, in Laval, or in Park Extension: kebabs, tikkahs and taouks rule the grills.

Essentially, these are marinated meats that are cooked on skewers. Portions are small and the meat is usually accompanied by vegetables, bread, rice or couscous.

The dishes originate in the Middle East and India. Kebab or kabab refers to cutting the meat into chunks. Shish or sis is the sword or skewer on which the meat is cooked. Tikkahs are Indian kebabs.

These methods of cooking lend themselves to cuts of meat that are flavourful but tough. Marinating first tenderizes the meat, and grilling seals in the juices and cooks them quickly.

Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, points out that agrarian European communities had plenty of firewood and farm animals. People would use a whole carcass and bake or roast it. However, Middle Eastern and Asian countries were more urbanized and had less access to large amounts of fuel. It was (and still is) more efficient to use smaller pieces of meat and cook them quickly over small, hot fires.

The skewer, when it is metal, both holds the pieces of meat and transmits heat quickly. Meat cooks internally almost as fast as its surface is grilled over the coals.

Another word that we commonly see for this kind of grilling is taouk, which means chicken. Shwarma and donair (or doner) are cooked another way. These are thin slices of meat, usually chicken or lamb, marinated and stacked firmly on a large skewer. This is held vertically and turned slowly in front of an upright gas or charcoal grill. The meat is sliced in thin strips as the outside of the stack broils.

Many countries have similar ways of cooking. Souvlaki is essentially a Greek shish kebab while shashlik is the term used in Armenia and Georgia. Kofta kebab is ground beef or lamb, highly seasoned, and rolled onto a skewer. Fish kebabs are also common in Indian and Turkish cooking.

Most Middle Eastern stores with butcher counters sell prepared marinated meat for donairs or kebabs to cook at home.

© Barry Lazar 2002

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