Nothing in NYC yells “street food” like a halal cart. The blinking lights, bright yellow and orange colors, the music, and the smoke emanating from a corner stand draw memories of me leaving the club in three-inch stilettos, body-clinging clothes, and dangling jewelry. In this retrospective of me in my 20s, it is more than likely past 2 a.m., and at the time, I was working in the finance industry. I spy the bright lights and smoke cloud from across the street. I hear sizzles and laughter as I desperately make my way towards the food cart with a one-track mind. I need grub. A long line of partygoers forms, and I salivate. When it’s my turn, I yell my order over the loud music and human chatter to the man in the glassless window, “Chicken platter with everything, please.” He asks if I want hot sauce and white sauce, and I reply, “Yes,” as I step aside to allow the next person to order. Entranced, I watch him begin to work.
Food carts were ubiquitous in New York in the late 90s, taking up shop on nearly every busy street corner of Midtown Manhattan. It appears the major player back in those days was the Halal Guys. Beginning in NYC and now a global major franchise, they are a true immigrant success story. I firmly believe I had my first Middle Eastern food experience at a Halal Guys cart that late summer night. The rice, the chicken, and the sauces. All common ingredients for me. The simple iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, even more so. I thought to myself: All of these ingredients are so similar to what I already eat, yet they taste so different and are still so delicious.
Since then, I’ve kept going back to that long line whenever I’d see the cart during my lunch breaks, often surprised at how quickly the line moved, and yet quality food still showed up in my hands. My erstwhile hunt for epicurean delights surpassed business hours to after-business hours when I would get a chicken shawarma on pita to-go during one of my shopping sprees in Union Square. The street food in New York truly delivers when a sit-down lunch isn’t an option. It never occurred to me until recently, years after I transitioned from a career in finance to becoming a professional chef and food writer, that I could recreate that meal at home.
Aside from the occasional adventurous order (it was adventurous for me in my 20s) like falafel or even lamb, I stuck with the tried and true chicken shawarma. I thank the Middle East for pleasing my palate for all of these decades. In this millennium, I believe the term shawarma has taken on new meanings for chefs as its popularity expanded to describe the flavor profile of the cooked meats rather than its true origin of the meats being cooked while stacked on a rotating vertical spit. From my research, the marinade for shawarma consists of a variety of spices like cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika, sometimes with the addition of yogurt and pureed onion in the marinade. I’ve even come across recipes where sumac is used. This range of flavors and varying blends of spices changes from hand to hand, kitchen to kitchen, and table to table. A sense of creativity appears to be encouraged from home to home, even in its lack of authenticity, to make the shawarma that best suits you, so long as you don’t stray too far from the tangines and mild heat.
In my rendition of a homemade chicken shawarma plate, I was inspired to recreate a Middle Eastern Turkish version rather than the Greek version, which are similar in preparation (the meat is cooked using a vertical rotisserie-style spit), but different in seasoning and name. The Greek version is called a gyro and is popularly seasoned with dried herbs like oregano and thyme, and often accompanied by a tzatziki sauce. For my recipe of a chicken shawarma plate, I accompanied it with turmeric basmati rice laced with whole coriander seeds. A yogurt sauce served on the side mellows out the richness of spices used in my chicken marinade. I encourage you to make the yogurt sauce to your liking by adding more or less grated garlic and freshly squeezed lemon juice. I found that adding a couple tablespoons of store-bought Italian dressing is a shortcut to achieving a puckery taste to the sauce. To make use of any leftover chicken, warm flatbread is your friend.
Ingredients for the chicken shawarma:
1 ½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, fat trimmed
¼ cup white vinegar
2 cups cold water
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves + ¼ tsp kosher salt, pounded in a mortar & pestle
2 tsp whole coriander, pounded in a mortar & pestle
1 tbsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
½ tsp ground cayenne
Juice of 1 lemon (approximately 2 ¼ tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Ingredients for the turmeric basmati rice:
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed & drained
3 ¼ cups chicken stock
2 tbsp neutral oil (canola or vegetable oil)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
½ small red onion, diced small
1 garlic clove, grated
1 tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp whole coriander
1 tsp kosher salt
½ cup grape tomatoes
Ingredients for the yogurt sauce:
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 – 2 garlic cloves, grated, to taste
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
1 – 2 tbsp store-bought Italian dressing
¼ tsp kosher salt
black pepper, to taste
Instructions for the chicken shawarma:
In a bowl, add chicken thighs. Pour the white vinegar over the thighs and mix. Pour the cold water in the bowl and let sit for 15 minutes. Strain, pat the chicken thighs dry, and set aside. In a bowl, add the garlic, coriander, cardamom, sweet paprika, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, salt, pepper, cayenne, lemon juice, and 1 tbsp of olive oil. Mix to form a paste. Add the chicken thighs and thoroughly coat each thigh with the spice paste. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator overnight.
Preheat the oven to 405 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the chicken thighs from the refrigerator and let them reach room temperature, approximately 30 minutes.
In a saute pan, heat up the 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil on medium high heat. Sear the chicken thighs, rough side down, for 4 minutes. Flip over to the smooth side and sear for 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken thighs to a sheet tray with a wire rack. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes or until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the chicken reads 165 degrees.
Instructions for the turmeric basmati rice:
In a pot, heat up the olive oil and unsalted butter on medium heat. Add the red onions and the garlic and saute until translucent and aromatic, approximately 4 – 5 minutes. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and salt. Saute until the oil changes color, approximately 3 minutes.
Add the rice and mix thoroughly. When the rice is dry and toasty, add the chicken stock. Turn the heat up to high. Stir the rice, scraping any bits stuck on the bottom of the pan. Allow the rice to cook on high heat until the stock evaporates.
When the rice is au sec (almost dry), add the grape tomatoes and stir thoroughly. Cover with a tight lid and adjust heat to low. Set a timer for 12 minutes. Do not lift the lid before or after the timer goes off.
When the timer goes off, turn the heat off. Set the timer for 10 minutes and let the rice sit covered during that time. When the timer goes off, lift the lid, allowing any excess steam to drip back into the rice. Using a fork, fluff the rice and cover again until ready to serve.
Instructions for the yogurt sauce:
In a bowl, add all of the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.
On a serving plate, serve the turmeric basmati rice in the center. Slice the chicken thighs horizontally and place over the rice. Drizzle yogurt over the chicken thighs. Best served with a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions. Enjoy!